Penciled in to start at middle linebacker for Florida in 2013, sophomore Antonio Morrison will instead be sitting out at least the first two games of the season after being arrested for the second time in just over a month.
“I think my track record speaks for itself,” Gators coach Will Muschamp said when explaining the decision to suspend Morrison for the first two games of the year. “We have consequences if a guy makes a poor decision. When a young man makes a poor decision there’s a litany of things that I make them (do to) work themselves back.
“If they’re not willing to do that, they’re out of the program.”
Hopefully, the 6-foot-1, 240-pound Chicago native manages to work himself back into the good graces of Muschamp and the Gators coaching staff. Slightly undersized, Morrison still finished eighth on the team with 33 total tackles as a true freshman in 2012. He quickly earned a reputation as an extremely aggressive, hard-hitting player that can switch between both the weakside and middle linebacker positions.
Last year’s starters at both of those spots, Jon Bostic in the middle and Jelani Jenkins along the weak side, are off to the NFL. Safeties Josh Evans and Matt Elam are both playing at the pro level as well. Ditto for star defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd. Buck linebacker Lerentee McCray signed with the Denver Broncos as an undrafted free agent and nose tackle Omar Hunter did the same with Pittsburgh.
That is a lot of star power to lose from one defensive unit in one offseason, no matter how much talent a program recruits.
Morrison was – and may still be – expected to carry Muschamp’s rebuilt defense into the new year, along with star defensive back Loucheiz Purifoy and defensive lineman Dominique Easley.
However, again, Morrison will be watching the Gators’ first two games of the season after being suspended.
The Gators’ Week 1 matchup against Toledo is not going to be a cake walk. The Rockets’ 2012 season ended with a 9-4 record and included an eight-game winning streak. Coach Matt Campbell is only 33 years old, but his youthful energy has this MAC team on the up-and-up.
Florida struggled against another MAC squad, Bowling Green, to open the 2012 season. Of course, Muschamp’s squad improved as the year went on, but the Rockets are a better program with better talent across the board than the Falcons. Their only losses a year ago came against Arizona, Ball State, Northern Illinois (who went on to a BCS game) and an 11-win Utah State team in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
This squad is not coming down to The Swamp to mess around, but to try to win, and things don’t get any easier come Week 2. Florida must travel to take on a vastly improved Miami team that will serve as both a heated (literally, the game is scheduled for a noon kickoff) rivalry matchup as well as a nationally-televised out of conference game between two powerhouses brands.
While Morrison is who he is – a superstar in the making on the defensive side of the football – Muschamp has reserves. Both Darrin Kitchens and Michael Taylor looked great at times in a reserve role in 2012. Kitchens was slotted to start at weakside linebacker in 2013, with Taylor backing him up. Kitchens may be asked to slide over and take over as one of the leaders of the defense at middle, at least for the first two games of the season.
If Taylor is then starting at weakside, Neiron Ball will be the first guy off the bench. A versatile, elite talent, Ball dealt with one of the scariest, non-football-related injuries we have ever heard of.
Muschamp will still be relying on his defensive line to put together the type of disruptive pass rush and run stuffing play Florida became known for in 2012. The onus falls upon several guys, including senior Dominique Easley. Ronald Powell led the team in sacks in 2011, but was forced to sit out all of last year with a knee injury. He is back at the Buck linebacker position. The Buck alternates between defensive end and linebacker, so Powell will have to prove that he can move freely out in space in pass coverage as well as rushing the passer before Toledo respects him as a fully healthy defensive player.
Finally, two of Muschamp’s star recruits prior to the 2012 season, Jonathan Bullard and Dante Fowler Jr., will have to blow the world up like they are expected to.
Both are monsters, and as true sophomores like Morrison, they both should have benefited from a year in a collegiate weight room.
Hopefully, Morrison himself begins to benefit from some further maturation – or, like Muschamp warns, he will no longer be with the team.