GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The surprising loss of linebacker Jelani Jenkins to the NFL draft leaves an interesting situation for the Gators at the position in 2013.
Florida is going to have to piece together a starting unit from a group of players that’s loaded with potential but doesn’t have a lot of experience. The Gators might even end up starting a true freshman.
There is one certainty: Antonio Morrison is going to be one of the starters. The 6-foot-1, 218-pound sophomore-to-be is UF’s most physical linebacker despite his size. He made several big plays in 2012, most notably causing Florida State QB E.J. Manuel to fumble early in the fourth quarter of the Gators’ victory.
But does Morrison start at weakside linebacker, which is where he played as Jenkins’ replacement when Jenkins was out with his finger, foot and hamstring injuries? Or can he beef up and play in the middle as a replacement for Jon Bostic, who graduates? He’s a better fit at outside linebacker because he’s athletic enough to cover tight ends and backs.
Does 6-foot, 226-pound redshirt junior Mike Taylor start in the middle? He’s solid against the run but he’s not very good in coverage and the Gators subbed him out for Morrison on obvious passing downs when he was in the game.
The Gators don’t have a lot of options at inside linebacker. James Hearns (Tallahassee, Fla./Lincoln) is the only inside linebacker commitment the Gators have.
The other outside spot could go to a variety of players: redshirt junior Neiron Ball, senior Darrin Kitchens, redshirt freshman Jeremi Powell (whom the coaches have raved about on the scout team), and freshman Daniel McMillian, who is scheduled to enroll this week.
While the linebackers appear to be a talented group, there isn’t much production. Taylor has 68 tackles and one sack in 25 career games, although that sack was a big one: It knocked Texas A&M out of field goal position just before halftime. Morrison has 34 tackles and a sack in 13 games, and Kitchens has 37 tackles in 35 games.
After that, there’s very little experience. D.J. Durkin has established himself as a heck of a recruiter and a very good special-teams coordinator. Now he’s going to have to piece together a unit that doesn’t have a consistent playmaker.