Florida Gators: Jelani Jenkins

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Ever the perfectionist, Florida coach Will Muschamp was not happy with his run defense last season.

Sure, the Gators had a top-five defense overall. But the run defense, which gave up 94.9 yards per game to rank fourth in the nation in 2012, slipped to No. 33 in the country last fall and gave up 142.4 yards per game.

Those concerns carried over to spring practice, as the run defense had some struggles last weekend in scrimmaging against the team's new uptempo spread offense.

[+] EnlargeAntonio Morrison
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAntonio Morrison is trying to mature in his role as the QB of Will Muschamp's defense.
"Our defense needs to handle and respond better to the tempo, especially our young defensive linemen understanding getting aligned, getting the call," Muschamp said on Tuesday. "All those things that a hurry-up offense creates angst with, we did not handle very well defensively.

"Atrocious tackling for leveraging the ball, being in the right spots. So those are all things we need to improve on."

Florida has lost plenty of reliable veteran starters from the middle of its defense in the last two offseasons. Last year, the Gators had to cope with the departures of defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, linebackers Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, and safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans. All were drafted in the first six rounds of the NFL draft.

The defense started strong last fall but slumped noticeably after star defensive tackle Dominique Easley was lost for the season to injury, which had a cascading effect on the rest of the unit.

"Some other guys' production went down a little bit when Dominique wasn't in there anymore," Muschamp said. "It affects you tremendously. ...

"You get blocked a lot more when you lose a guy like that."

As a result, Muschamp said, the linebackers weren't as productive as he expects.

"It was tough," junior middle linebacker Antonio Morrison said. "We lost some of our best players to injury, not to use that as an excuse. It was a tough year, but that’s behind us. We learned from it and we’re ready to get on with it.

"We just know that’s unacceptable. We’re not trying to put that on the field anymore."

This spring the Gators are counting on experienced linebackers such as Morrison and Michael Taylor to turn things around.

"They need to be able to calm the defense down at times," said Muschamp, calling his middle linebacker the quarterback of the defense. "I think Jon Bostic was as good as I've been around as far as handling and managing our front and back end with communication. Just did an outstanding job of that, and Jelani did a great job as well.

"We need to do a better job from a communication standpoint at that position, and I think we've made some strides."

Muschamp acknowledges that his defense puts a lot of pressure on its linebackers. Leadership and communication are not optional.

Perhaps no player has been under more scrutiny than Morrison, who was impressive as a freshman outside linebacker but struggled at times last fall in the middle. It didn't help that two arrests last summer undermined Morrison's ability to be a vocal leader, but Muschamp sees signs of progress.

"I think each year you mature a little bit, and sometimes you have to learn from your mistakes publicly to take steps forward, and I think he's done that," Muschamp said. "I've been pleased with his production as a player on the field; I've been pleased with how he's handled himself off the field.

"We all mature at different levels and different times, and certainly he is a guy that needed to mature, take that next step. I think he's done that."

Florida is looking to its interior defensive linemen to grow up as well. Muschamp has cited the talent level of redshirt freshman defensive tackles Caleb Brantley, Antonio Riles and Jay-nard Bostwick. But he has also repeatedly expressed how much work they still need.

"The hardest thing for a young defensive lineman is disengaging from blocks," he said, "because they've been so much better than the other guys in high school, they haven't had to disengage from blocks. A lot of the time, the guy blocking them wasn't good enough to get a hat on them.

"Well now you've got to take on the block, understand how to defeat the block and then go to the ball carrier and do it over and over again, which sometimes is a little bit of a challenge for some of our guys."

With senior defensive tackle Leon Orr out this spring with a broken wrist, the onus has fallen on senior Darious Cummings and junior Jonathan Bullard, whom Muschamp praised for his work in moving inside from defensive end.

"I’ve seen some positive things, just very inconsistent once we get past that first group," he said. "The drop down is way too big. Way too much of a separation between the groups."

Taylor, who prefers to lead by actions instead of words, is confident the run defense will improve after identifying the problems.

"[We] saw what we needed to work on," Taylor said, "saw how we were getting blocked, saw how teams were trying to run on us and simplified some things, cleared some stuff up, and we worked on what we needed to get better on. And that's what we've been doing."

GatorNation week in review 

May, 4, 2013
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- We are firmly into the college football offseason, but there's still plenty of Gators news ....

Florida nearly tied the school record for most players drafted in a seven-round format. The Gators had eight players selected -- including DTSharrif Floyd (Minnesota) and S Matt Elam (Baltimore) in the first round -- in last weekend's NFL draft. Miami selected three former Gators: LB Jelani Jenkins, RB Mike Gillislee and K Caleb Sturgis. You can find GatorNation's breakdown of UF's draftees here.

Having eight players drafted is more than a confirmation of last season's 11-2 record. It's also a big recruiting tool, and UF coach Will Muschamp hopes to use it to his advantage.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida came close, but the Gators fell one player short of tying the school record for most players taken in a seven-round NFL draft.

It was still an impressive showing. Eight UF players were drafted, the most since nine were taken in the 2010 draft. Defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and safety Matt Elam were taken in the first round, giving the Gators multiple first-round picks for the first time since 2010.

Florida’s eight selections was one shy of LSU and Alabama, which led the Southeastern Conference with nine. Georgia also had eight players picked.

Here’s a breakdown of the Gators who were drafted:

DT Sharrif Floyd
First round: No. 23 overall by Minnesota

DT Kevin Williams and NT Letroy Guion are the Vikings’ starters, but Floyd should figure prominently in the rotation. He said he’s eager to learn all he can from Williams, a 10-year vet with 434 tackles and 56.5 sacks. The knock on Floyd is that he doesn’t have long arms, but he does have a quick first step and good speed for a 300-pounder.

S Matt Elam
First round: No. 32 overall by Baltimore

Elam couldn’t step into a better situation. The Ravens lost both starting safeties from their Super Bowl championship team. They released Bernard Pollard (he later signed with Tennessee) and Ed Reed signed a free-agent contract with Houston. Despite not having ideal size (5-foot-10, 208 pounds), Elam is more similar to Pollard than Reed. Elam is physical enough to play the run but also is good enough to cover slot receivers man-to-man.

LB Jonathan Bostic

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It didn’t take long for Florida linebackers coach D.J. Durkin to figure out that the Gators potentially had something special in a skinny freshman named Antonio Morrison.

Roughly about two hours, in fact. That’s how long the Gators’ first full-pads practice lasted in August.

Antonio Morrison
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesAntonio Morrison has already grabbed a reputation for delivering big hits.
“He made it very clear that he likes hitting people,” Durkin said. “We like people who like hitting people on defense. He made that statement very clear early on. The players recognized it. The coaches recognized it. We knew we had something there.

“It was very clear walking off the field after that first day of pads: That guy can help us.”

And Morrison did, starting three games at weakside linebacker in place of injured starter Jelani Jenkins and making one of the biggest plays of the season when he caused Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel to fumble and help put away the game. Now he’ll be the Gators’ starting middle linebacker.

With the graduation of starter Jon Bostic and Jenkins’ surprising decision to leave early for the NFL draft, the Gators never hesitated in naming Morrison the starter, despite the fact that he’s not exactly built like a typical middle linebacker. At 6-foot-1 and 229 pounds he is solidly built but smaller than the last three starters: Bostic (6-1, 246), Brandon Spikes (6-3, 240) and Brandon Siler (6-2, 235).

Yet the coaching staff has no concerns about Morrison being able to handle the pounding that comes with playing middle linebacker in the SEC, and neither does he.

“I’m pretty sure I can,” Morrison said. “I started [three] games last year and nothing really was too overwhelming for me.”

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- There will be some new faces at several positions when Florida begins spring practice Wednesday.

Loucheiz Purifoy
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFlorida cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy, who will be a junior this fall, is ready to take on the challenge of learning the wide receiver position.
The biggest change, which has previously been reported, is that junior CB Loucheiz Purifoy will spend the first half of spring practice working exclusively at receiver. He won’t be able to absorb the entire offense in that time, but he will have a better understanding than he did last season and will be able to run something other than a deep sideline pattern.

"I think up to this point what he's done has been very specific," offensive coordinator Brent Pease said. “Get him over for a few plays, here's what you’re doing and there's no adjustments. You can't adjust to anything and play off anything that defense is doing. Now you're getting into a set position and you're seeing how teams play against you. You play maybe a couple different spots in there and we can move you around."

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SEC's DLs, LBs strong at combine

February, 21, 2013
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Several of RecruitingNation's SEC sites will look this week at the players headed to the NFL combine, which begins Friday in Indianapolis, and other predraft camps. Today: Defensive linemen and linebackers.

Florida Gators


The heart of the Gators’ 2012 defense will participate in the combine today. DT Sharrif Floyd, whose stock is rising rapidly as he is projected to be taken as high as No. 3, had a fantastic season and anchored UF’s front. He dominated Florida State’s front, and his mixture of size, strength and quickness has scouts drooling. ILB Jon Bostic started every game the past two seasons and was UF’s leader on defense. Nobody was more dependable than Bostic. OLB Jelani Jenkins was limited in 2012 because of a broken finger, a strained hamstring and a broken foot, but when healthy he’s a solid player. OLB Lerentee McCray was forced into action at the buck position (hybrid end/linebacker) because of the injury to Ronald Powell. He didn’t produce big numbers but was a high-effort, high-motor guy.

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Florida Class of 2009 review 

January, 24, 2013
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- There is very little middle ground when it comes to evaluating Florida’s 2009 17-member signing class.

Eight became starters, seven turned into busts and two others are role players -- including one who has driven two separate coaching staffs crazy. Seven of those starters have done so for multiple seasons.

That’s not a bad ratio. Most coaches would be ecstatic if 50 percent of every signing class developed into starters, even if it also meant half weren’t going to make much impact, if any, on the program.

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Signing day primer: Florida 

January, 23, 2013
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- There are just a couple of short weeks remaining until national signing day, and the Florida Gators have met a majority of their recruiting needs. With graduation, transfers and players leaving for the NFL draft, there are a few areas Florida head coach Will Muschamp would still like to shore up.

Key holes to fill

The Gators lost key personnel along the offensive line, wide receiver, linebacker, running back and secondary and are hoping to replenish their talent with junior college transfers and incoming freshmen.

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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.

[+] EnlargeAntonio Morrison
Courtesy of UF CommunicationsAntonio Morrison will be one of the few linebackers with experience returning for the 2013 Gators.
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.

GatorNation position breakdown: ILB 

December, 27, 2012
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Editor’s note: Every Tuesday and Thursday through Jan. 31, 2013, GatorNation will break down each position. We’ll look at 2013, of course, but also try and give you a peek beyond next season, too. Today is inside linebacker. We will profile cornerbacks on Jan. 1.

INSIDE LINEBACKER

Jonathan Bostic
Kim Klement/US PresswireMiddle linebacker Jon Bostic has played a major role on Florida's defense for four seasons.
Two-deep: Senior Jon Bostic is the starter and he is backed up by redshirt sophomore Michael Taylor. Bostic has started 25 consecutive games and is third on the team with 62 tackles. He also has 3.0 sacks, two interceptions, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. Taylor has 29 tackles and 1.0 sack.

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Editor’s note: Each day between now and Florida’s Allstate Sugar Bowl date with Louisville, GatorNation will review the season for a key Gators player and attempt to project what’s next. Today we’ll look at LB Michael Taylor.

LB Michael Taylor
Redshirt sophomore
29 tackles, 1 sack, 1 interception, 1 QB hurry, 1 pass breakup

[+] EnlargeSpencer Ware
Kim Klement/US PresswireGators linebacker Michael Taylor (51) provided solid depth in 2012. Can he step forward as a starter next season?
Role in 2012: Taylor backed up starting MLB Jon Bostic but got significant playing time. He started the LSU game in place of WLB Jelani Jenkins, who was still dealing with a thumb injury.

The good: Taylor is another physical player who is a bit undersized (6-foot, 226 pounds), but he gets the job done. He’s best against the run. He’s able to weave his way through blockers to get to the ball carrier and also does a solid job of getting off blocks. Taylor capably filled in for Jenkins and made a season-high five tackles against LSU.

The bad: Taylor struggles in pass coverage. He’s not fast enough to run with most tight ends down the field and has trouble staying with tight ends and backs on short routes over the middle or in the flat. The coaching staff took him out on obvious passing situations and subbed in Antonio Morrison. Not being an every-down linebacker will hurt him as he tries to crack the starting lineup with Bostic graduating.

Crystal ball: Taylor is able to play all three linebacker spots, but not being good in coverage limits his effectiveness. It’s likely that he’ll remain a backup and spot starter in 2013, especially if Morrison is able to add enough bulk to play in the middle. If that’s the case, then Taylor will likely end up at strongside linebacker and be the one who goes off the field when the Gators are in nickel.

GatorNation position breakdown: OLB 

December, 25, 2012
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Editor’s note: Every Tuesday and Thursday through Jan. 31, 2013, GatorNation will break down each position. We’ll look at 2013, of course, but also try and give you a peek beyond next season, too. Today is outside linebacker. We will profile inside linebacker on Thursday.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER

[+] EnlargeJelani Jenkins
Kim Klement/US PresswireAfter suffering through an injury-plagued junior year, Jelani Jenkins could be the Gators' defensive leader in 2013.
Two-deep: Redshirt sophomore Neiron Ball is the starter at strongside linebacker and is backed up by junior Darrin Kitchens. Freshman Antonio Morrison is the starter at weakside linebacker and is backed up by redshirt sophomore Michael Taylor. Redshirt junior Jelani Jenkins is the normal starter at weakside linebacker but he recently underwent surgery to repair a broken bone in his foot and will miss the bowl game.

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Antonio MorrisonCourtesy of UF Communications
Editor’s note: Each day between now and Florida’s Allstate Sugar Bowl date with Louisville, GatorNation will review the season for a key Gators player and attempt to project what’s next. Today we’ll look at LB Antonio Morrison.

LB Antonio Morrison
Freshman
31 tackles, 1 sack, 1 QB hurry, 1 forced fumble

Role in 2012: Morrison enrolled in January and was impressive enough to earn time on special teams and be the primary backup for WLB Jelani Jenkins. He made two starts because of injuries.

The good: Morrison isn’t that big (6-foot-1, 218 pounds) but he is a hitter. UF coach Will Muschamp called him a "violent, physical football player," and there’s no better evidence than what Morrison did to Florida State QB EJ Manuel. He hammered the 6-5, 240-pound Manuel and caused a fumble, a play that proved to be the turning point in the Gators’ victory and one of the key plays of the entire season. Morrison has pretty good football IQ, too, or the staff wouldn’t have trusted him to make those two starts as well as start against Louisville in the Sugar Bowl.

The bad: While it’s a good story that Morrison is such a big hitter despite his size, he’s got to get bigger and stronger. He won’t be able to last an entire season in the SEC at linebacker if he doesn’t add some bulk. Another offseason with strength and conditioning coordinator Jeff Dillman will help, but if he’s one of those guys who just can’t gain weight, he could eventually end up moving to safety.

Crystal ball: Morrison will be starting somewhere next season. It looks like Jenkins will return for his senior season, so Morrison might move to strongside linebacker or possibly even middle linebacker, although he would certainly be undersized there unless he puts on about 20 pounds. Regardless of where he plays, the bottom line is that he has to be on the field somewhere. He’s too talented to be on the sideline, playing as a reserve or mainly on special teams.

Muschamp to players: Go away

December, 17, 2012
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida coach Will Muschamp told his players to take a hike.

For a week, anyway.

Muschamp said Monday that he wanted his players to take time away from football to relax after a grueling season that concluded with eight consecutive games, so he told them to stay away from the football facility the week after the Gators' 37-26 victory over Florida State.

"They need to get away," Muschamp said. "I told them the first week, they didn't [have to] come in the building. We got them back the next week and wanted to get them lifting a little bit and had exams this past week. I think it's really important for them to get away and decompress a little bit from football."

That way the Gators (11-1) would be fresh when they returned to practice on Dec. 7 and 8. After taking almost a week off for exams, UF has been practicing the past four days. It has been more of a fall camp practice, however. The Gators have worked on fundamentals and issues they need to clear up. Game-planning and practicing for Louisville (11-1) won't begin until Tuesday, Muschamp said.

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Top 5 moments: Jarred loose

December, 12, 2012
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Editor’s note: GatorNation is counting down the top five moments of Florida’s 2012 season this week. They could be plays, drives, quarters or decisions, but regardless of what they are, they are the significant moments that shaped the season.

We continue with No. 3: Jarred loose

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- All it took was one hit to erase a disastrous third quarter and send Florida to a huge victory over rival Florida State. And it only happened because starting linebacker Jelani Jenkins was out of the game with a foot injury.

"Man down, man up," UF coach Will Muschamp said after the Gators’ 37-26 victory in Tallahassee, Fla., on Nov. 24. "It happened for us again. A guy goes in and makes a play. Regardless of the situation or the circumstances, we tell our guys it really doesn’t matter. We don’t use excuses. We did enough of that last year. So when a guy gets hurt and the next guy comes in, he needs to play well."

The guy on this particular Saturday was freshman LB Antonio Morrison. He was the one who hammered FSU QB EJ Manuel and knocked the ball loose at the Seminoles’ 42-yard line with about 11 minutes remaining in the game. DE Dominique Easley recovered the fumble and returned it to the FSU 37.

[+] EnlargeDominique Easley
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesDominique Easley's fumble recovery helped turn the tide and give Florida its first victory over Florida State since 2009.
One play later, RB Mike Gillislee scored the go-ahead touchdown, and the Gators tacked on two others to snap a two-game losing streak in the series.

That erased a third quarter in which FSU scored 17 points to take a 20-13 lead. Caleb Sturgis’ 32-yard field goal with 13:31 to play had cut the Seminoles’ lead to 20-16 before Morrison made one of the season’s most critical plays.

The freshman from Bolingbrook, Ill., is undersized for an SEC linebacker -- he’s 6-foot-1 and 216 pounds -- but he hits like a 250-pounder. He drove his left shoulder into Manuel’s right shoulder while LB Lerentee McCray was dragging Manuel to the ground and jarred the ball loose.

The 6-5, 240-pound Manuel went down hard and went to the sidelines woozy. The Seminoles soon followed.

"He is physical," NT Omar Hunter said of Morrison, who has 31 tackles and played in every game this season. "I don’t know if he knows anything else, but he is physical."

That play is essentially the reason the Gators are playing in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. UF’s victory over FSU ensured the Gators a spot in the top four in the BCS standings, which results in an automatic berth in a BCS bowl.

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