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Freshman linebacker Antonio Morrison is expected to start on Saturday in place of the injured Jelani Jenkins

Wednesday September 12, 2012Morrison Makes Mark Quickly for Gators

Freshman linebacker Antonio Morrison is expected to start on Saturday in place of the injured Jelani Jenkins

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Now that Antonio Morrison has been around for a few months, the answers make more sense.

You can see their meaning every time Morrison walks into the Gators’ locker room wearing his headphones and a skull cap, a nasty focus stitched across his face.

An Illinois All-State selection as a senior at Bolingbrook High last year, Morrison was featured on his own playing card in a Chicago Tribune profile. The card displayed Morrison’s impressive stats and a short Q&A on the back.

You couldn’t pay me to: smile

I am afraid of: nothing

Morrison’s no-fear attitude is one that Gators defensive coordinator Dan Quinn noticed right away when the 6-foot-1, 216-pound linebacker arrived as an early enrollee in January and participated in spring practice.

“He came in really as a freshman on a mission to prove he belonged and could do it,’’ Quinn said Wednesday. “Not knowing anyone here and coming in, he did an outstanding job.”

Morrison’s impressive spring has rolled over into the regular season. In his first two college games, Morrison has nine tackles, including a career-high six (five solo) on Saturday at Texas A&M. Morrison received additional playing time at weak-side linebacker against the Aggies after starter Jelani Jenkins left the game early in the first quarter due to a broken thumb.

With Jenkins expected to miss approximately four weeks following surgery on Monday, Morrison is projected to start in his place Saturday at Tennessee. A true freshman starting in front of more than 100,000 fans at Neyland Stadium -- and against a veteran quarterback like Vols gunslinger Tyler Bray – might cause concern for most defensive coordinators.

Not Quinn. He has full confidence in Morrison’s ability.

“I’m really comfortable,’’ Quinn said. “No. 1, I think he has a maturity level past his age as a college freshman. I’ve always been impressed by how physical he is. I think that showed in the first couple of ballgames. He can really hit.

“There’s no, ‘Oh boy, what can’t we do.’ That’s not the case at all. I think we’ve got a really good linebacker. I’m anxious to see him play in all the packages.”

While Morrison is off-limits to reporters per Gators coach Will Muschamp’s policy that no freshmen talk to the media during the season, his confidence was evident in a Q&A with shortly after he arrived on campus.

Q: What’s a talent you have other than football?

A: Man, I think I could be a Division I basketball player to be honest. Maybe not like for Kentucky or Florida or something, but I think I could play Division I basketball.  I played until my sophomore year in high school and then I just focused on football.

The decision to stick with football worked out well.

Morrison was leaning toward either Oregon or Illinois until the Gators started to pursue him heavily. Florida defensive tackles coach Bryant Young, a Chicago native and somewhat familiar with Bolingbrook coach John Ivlow – Ivlow was a running back on San Francisco’s practice squad during Young’s rookie season in 1994 – was Morrison’s primary recruiter.

Once Muschamp, Quinn and linebackers coach D.J. Durkin saw tape, they fell in love with Morrison’s toughness and ability. They saw a player who could fit right into the SEC and the kind of hard-nosed defense they want to build.

Morrison’s high school game film didn’t lie. He earned the Gators’ “hard hat” award symbolic of toughness on Saturday.

“Antonio played well,” Muschamp said. “He plays well in space. He's a physical guy in the two-back run game. He'll throw his stuff up in there. He's instinctive. He's tough.”

Morrison, who helped Bolingbrook win a state championship in November a few weeks before enrolling at UF, has earned the respect of his teammates in his short time here. He asks good questions, pays attention to detail, and then lets loose once the Gators take the field.

“He's smart and pretty much learns from our mistakes,” middle linebacker Jon Bostic said. “After practice, he's beating me to the film room. That's a good thing … because a lot of freshman don't really understand how important watching film is.”

Fellow linebacker Michael Taylor will also get additional snaps with Jenkins out. Taylor and Morrison have become close friends on and off the field.

Taylor looks at Morrison as the real deal.

“He loves to hit,’’ Taylor said.

The player they call “Bo” – Morrison’s family nickname – is getting the job done early in his career. That job includes more playing time Saturday night at Neyland Stadium.

“I think it’s a big opportunity for Bo,’’ Quinn said. “What a challenge. This guy’s a real competitor saying, ‘Ok, I’m from Illinois, I want to go to the SEC, I’m going early, I’m going to Florida.’ And he really came in with this competitive linebacker mindset that you love.”


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