Gators' camp preview: Linebackers

The status of Antonio Morrison will go a long way in determining how good the Florida linebackers are this fall.

There are more questions than answers about Morrison’s status. He suffered a knee injury in the Birmingham Bowl win over East Carolina, and it required Morrison to be carted off the field. He was in attendance for spring practices in short and a t-shirt and never got on the practice field. Florida coach Jim McElwain said at SEC Media Days that there is no timeline for when Morrison will get back on the field to practice.

The Gators go through their first day of practice on August 6, but McElwain did note that Morrison has “come a long way in a short period of time.”

With Morrison, the linebacker unit should be more than fine. He led the team with 101 tackles last season and plays like a prototypical middle linebacker, bigger than his 6-1, 218-pound frame. He’s aggressive and doesn’t back down from trying to tackle anyone.

If Morrison is healthy, the rest of the linebacker pieces fit in fairly easily. The breakout player from the spring was Alex Anzalone. With Morrison out, defensive coordinator Geoff Collins and linebacker coach Randy Shannon put a lot on Anzalone’s plate to learn the defense and be prepared to become the vocal leader of the linebacker unit.

Multiple coaches and players complimented how well Anzalone adjusted to the role in the spring, and if Morrison is out and Anzalone is forced to start at middle linebacker this fall, they seem comfortable with him playing the role. It’s high expectations for a player that made 14 tackles and one tackle for a loss last season, but the Gators will need Anzalone this fall regardless of how healthy Morrison is to start the year.

In recent years under Will Muschamp and D.J. Durkin, the Florida defense played between 70-80 percent nickel with only two linebackers on the field. Collins didn’t give any clear indication of his plan during the spring as he was still getting to know what he has on defense at Florida, but with the numbers and talent where they are at linebacker compared to a loaded secondary, it would probably make sense.

In that case, the Gators could play with Anzalone and Morrison on the field together. If Morrison isn’t ready to play, that leaves a second linebacker spot open.

Jarrad Davis made 24 tackles as a freshman during the 2013 season and looked poised for a breakout season. He made 23 tackles in the first eight games of the year before a knee injury against South Carolina ended his season. Davis was held out of the spring to keep preparing his knee, but he has more experience than any other linebacker besides Morrison that should help him get on the field this fall. He’s aggressive at outside linebacker and earned his spot on the field after playing with great effort on special teams. As long as the knee is completely healthy, Davis could have a breakout season.

Behind him, there are a lot of question marks. It’s a product of only signing one linebacker in the last two recruiting classes. The numbers aren’t where they need to be, and the Gators are counting on plays with at least two seasons under their belt to be contributors.

Daniel McMillian, Jeremi Powell and Matt Rolin all have different reasons for not contributing earlier in their careers.

For McMillian, it was learning the playbook that kept him away as a true freshman. He was more knowledgeable about the defense last season and worked his way on the field, closing the season with a career-high five tackles in the Birmingham Bowl. McMillian even saw time with the first team defense during the spring and could be a surprise performer this year. The 6-1, 219-pounder has all the physical gifts to be a difference maker at linebacker.

Powell runs like a deer, but injuries have kept him off the field at Florida. He should be healthy this fall and could earn a role, even if it’s on special teams.

Injuries have also kept Matt Rolin off the field. He tore his ACL during his senior year of high school and tore it again during fall camp during his freshman year in 2013. The previous staff played it slow with him and kept him out of games in 2014 to make sure the knee was healed. He went through spring practice and didn’t look to be favoring the knee. Rolin was heavily recruited by many southeastern powers, but it’s all about how his knee will hold up.

The only freshman is Rayshad Jackson, who is the first scholarship freshman at linebacker for Florida since the 2013 season. Florida was one of the few offers he had, but Shannon made him a priority and landed the Miami product.

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