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Monday, March 4, 2013
Spring question No. 1: Starting LBs

By Michael DiRocco

As part of our spring practice preview, each day this week GatorNation will address the five biggest questions facing the Gators. Today we’ll address the uncertain situation at linebacker. On Tuesday, we’ll examine the problems at receiver.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida had one of the nation’s best defenses in 2012. If the Gators are to repeat that in 2013, the first thing they have to do is sort out the jumbled situation at linebacker.

They are short on experience, have a major question in the middle, and possibly could have two freshmen in the starting lineup.

Johnny Manziel
Antonio Morrison started three games last season and could be the best option at middle linebacker.
After losing a pair of players who combined for 63 starts in Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, Florida’s six returning linebackers have combined to start just six games. Sophomore Antonio Morrison had three last season because of injuries to Jenkins, and Darrin Kitchens has started three games over the past three seasons.

Kitchens is the Gators’ most experienced linebacker, having played in 35 games -- but he’s made only 37 tackles. Redshirt junior Michael Taylor has played in 25 games (68 tackles). Redshirt junior Neiron Ball has played in 24 (20 tackles), followed by Morrison (13 games, 34 tackles) and Gideon Ajagbe (four games, no tackles).

There are three other linebackers who will participate in spring practice: redshirt freshman Jeremi Powell and freshmen early enrollees Daniel McMillian and Alex Anzalone. Matt Rolin, another early enrollee, is recovering from knee surgery and will be limited in spring practice.

The biggest question the Gators have, though, is which player will be the starter in the middle on opening day. Taylor is the only player who has played middle linebacker for the Gators, but he’s undersized at 6-foot, 226 pounds. He also doesn’t run well and struggles in coverage.

One intriguing option is moving Morrison inside. He’s not the biggest, either, at 6-1 and 218 pounds, but he’s UF’s most physical linebacker. He got on the field as a freshman last season because he impressed Will Muschamp and Dan Quinn with his football IQ and how hard he hit, and he’s better in coverage than Taylor. There were times last season when Taylor was on the field that they subbed Morrison in obvious passing situations.

But can Morrison handle the pounding that comes with begin an SEC middle linebacker? Two full offseasons in the conditioning program (he enrolled in January 2012) should help.

However, the move creates a problem outside. Morrison was expected to take over as the starter at weakside linebacker when Jenkins surprisingly decided to bypass his final season and declare for the NFL draft. That spot is now open, and it appears the job will go to a freshman. Powell has the advantage because he’s been in the system for a year, and the coaching staff really likes him: He was named the scout team player of the week five times last season.

He’s also a little undersized (6-1, 202), but he can run and was a big hitter in high school.

McMillian (6-3, 220) and Anzalone (6-3, 220) will get reps at both outside linebacker spots, but how much they play depends on how quickly they absorb the system. Both also could spend time in the middle, and if one develops quickly enough, the Gators could keep Morrison outside.

Ball and Kitchens finished the season first and second, respectively, on the depth chart at the end of last season and go into spring practice as the top two options there. The staff is excited about Ball’s potential after seeing what he did in 2012. Ball missed the 2011 season because of bleeding in his brain and last season was more of a re-acclimation to the game than anything else.

When he’s healthy, Rolin (6-4, 205) will compete for playing time at all three linebacker spots. Ajagbe (6-3, 232) is likely headed for a role on special teams as a redshirt junior.