In this week’s edition of Florida Football Friday Final, OnlyGators.com takes a look at the Florida Gators (4-3, 3-3 SEC) as they prepare to ride their wave of momentum against the Vanderbilt Commodores (3-6, 0-5 SEC) on Saturday at Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee. The game will kick off at 7:30 p.m. and air live on the SEC Network.
THIS WEEK ON ONLYGATORS.COM
Story: Max Garcia gets emotional over Mike McNeely
Notebook: Two Florida starters out at Vanderbilt; updates from Will Muschamp
Notebook: Kurt Roper talks passing game, Jeff Driskel’s new role
The Silver Lining: Gators ready to overcome 2013 embarrassment by ‘Dores
Notebook: Florida looking for replacement for injured S Keanu Neal
HE IS ANTONIO
One year ago, coming off an embarrassing offseason in which he was arrested twice – first for an allegedly punching a bouncer, then for barking at a police dog – then-sophomore linebacker Antonio Morrison struggled. The spotlight was looming and the expectations were high with Morrison expected to be Jon Bostic’s heir apparent, but as strong as Florida’s defense was early in the season, Morrison was not always trustworthy in the middle.
Morrison was unable to help his team over its final three games of the season, and even though he was not overly productive when he was active, it would have been nice for Florida to have him on the field in two close losses – a 19-14 defeat at South Carolina and 26-20 whooping at the hands of Georgia Southern.
The rehabilitation, coupled with some coaching and general maturing has Morrison in a new place in 2014. Morrison is the Gators’ leading tackler this season – and not by a small margin. His 67 total tackles are 27 more than number two on Florida’s list, junior defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., who has witnessed Morrison’s development with his own two eyes.
“He really runs side to sideline. If you really sit down and watch the game and watch Tone, he’s’ relentless. He always runs to the ball. He always had a motor and he has a nose for the ball, so I’m not surprised,” said Fowler this week. “He gets us going a lot. Tone is a leader. He’s our middle linebacker. So whenever you hear from him, a lot of people shut up and listen. When he has something to say, he has something to say.”
Defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin has also witnessed that improved leadership first-hand.
“I think he’s grown and matured, and I think more than anything he knows when to calm down – when he needs to and when not to. He’s definitely a leader of our team. He has stepped up in that way, and I’ve been proud of how he’s matured and kind of grown into that role. He’s always a tough, physical, on-the-edge guy on the field and we need him to be that way. That’s a good thing. He’s learning when to kind of turn that down a little bit,” explained Durkin.
“He’s a leader by example. He practices really hard. If you pull out a clip of him practicing, it doesn’t look any different than a game, the speed in which he’s going and how he’s going about his business. A lot of times, people think the leaders are the ones who are speaking up and being rah-rah. That’s not it on him. Guys notice who’s practicing hard and preparing the right way and that’s what he’s doing every week – and it’s carrying over into the games. He’s flying all over on plays, and I think the guys notice that. They recognize that. He picks and chooses his moments to speak, and they listen when he does.”
Durkin notes that Morrison’s improved practice habits have resulted in him stepping up his play on game days. The player has increased his endurance, tackling technique and overall production, all of which makes him a threat that he simply was not previously.
A pair of Morrison’s classmates – defensive back Brian Poole and defensive lineman Jon Bullard – agreed that their teammate has stepped up his game.
Poole notes that Morrison being a vocal leader is important, while Bullard explained that Morrison practicing what he preaches has meant a lot to the entire team – offense, defense and special teams.
Morrison’s on-field dominance is also evident on film, at least according to Commodores head coach Derek Mason, who went off on a tangent when asked about the player during this week’s SEC teleconference.
“Oh man, he’s a beast,” Mason said. “You’re talking about a buy who is a great one-on-one match-up issue. Whether it’s strongside, weakside, his ability to rush the passer, and they move him all over the place to really give him a chance to be effective. He can stop the run. He’s a problem in pass protection. I think what we have to continue to do is just keep our eyes on him.”
For Morrison, the Vanderbilt game on Saturday is not only another opportunity to continue emerging but also a chance to get some much-needed revenge.
“They beat us [last year], I forgot how long ago the last time they beat us, I forgot what coach said. It was a long time though. We don’t want to lose to anyone. I wouldn’t say [losing last year] was embarrassing, but the whole season last year was embarrassing,” he explained.
“We just want to win, man.”