GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It didn’t take long for Florida linebackers coach D.J. Durkin to figure out that the Gators potentially had something special in a skinny freshman named Antonio Morrison.
Roughly about two hours, in fact. That’s how long the Gators’ first full-pads practice lasted in August.
“He made it very clear that he likes hitting people,” Durkin said. “We like people who like hitting people on defense. He made that statement very clear early on. The players recognized it. The coaches recognized it. We knew we had something there.
“It was very clear walking off the field after that first day of pads: That guy can help us.”
And Morrison did, starting three games at weakside linebacker in place of injured starter Jelani Jenkins and making one of the biggest plays of the season when he caused Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel to fumble and help put away the game. Now he’ll be the Gators’ starting middle linebacker.
With the graduation of starter Jon Bostic and Jenkins’ surprising decision to leave early for the NFL draft, the Gators never hesitated in naming Morrison the starter, despite the fact that he’s not exactly built like a typical middle linebacker. At 6-foot-1 and 229 pounds he is solidly built but smaller than the last three starters: Bostic (6-1, 246), Brandon Spikes (6-3, 240) and Brandon Siler (6-2, 235).
Yet the coaching staff has no concerns about Morrison being able to handle the pounding that comes with playing middle linebacker in the SEC, and neither does he.
“I’m pretty sure I can,” Morrison said. “I started [three] games last year and nothing really was too overwhelming for me.”
However, there is some concern about Morrison’s over-exuberance in practice. He threw sophomore tight end Kent Taylor to the ground after a reception during team drills and coach Will Muschamp jumped on him for it. It wasn’t the first time they’d had that conversation.
It’s a good problem to have, Muschamp said.
“You’d rather say ‘Whoa’ than ‘Giddy-up’ from my experience,” Muschamp said. “If they don’t like sticking their face in the fire, then this isn’t the game for them. He likes it.
“Part of being a good team is learning how to practice the right way. What ends up happening is one guy takes a little cheap shot. The other side of the ball gets mad and they want to take a cheap shot, and then somebody ends up getting hurt, and then we’re all upset. There’s a fine line. You want to be aggressive. You want to play with great toughness, and it’s my job to make sure we judge the right way on what is too much and what is not enough. He’s certainly one that pushes the envelope.”
They don’t want Morrison holding back on the field. He delivered a couple of big hits playing as a 216-pound linebacker last season. He knocked Texas A&M running back Christine Michael out of the game for a few plays in the second game of the season, but his biggest hit came against the Seminoles.
The 6-5, 240-pound Manuel scrambled out of the pocket and Morrison slammed into him while linebacker Lerentee McCray was dragging him to the ground. The ball popped loose and defensive end Dominique Easley recovered it and returned it to the FSU 37-yard line with about 11 minutes remaining and the Gators trailing 20-16. Mike Gillislee scored the go-ahead touchdown on the next play.
Many of Morrison’s teammates were surprised that Manuel was able to walk off the field and didn’t need to be carried.
Morrison agreed that it was one of the Gators’ biggest plays of the season, but he doesn’t understand why everyone is making a big deal about the hit.
“Everybody was excited but I always do stuff like that,” he said. “I mean, [teammates] see me practice that way. They see me every time I get in the game I go hard. It wasn’t really surprising for me.”