Antonio Morrison finds himself in the doghouse and suspended for at least the first two games of the season after, likely, the most bizarre arrest I have ever heard of. As a result, the Gators find themselves in a position of need as they prepare for Toledo to visit Gainesville. During the first two games of the season (Toledo, Miami (FL)) the Gators will be without their playmaking linebacker and will be looking to fill his position and playing time without skipping a beat.
Antonio Morrison, coming off a stellar freshman campaign, was expected to be a star and leader of the Florida Gators defense, taking over for graduating senior Jon Bostic.
Last season, Morrison had 33 total tackles (26 solo, 7 assisted), one quarterback hurry, and one knocked out Florida State quarterback. The hard-hitting linebacker exhibited great closing speed, solid coverage ability, and has incredible diagnosing skills.
Whom on the Gators roster will Will Muschamp and D.J. Durkin look to to replace Morrison? Here are three suggestions.
1) Michael Taylor
The redshirt junior came in as a heralded inside linebacker (number three overall, according to Rivals.com) and has played in mostly a reserve/back-up role, struggling to earn a starting position. Taylor has amassed 68 career tackles, with six tackles for loss, one sack, two interceptions and one blocked extra point. The 6-foot-0, 231 pound Taylor is Florida’s most experienced linebacker and brings great leadership skills to the position. Taylor is a better run-stopper than Morrison, although can be a bit of a liability in coverage, lacking the coverage skills that Bostic had and Morrison has, at middle linebacker. I imagine a scenario where Taylor will play more often on first and second down and the Gators could use a faster, lighter linebacking core on third down and expected passing downs. Should Taylor move inside for the first two weeks (at least), I expect Neiron Ball or Daniel McMillian to assume the starting role.
2) Alex Anzalone
Anzalone, one of the surprise signees of the class of 2013, comes into Florida as one of the most highly touted linebackers of his class and is expected to become a major player at the college level. Anzalone, who tore his labrum this spring, was originally listed as the second string middle linebacker in the spring. Anzalone has great playing speed, both in coverage and in run-support, is very instinctive, incredibly smart, and amassed over 100 tackles as a senior in high school. Anzalone showed some of his skillset in the spring before his injury, and should recover in time to become a solid contributor in the summer. Obviously, sitting out the spring puts Anzalone a bit behind where you would like to see a spring enrollee in terms of game speed. That being said, Anzalone was able to participate in video review and coaching meetings to learn the playbook while he was injured. Anzalone has a high skillset level and will likely play a considerable amount as a freshman, but may not be seasoned enough to become a starter right away.
3) Light Option
What is the light option? The light option is something that I have been pontificating about for a few months now, to use sparingly, in passing downs. With the loss of Morrison for two weeks it is something that I thought could be used more frequently. It may be a bit strange, but the light option is a philosophy that the Gators could play three undersized linebackers, especially in passing downs. In my opinion, the light option would be a linebacking mixture of Ronald Powell, Neiron Ball, Darrin Kitchins, and Dante Fowler, Jr. Any grouping of these four linebackers would excel in coverage, and while they would be light in the middle, they all have solid tackling ability and can get into the backfield. While the light option is a bit different in thought process, the Gators may need to try something different to overcome a lack of experience in the middle.