E.J. Manuel rolled out, the pocket collapsing around him. The Seminole’s senior quarterback took off, running into an offensive lineman before trying to make a play with his feet.
Antonio Morrison took off from five yards away and hit Manuel with enough force that the collision could be heard from any seat in Doak Campbell Stadium. Manuel collapsed to the turf; the football trickled away and into the waiting arms of Dominique Easley.
Morrison had arrived. This was the turning point in the game for the Florida Gators who went on to win the game 37-26.
Morrison’s freshman season appeared to be a sign of things to come. He filled in for an injured Jelani Jenkins and finished the season with 33 tackles (26 solo).
Those signs were overshadowed by a pair of off-field incidents prior to his sophomore season that forced Morrison to miss the first game of the season.
He also transformed his body. Morrison added weight in the offseason — per his coaches’ request — and finished the season second on the team with 56 tackles but he didn’t look the same. Morrison was slow, sluggish even on the football field. He struggled to fill gaps at times and often missed a chance to make a play because he wasn’t in the right spot.
It was this game last year that ended Morrison’s sophomore season. “I got injured this game,” he said. “I got hurt. I tore my meniscus and played the whole game.”
By all accounts, football means everything to Morrison. He missed the final three games of the season but dedicated himself in the offseason to becoming the best version of himself. Morrison leaned out, dropping about 10 pounds. He hasn’t had any issues off the field and continues to maintain a GPA above 3.0 according to the school.
He also did something else, something that has proved to be the most important development of the offseason — he became a leader.
Last season, the losses piled up and the team grew despondent. They lacked leadership and the locker room unraveled. Heading into the 2014 season, Morrison took it upon himself to fill that leadership void.
“I just matured,” he said. “I have a bigger role now, and it just came with it.”
Morrison, by nature, is a humble guy. He shies away from the praise that is heaped on him by his coaches and teammates but his maturation, play and leadership has made an impact on them all.
“Antonio Morrison has become a great leader in my opinion,” junior defensive lineman Jon Bullard said. “You know he calmed himself down some and he realized you know he has to do what he preached and he has been doing that.”
It started on the practice field. No Gator practices harder than Morrison, who takes every practice rep like it’s fourth-and-goal and his defense needs a stop to win a game. In the spring and fall, Morrison regularly was the hardest hitting linebacker when the team went through drills, much to the chagrin of whomever was holding the hitting pad for him.
“He practices really hard. If you pull out a clip of him practicing, it doesn’t look any different than a game,” defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said. “The speed in which he’s going and how he’s going about his business.”
Morrison leads the Gators in tackles this season with 67 — good for tenth in the SEC in total tackles. He is third in the league averaging 9.57 tackles-per-game but his impact cannot be truly seen in numbers alone.
“He’s definitely a leader of our team. He has stepped up in that way and I’ve been proud of how he’s matured and kind of grown into that role,” Durkin said. “A lot of times people think the leaders are the ones who are speaking up and being rah-rah. That’s not it on him. Guys notice who’s practicing hard and preparing the right way, and that’s what he’s doing every week.”
Morrison isn’t the most vocal player on the team but his play on the field has earned the respect of every person inside the Florida locker room. He may not be the guy that is lifted above a huddle to pump the team up before kickoff but when Morrison speaks, he has the attention of everyone around him.
“He’s flying all over on plays and I think the guys notice that. They recognize that. He picks and chooses his moments to speak and they listen when he does.”