GAINESVILLE — On the eve of the Gators’ first fall practice, Antonio Morrison downplayed his hopes of returning to the field in time for the season opener.
“Just following what my trainers (are) telling me, what the doctor is telling me,” Morrison said on Aug. 5. “That’s it.”
Less than a month later, Morrison has been cleared to play in Saturday’s season opener against New Mexico State, despite suffering a serious knee injury during Florida’s 28-20 win in the Birmingham Bowl on Jan. 3. The senior was listed as the starting middle linebacker on the team’s depth chart, which was released on Monday.
“Yeah, he is [ready to play],” coach Jim McElwain said of Morrison. “It’s unbelievable what he’s done. I’m really proud of what he’s done, to see him recover like this. He’s prepared himself and he’s ready to play and we’ll have a plan for that.”
McElwain added that the plan for Morrison will call for a limited amount of snaps against an over-matched New Mexico State team.
But just getting on the field is an accomplishment, as Morrison suffered a knee injury less than eight months ago that required two surgeries. According to McElwain, the original timetable for Morrison’s return was set at 10-12 months.
“It’s truly amazing,” Gators offensive lineman Trip Thurman said of Morrison. “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.”
Morrison, who began fall camp as a limited non-contact participant, is one of the defense’s leaders. He led the team with 101 tackles last season, well ahead of second-place Michael Taylor’s 64 tackles, and became the first Gator to record at least 100 tackles in a single season since Ahmad Black in 2010.
“The defense is very confident with Antonio in there,” Thurman said. “He’s one of the true vocal leaders we have on defense. I think it’s a big key for us to have him back. I love the guy. He’s always going to go hard.”
With Morrison back at middle linebacker, junior Alex Anzalone will start at strong-side linebacker and junior Jarrad Davis will start at weak-side linebacker.
Morrison’s recovery has been impressive to all. But Gators tight end Jake McGee appreciates it more than most after spending the past year recovering from a broken leg that ended his season in the 2014 season opener.
“That man works hard. I couldn’t be more proud of Antonio,” McGee said. “That’s someone who loves the game of football and loves his team. It’s exciting to see that he’s been good to go. I mean you really wouldn’t have seen 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.”