The Florida linebackers offseason of flux began in January with Jelani Jenkins declaring for the NFL draft instead of returning to school.
Then there was the new coach they got: Jeff Choate to work with the outside LBs and help take some of the load off DJ Durkin who took on a defensive coordinator role, as well as continuing to work with the LBs.
Then came the arrests of Antonio Morrison on June 16th and July 21st, the result being a two game suspension still in effect for the sophomore, and the void it leaves inside –we’ll get to that.
Most recently, there has been an injury, with freshman Matt Rolin re-tearing the same ACL he had surgery on earlier this year before coming to Florida. The injury will sideline Rolin for the entire season, and hurt Florida’s depth at LB — Rolin was projected to compete for a spot on the Gators two deep roster.
That is the bad news, but there is good as well, Durkin said as much today, particularly pertaining to former No. 1 recruit Ronald Powell — a victim of two ACL surgeries last year.
“The biggest thing has been Ronald’s return in summer camp. He wasn’t there in spring ball. We know what he can do. We’ve seen it before but it’s always that, OK, let’s see how he comes back off the injury,” Durkin said. “Obviously he’s been out of football for a while, so he’s now just kind of getting in his groove here and we’re 14 practices in and he’s doing a great job.”
Powell was last seen on a football field in full pads in 2011, that year he logged six sacks and 26 tackles. That sack total was two more than any Gator not named Dominique Easley had last season. Powell will be an outside linebacker this season and bookend Florida’s LBs along with sophomore Dante Fowler Jr.
“Dante, he’s an impressive football player. He’s a rare mix of a guy with his size that can move as well as he does and plays really, really physical. And the great thing about Dante is he practices hard every single day,” Durkin said.
Fowler’s 30 tackles last season was good enough for fourth in total tackles among Florida’s LBs, but it’s important to note he split time at the BUCK position with Lerentee McCray, a recently undrafted free agent signed by the Denver Broncos.
While things seem to be shored up among the outside LBs, the inside is a different story.
The biggest thing missing from Florida’s linebacking middle may not be physical skill, but mental aptitude. With Jon Bostic gone, Florida loses a very intelligent middle linebacker, one that constantly defensively audibled to put his unit in a better position to make a play last season.
Morrison’s suspension still sits at at least the first two games — for now — meaning senior Micheal Taylor will slide over from Will to play the Mike position, throwing freshmen Daniel McMillian and Alex Anzalone in positions where they may be forced to contribute if any injuries happen while Morrison is sidelined.
Junior Neiron Ball, a young man who underwent brain surgery last year, is someone that will always be a feel good story on the Florida football team. In Durkin’s estimation, he’s also stood out on the field so far in camp.
“We moved him to a different position. He’s playing inside right now and doing really well. He’s adapting really well to it. He’s been a pleasant surprise for us in that regard,” Durkin said.
Head coach Will Muschamp also mentioned Ball in his Monday press conference, saying his speed impressed the staff during the Saturday scrimmage, when he ran down speedy wide receiver Solomon Patton on a reverse play.
Ball brings the speed of an outside linebacker –his original position– inside, and that may be what could keep him at one of the interior spots permanently when Morrison returns to action.
Besides Ball, senior Darrin Kitchens is another player Florida fans will see on the field at inside linebacker this season. Not only does Kitchens bring experience, he also brings a unique attitude that should make him even more endearing to fans this season no matter how much he produces on the field:
When Gators win, team sings alma mater with band. Despite loss, one player stayed to sing tonight: pic.twitter.com/fglGTaDx
— Whitney Holtzman (@WHoltzman) January 3, 2013
Despite all the turmoil going on in the second level of Florida’s defense, Durkin is still pleased with the linebacking unit. In some way, shape, or form Florida will line up a group of able bodies seven yards behind the defensive line on August 31st.
“Those guys are competing well. Obviously, we had some young guys coming in early, and several of them were with us in the spring. They’re doing a good job.”