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Gators sophomore linebacker Antonio Morrison figures prominently into the plans for next season.

Friday March 8, 2013Gators Spring Preview: Linebackers

Gators sophomore linebacker Antonio Morrison figures prominently into the plans for next season.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

Editorís note: GatorZone.com is taking a look at each position group heading into the start of spring practice March 13. This story in the series focuses on the linebackers.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The Gators have eight early enrollees in this year's recruiting class and three of them are linebackers.

Freshmen Alex Anzalone, Daniel McMillian and Matt Rolin enrolled in January to get a head start on the upcoming season. The Gators could need all three considering the linebacker corps took a huge hit after the season.

Florida lost starting middle linebacker Jon Bostic to graduation. Bostic started 27 consecutive games over the past three seasons and was a strong force on the field and in the locker room.

While outside linebacker Jelani Jenkins missed five games last season due to injuries -- including the Sugar Bowl due to foot surgery -- he opted to forego his final year of eligibility and enter the NFL Draft. Jenkins started 31 games over the past three seasons and was Florida's best linebacker in pass coverage.

The competition for playing time this spring will be intense between a group of returnees that includes sophomore Antonio Morrison, redshirt junior Neiron Ball, redshirt junior Michael Taylor, senior Darrin Kitchens and redshirt freshman Jeremi Powell.

Ball, Kitchens, Morrison and Taylor all started at least one game last season. Powell did not play but was a regular standout at practice and Florida's coaching staff is optimistic he can be a solid contributor.

Morrison is perhaps the most intriguing of the returnees. He made one of the Gators' biggest plays last season when his crushing hit on Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel forced a fumble the Gators recovered to turn the momentum in their favor in a 38-26 win in Tallahassee.

Morrison (6-foot-1, 218 pounds) could be the poster boy for the type of player Florida coach Will Muschamp and first-year defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin covet, a hard-nosed, physical player who never shies away from contact.

Morrison's size makes him better suited to play on the outside but he has the mentality and skill it takes to play inside linebacker should that be where the Gators need him.

While Rolin won't participate fully in spring practice while he recovers from knee surgery, Anzalone and McMillian will be watched closely. Anzalone (6-3, 220) was highly recruited and picked Florida after initially committed to Ohio State and Notre Dame on the recruiting trail.

He is a physical player who has excellent speed and agility for a player his size. Meanwhile, McMillian (6-3, 220) starred at First Coast High in Jacksonville and offers a blend of speed and size that makes him one of the Gators' more intriguing prospects. He can play in coverage and also has the tools to develop into a premier rusher off the edge.

Muschamp is interested to see how the two freshmen perform this spring.

"They need to get ready,'' Muschamp said. "They are going to have a bunch of chances to go and rep and play. I think both guys have really good instincts. There are certain things you can teach within that position and there are certain things you can't.

"Both players have very good short-area explosion and quickness."

The also have the kind of length that Bostic and Jenkins provided the Gators. Muschamp said that length helps in keeping bigger linemen off them and allows the defense to have more versatility in alignments and formations.

Kitchens (6-1, 229) is the most experienced among the group of linebackers returning. A solid special-teams player during his career, Kitchens has played in 34 games in his career and started the FSU game last season at the strong-side/nickel linebacker spot.

Ball (6-3, 231) remains a player the Gators' coaching staff has high hopes for. After missing the 2011 season due to a congenital vascular condition that caused bleeding in his brain, Ball started two games last season and is expected to play a more significant role in 2013.

Taylor (6-0, 226) primarily backed up Bostic in the middle last season and should get plenty of playing time whether as a starter or in a reserve role. He finished with 32 tackles last season and recorded six tackles and the first sack of his career at Texas A&M when he took down Heisman winner Johnny Manziel in Florida's SEC opener.

Another returning player to keep an eye on is redshirt junior Gideon Ajagbe, a redshirt junior who has contributed on special teams.

Meanwhile, the Gators also signed linebacker Jarrad Davis (6-2, 235) out of Kingsland, Ga. Davis is expected to arrive over the summer and could be a factor come fall depending on the progress the Gators make during spring practice.

 

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