New man in the middle

Antonio Morrison made a big impact during his freshman year. It came in spot duty with Jelani Jenkins injured, but with Jenkins and Jon Bostic now gone, it's Morrison's job to take over the group. He's not always vocal. He's not easy to hear on the practice field -- but all it takes is one play to change that. It happened during open spring practices, and his teammates see it happen more often.

Even in the two days of open practices, Antonio Morrison showed his aggressiveness. On the second day, the coaches were making it clear between every play that the goal was to keep each other off the ground and not making a complete tackle. After tight end Kent Taylor caught a short pass, Morrison wrapped his arms around his neck and threw him to the ground.

Will Muschamp sprinted to him and told Morrison to get off the field, screaming at him for trying to be "a tough guy."

It's not what the coaches want on the practice field when the drills are specifically designed to do the opposite. However, it's not exactly a bad thing either.

"You'd rather say ‘whoa' than ‘giddy up.' That has been my experience," Muschamp said of Morrison. "If they don't like sticking their face in the fire, this isn't the game for them. He likes that."

His teammates know it. Truth is, they knew it last year, when Morrison enrolled early and went through spring practices. He was in over his head with the adjustment in the spring, but players could still see it. He immediately paired up with linebacker Michael Taylor during drills, and Taylor recalled leaving every day of practice with a headache. Morrison never had one.

That's how his teammates expect him to be. And he'll anchor the middle of the defense this year with that same mentality.

"Mad man," Florida cornerback Jeremy Brown said. "Hard hitter. Crazy. Mean. Scary. Oh, I'm taking him to war every time we have a chance. He's a great player. He's going to be special."

It started a long time ago for Morrison. He credits the toughness of his father and older brother growing up that turned him into a hard-nosed linebacker. They were tough on him growing up, and that carried onto the field.

It still does. He knows there are times he needs to slow down -- like when he's facing his teammates in practice -- but it's still tough to dial it back.

"Sometimes Muschamp gets on me," Morrison said. "They're your teammates. But I just try to play in practice as if I'm going to play in the game. But sometimes I've got to know that they're my teammates."

The physical style of play isn't just limited to Morrison's teammates feeling it. He had a few big plays in as a freshman in 2012, but none were bigger than his hit and forced fumble against Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel. Morrison wasn't able to talk to the media during his freshman season, but when asked about the hit this spring, he didn't think it was a big deal.

The hit turned the momentum of the game. On the next play, Mike Gillislee went for a 37-yard touchdown to give the Gators the lead for good. It was an important play in the course of the game, and even the season, for Florida.

But Morrison didn't see it that way.

"Everybody was excited, but I always do stuff like that," Morrison said, shrugging his shoulders. "They 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 but a lot of teammates, they excited for me."

That's what makes Morrison perfect for the middle of the defense. He doesn't want the praise. He doesn't need the constant affirmation. He just wants to hit people.

Hard.

"It's fun to coach a guy that has a lot of passion and energy," Muschamp said. "I like self-starters. I like guys that self-motivate. You don't have to create an edge for him every day. He's going to go out, and it's very important for him to play very well.

"He understands the importance of practice and work. I don't have to sit there and give him a pep talk to make sure his mind is ready to go every day."

The experience of 2012 gave him an idea of the speed of the game, but with that under his belt, there's a lot more expected out of Morrison in 2013. He's the leader of the defense. He will slide inside to the MIKE linebacker position that was occupied by Jon Bostic for the last three seasons.

The Gators lost talent from last year's team, but that hasn't changed the sophomore's goals for his defense.

"No running. No passing. No nothing. We want to be the No. 1 defense. That's our goal," Morrison said.


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