Before spring practice began, Gator Country took a look at the top eight position battles to keep an eye on during spring practice. Now that spring is over, we’ll take a look at how those position battles played out over the past couple weeks.
In part six of the eight part series, we take a look at the linebackers who are attempting to take over for Jelani Jenkins and Jon Bostic.
The Gators lost two long-time starters in Bostic and Jenkins and are looking to replace more than just talent and on-field production. Both Bostic and Jenkins were vital members of the Florida defense. Bostic was responsible for relaying the play call from the sideline and making sure every player knew his assignment. He and Jenkins were close both on and off the field and that relationship helped form a daunting linebacker duo.
After playing Will LB most of his freshman season, Morrison was moved inside this spring and by all accounts, adjusted to his new position nicely. Other than a few coverage responsibilities, the Will and Mike have a very similar role in Will Muschamp’s defense, which made the transition easier for Morrison.
“Inside at linebacker, obviously losing Jon and Jelani is a blow to us. They were both very productive players for us. Antonio Morrison has moved to the Mike,” Muschamp said. “Our Mike and Will in regular personal mirrors. Our Mike in dime have different coverage responsibilities, so we felt Antonio would be better served at the Mike.”
And Morrison proved his coach right with the way he played this spring.
“[I] feel pretty comfortable with Antonio Morrison. I think he’s playing very well. I think he’ll be as good of a linebacker in our league next year,” Muschamp continued. “He’s got great instincts. He’s a violent player. He plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played. He enjoys the game. He embraces workouts. He embraces meetings. He embraces everything about the game of football and he soaks it up.”
Until this spring, Taylor had played primarily as Bostic’s backup at Mike. Like we mentioned before, the Mike and Will are very similar in Muschamp’s defense so the move over to Will wasn’t too difficult for Taylor.
Taylor looked much better and more natural in coverage this spring, an area he has struggled with in the past, and he is quick off the edge in blitz packages.
Right now, I would pencil in Taylor as the opening day starter but there is some stiff competition behind him.
Ball returned to the field in 2012 after sitting out the 2011 season due to a condition that caused bleeding in his brain. Physically, Ball looks like he has added considerable weight to his frame and now looks the part of an SEC linebacker.
Ball played mainly Sam linebacker for the Gators this spring and after Alex Anzalone went down with a shoulder injury, he saw his main competition, Darrin Kitchens, moved inside for depth reasons.
Ball is a versatile player and he could see time at Buck as well as the Sam linebacker spot.
“Neiron Ball will also play the buck as he does do a nice job of giving us some pass rush on third down to get more speed on the field,” Will Muschamp said.
Ball’s versatility and ability to rush the passer will ensure that he gets plenty of playing time in 2013.
Speaking of versatility, Kitchens showed that he is capable of playing multiple linebacker spots this spring.
Kitchens platooned last season at Sam with Ball and will likely split time at both Mike and Sam next season.
Powell took a redshirt his first year on campus but he impressed the coaching staff enough to earn scout team player of the week honors five times in 2012.
Powell is another player who can play multiple positions. If you’re beginning to notice a trend, Will Muschamp likes players who can do multiple things for his football team.
Powell will play mainly as the Sam linebacker but will also see time at Will in both the nickel and dime packages. He should also see a lot of playing time on special teams.
An early enrollee, McMillian took advantage of getting on to campus early. One of three linebackers to enroll early, McMillian was the only player of those three to remain healthy. Matt Rolin is still coming back from an ACL tear he suffered in high school and Alex Anzalone had to undergo surgery to repair a torn labrum.
McMillian took the extra reps and made the most of them. Much like Antonio Morrison did when he enrolled early last season, McMillian impressed his head coach with his toughness and dedication to the game of football.
“Athletically, he is the right guy to be coaching. He’s got instincts, he’s got toughness,” Muschamp said. “[Football is]very important to him. He was up here on Sunday after the third practice, the first day in pads, for two hours watching film by himself. So again, it goes back to the same thing, the thing’s important to him. And some young players have a hard time with that, because they’ve always been better and they didn’t have to put in the extra time, and Daniel, he’s working, he’s the absolute right guy to be coaching.”
Anzalone started the spring behind Morrison at Mike linebacker. After watching him during Florida’s open practices, one thing was for sure; he didn’t look like a freshman out on the field.
Physically, Anzalone had more than enough size to compete in the SEC. While he was still learning the defense and treading water in that sense, he looked like a player that could earn some serious playing time early.
Tearing his labrum and having to undergo surgery was a setback but he should be cleared for fall practice.
Rolin suffered an ACL tear during his senior season. When healthy, Rolin is a guy who can play all three-linebacker spots.
After dealing with Ronald Powell re-injuring his ACL during rehab last year, the coaching staff might want to bring Rolin along slowly and he could end up redshirting this season.
One thing is certain at this position – Antonio Morrison is going to be the starting Mike linebacker and has the potential to be one of the best inside linebackers in recent history.
The other two spots remain an open competition.
Taylor was slotted to be the starter at Will but McMillian was very impressive in his first spring. McMillian, Taylor and Powell will all continue battling for reps but I wouldn’t be surprised if McMillian earned a starting role at some point in 2013.
Sam LB is another interesting position. While Ball, Kitchens and Powell are all in competition for playing time right now, there is a wrench that gets thrown into that equation when Ronald Powell comes back this fall.
Will Muschamp has always preached that the best 11 guys will play on both sides of the football. Well, you’re best 11 guys most likely will include both Ronald Powell and Dante Fowler Jr.
Powell could end up playing some Sam linebacker while rotating in with Fowler at BUCK or vice versa.
If you’re filling out your depth chart at home, feel free to take a sharpie and write Antonio Morrison’s name in at middle linebacker. You might want to use pencil when writing in the weakside and strongside linebacker spots because there is still a lot of competition left at both positions before August, 31.