GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- His freshman season was defined by one play.
And it was probably the biggest play of Florida’s 2012 football season.
Inside linebacker Antonio Morrison saw E.J. Manuel dancing in the pocket and made lightning-fast beeline at the Florida State quarterback, blasting Manuel to the governor’s mansion, forcing a fumble that changed the game and set in motion a 24-point Gators eruption.
Huge play, huge moment in UF's 37-26 win at Tallahassee.
Without it, Florida may not have gone to a BCS bowl.
The physical nature of the the 6-foot-1, 229-pounder figures to be on display this weekend when Morrison, back with the team after missing the season-opening win against Toledo, returns for the No. 12 Gators (1-0) and their showdown against Miami (1-0) at Sun Life Stadium. He will deliver blows.
But if you get a chance, lock in on Morrison before the snap and as plays are developing and you’ll see a guy oftentimes a step ahead, thanks to some tools and instincts that cannot be taught. His ability to key and diagnose plays was something that screamed at the Florida coaches when they first saw tape of the wrecking machine from Bolingbrook, Ill.
“When you’ve got what he’s got, we can work with the rest,” Gators coach Will Muschamp said. “Some have it, some don’t. He had it.”
The innate ability to see keys being tipped by the offense -- reading a power play, understanding a counter is developing, knowing a naked bootleg is coming -- is a combination of feel and football intelligence.
Morrison is just beginning to tap into his potential. He 34 tackles as a true freshman, starting three games, but only just begun to tap into his potential. His overall skills set is why Morrison will have a lot of signal-calling responsibilities -- charged with getting teammates into the right shifts and alignments -- and figures to share a lot of grass time alongside fellow inside linebacker Mike Taylor against the Hurricanes.
“He’ll play quite a lot, absolutely,” UF defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said.
To illustrate the rarity of Morrison's football savvy, Muschamp revisited his 2005 season coaching linebackers for the Miami Dolphins. Muschamp was charged with working with offensive coaches to script practice.
One day, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan told Muschamp he forgot to tell him they were putting in counter play.s That meant Muschamp hadn’t worked with his linebackers on the package.
Yet, the first time the Dolphins offense tried one, seven-time Pro Bowler Zach Thomas breeched the backfield and hit the ballcarrier for a 3-yard loss.
Key and diagnose.
“He didn’t know it was going in and had no prior knowledge,” Muschamp said. “My point being he was instinctive. He saw it before it happened. A lot of coaches want to take credit for that. That’s a player being a really instinctive player.”
Morrison is one of those players.
Look for those instincts Saturday.