The worst issue for Florida at linebacker is the absence of senior Antonio Morrison (6-1, 225) who was injured in the Gators bowl win over East Carolina. The secrecy around the exact injury is great and there is talk that he may be out for most of the regular season as well. Regardless, Morrison had a very solid junior year and was contemplating leaving early for the NFL until the injury. His absence will be felt.
Adding fuel to that fire is the injury to junior Jarrad Davis (6-2, 229) who will miss most if not all of spring drills as well. Davis is that rock solid middle linebacker who seemed to play well when inserted into games. Again his time lost is a big detriment.
One player that should have the most to gain from the absence of Morrison and Davis is junior Alex Anzalone (6-3, 234). Anzalone has somewhat limited time on the field but stepped up his play late in the season in 2014 and had 12 of 14 tackles in the last four games of the season. In that small window of time at the end of the year Anzalone showed some jets running down ball carriers and made some plays we hadn’t seen up until that point.
If you are going to physically build a linebacker, you want them to look like junior Daniel McMillian (6-1, 221). Physical ability has never been an issue for McMillian, but he hasn’t been able to get on the field for lack of learning the systems he has been a part of. He will get a ton of reps this spring to possibly allow that to happen and a new teacher in Shannon that may be able to push the right buttons and get things going. McMillian only saw significant time in three games and made all of his 11 tackles on the season in those three.
Junior Jeremi Powell (6-0, 214) has been a special teams dynamo but has seen very little time on the field on defense. Maybe that changes this year with a new staff and maybe more intriguing could be the new hybrid linebacker / safety position that defensive coordinator Geoff Collins wants to apply to the defense. With the prolific playing time he gets this spring, this could be a huge one for Powell.
Sophomore Matt Rolin (6-3, 217) has been on campus for two years and hasn’t played a down of football yet. Injured in preseason camp before the 2013 year, Rolin was running with the second team and getting accolades from the staff for his play. We really don’t know what we will get from Rolin until we see or hear about it in the upcoming weeks, but he will get a lot of work and should be healthy for the first time.
There aren’t many walk-ons expected to play but sophomore Steven Stipe (5-11, 214) may be that guy. The son of mid-80’s Gator linebacker Steve Stipe, he has been a constant leader among walk-ons in his two years. With the position as thin as it is, he is the guy most likely in my mind to step up and make some nice this spring and this season.
Expect the Gators to play a lot of nickel this spring and in the fall. That will help with the lack of depth at linebacker, but there is little doubt this is a critical position that Randy Shannon is going to have to figure out this spring.