Antonio Morrison (knee) to play in Gators' opener

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida middle linebacker Antonio Morrison, who injured his left knee in January and needed two surgeries to repair the damage, will play in the Gators' season opener against New Mexico State on Saturday.

Coach Jim McElwain said Monday, "It's unbelievable what he's done."

"What normally was a 10- to 12-month recovery, he did in six months," McElwain added. "We've had the doctor in a bunch, probably more so for me not believing him."

Morrison left the Birmingham Bowl on a cart nearly eight months ago, an injury that reportedly included a torn ligament and meniscus damage.

Earlier this month, McElwain sounded less than optimistic about Morrison's status, saying "Let's not downplay what this injury was, OK? He's had two surgeries on the same knee off the same injury, right?"

But Morrison, who led Florida with 101 tackles last season, was able to work during camp and has made steady progress.

Nonetheless, few outsiders expected the 6-foot-1, 230-pound senior from Bellwood, Illinois, would be listed as the starting middle linebacker when the team's official depth chart was released Monday.

"It's truly amazing," 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. ... 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."

Morrison has been an integral part of Florida's defense the past three years. He has 191 tackles, including nine for a loss, two sacks, two forced fumbles, a pass breakup and an interception.

Even as a freshman, he was one of the staples of former coach Will Muschamp's stout defense.

But for much of this offseason, it was unclear whether the Gators and new defensive coordinator Geoff Collins would be able to count on Morrison.

McElwain said recent tests showed Morrison's reconstructed knee was stronger and tighter than his other one.

"Again, that's a credit to him and what he did in the offseason to prepare himself to help this football team," McElwain said.

Still, the Gators plan to take it slow with Morrison.

McElwain said it "won't be one of those deals where he's playing 80 or 90 plays." Junior Alex Anzalone, who has considerably less experience than Morrison, likely will get significant playing time in the middle.

Regardless of what Morrison does in Florida's opener, he has already impressed coaches and teammates.

"That man works hard," said tight end Jake McGee, who spent many days rehabbing his broken leg alongside Morrison. "Couldn't be more proud of him. That man worked hard. 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."