Healthy Morrison waiting for Gators' opener

When Antonio Morrison suffered his knee surgery in last year’s Birmingham Bowl, his entire focus shifted to the rehab.

Nothing he was hearing from the outside mattered. There was no timeframe for his return to the field, but the knee injury was serious enough that the 2015 season was in jeopardy.

However, the senior linebacker was at the top of the depth chart at middle linebacker when it was released Monday morning. Just over eight months after what Florida and Morrison only call a knee injury, he’ll be on the field when the Gators host New Mexico State on Saturday. While neither party will disclose the exact injury since Morrison doesn’t want it public, there’s no question is was very serious.

His rehab was supposed to take 10-12 months. Instead, he’s the starting middle linebacker for the Gators to open the year.

“It wasn’t tough at all,” Antonio Morrison said after Tuesday’s practice. “I have a great doctor, Doctor (Kevin) Farmer. I’ve got a great training staff, Paul Sylvestri’s the best. Those guys did everything for me. With my work ethic, I didn’t think it was tough and now I’m ready to go.

“I didn’t look too far ahead. I just wanted to get better each and every day, whatever happened, happened.”

Florida coach Jim McElwain emphasized how impressive the rehab was in his Monday press conference. Since taking the job in Gainesville, McElwain has constantly praised the way Morrison has attacked the rehab and set an example for younger players on the team. His quick recovery from the knee injury is a testament to that.

It still meant he had to watch spring football from the sideline. He was in his jersey every day, but while in the heart of the rehab process, there was only so much he could do. What improved the most through that time was his view on leadership. With an inexperienced group of linebackers around him, Morrison learned how important it is for him to be vocal and help the players around him. What he found out is that the other linebackers have plenty of talent.

“I became a better leader seeing things without being out on the field,” Morrison said. “That also helped our team get better because of a lot of guys stepped up. I mean, we’ve got like the best linebacking corps in the country, I promise you. All of these guys are going to be better than me, (Alex) Anzalone, (Daniel) McMillian, (Jeremi) Powell, Jarrad Davis, they’re all going to be better than me. I’m the least athletic out of all of them. Either way, we have a great linebacking corps whether I’m in there or not.”

Getting back on the practice field to open fall camp served as a light at the end of the tunnel for his rehab. He wore a heavy brace on the field and was limited from contact early in the fall, but players knew where Morrison was on the field. It was easy to hear his voice, whether working with the linebackers or helping the defense get lined up.

"Amazing,” Florida defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard said about Morrison’s recovery. “It's unbelievable how fast he came back. He's been out there. He's our spokesman on defense. He speaks, we listen. He calls the plays, we listen, so it's great to have him back."

He just isn’t speaking as much as he used to. With Morrison out in the spring, Alex Anzalone took first team reps at middle linebacker and turned into the vocal leader of the defense. When calls are made before the snap, they come from Anzalone. Morrison echoes the calls now, but that’s a change from when he was the one making the calls last fall and led the Gators in tackles.

There are a lot of familiar pieces on the Florida defense that make life easier on Morrison, and they’re a big part of the goals he has set for his side of the football.

“We’re going to be the best defense in the country for sure, no doubt,” Morrison said. “You always want to be the best. You don't play this game to be last. You want to be the best at what you do. You look at the players we got, you look at the coaching staff we have, there's no reason why we shouldn't be the best."

The Florida team could see a big improvement if the offense takes even marginal steps forward. If that’s going to happen, the Gators should be led by their run game. Freshmen running backs Jordan Cronkrite and Jordan Scarlett have impressed many of the defensive veterans this fall, and Morrison is no different.

Everyone knows about Kelvin Taylor as the starter, but the freshmen have brought a new excitement to the position.

"The freshmen backs we got -- Scarlett reminds me of Trent Richardson in college, not in the pros,” Morrison said. “Cronkrite runs like Adrian Peterson. He's not as big as him, but this dude is just north and south. You know about Kelvin Taylor and how shifty he is, how good his feet is. We've got good backs that can produce."

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