When the Florida Gators listed injured linebacker Antonio Morrison as a starter on Monday’s depth chart, most assumed it was a perfunctory nod honoring the team’s emotional leader, captain and most reliable defensive playmaker not named Vernon Hargreaves III.
In an amazing turn of events, Morrison, an All-SEC performer in 2014, will play in Saturday’s opener against New Mexico State — capping an astounding eight-month comeback following a devastating knee injury in the Birmingham Bowl on Jan. 3.
“It’s unbelievable what he’s done,” Gators coach Jim McElwain said. “What normally was a 10- to 12-month recovery, he did in six months. We’ve had the doctor in a bunch, probably more so for me not believing him.”
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Morrison’s knee injury required two surgeries and months of grueling rehab, and though McElwain repeatedly insisted Morrison’s recovery was “ahead of schedule,” the coach consistently tempered any timetables on the linebacker’s return — if at all in 2015.
Still, Morrison was determined to play this season, and the senior steadily progressed enough to participate in training camp in a non-contact role.
Apparently, now he’s healthy enough to actually play.
“It’s truly amazing,” starting senior guard Trip Thurman said. “If you ever see that guy in the rehab facility, he’s just going 110 percent every time.
“I don’t know how he did it, honestly. But we have a great athletic training staff and that guy is going to be a key leader for us.”
Morrison led UF with 101 tackles last season — the most by a Gators linebacker since 2007. His unexpected return immediately boosts a promising but thin and inexperienced linebacker corps. Morrison has 23 career starts; junior Jarrad Davis has the next-most starts at two.
“He’s one of the true vocal leaders we have on defense,” Thurman said. “I think it’s a big key for us to have him back. I love the guy. He’s always going to go hard.”
The Gators won’t push Morrison too hard too fast though. As McElwain said, “It won’t be one of those deals where he’s playing 80 or 90 plays.”
“He’s prepared himself and he’s ready to play, and we’ll have a plan for that.”
However the plan unfolds, Florida is thrilled to have its leader back on the field.
“That man works so hard. I couldn’t be more proud of him,” senior tight end Jake McGee said.
“That’s someone who loves the game of football and loves his team. So it’s exciting to see that he’s been good to go. I mean you really wouldn’t see a different Antonio if you’ve seen all of his practices. I’m sure on Saturday you will see the same Antonio Morrison that you saw last season.”
DEPTH CHART REVEALS VERY FEW SURPRISES
Florida released its Week 1 depth chart Monday, and the two-deep roster yielded few surprises.
As expected, the Gators didn’t name a starting quarterback for Saturday’s opener against New Mexico State. Will Grier and Treon Harris are both expected to play.
In all, 16 freshmen were included on the two-deep, with standout tailbacks Jordan Scarlett (St. Thomas Aquinas) and Jordan Cronkrite (Westminster Christian) as well as wideout Antonio Callaway (Booker T. Washington) earning backup roles.
▪ Coaches at Virginia Tech and Cincinnati made waves last week suggesting schools could “fine” players from their cost of attendance scholarships, but McElwain refuses to penalize UF players by taking money away from their monthly stipend.
“That’s something they put in nationally to help these-student athletes,” he said. “It’s not something [we’ll do]. No. It’s theirs.”
Florida athletes will receive checks totaling $3,840 for the school year.