Manning the middle

Florida needs an heir apparent to Jon Bostic at middle linebacker

Updated: January 11, 2013, 10:38 AM ET
By Michael DiRocco | GatorNation

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Finding a replacement for MLB Jon Bostic is Florida's top priority on defense in 2013.

[+] EnlargeAntonio Morrison
Courtesy of UF CommunicationsAfter playing at 6-foot-1 and 216 pounds as a true freshman, Antonio Morrison will have to gain weight to hold up as a middle linebacker.
Bostic was a solid, durable player who started 26 consecutive games (32 overall) and racked up 237 tackles, 7.5 sacks and five interceptions. He called the defensive plays for the past two seasons and was the unquestioned leader of the defense.

That job in 2013 will fall to ... Antonio Morrison, maybe?

Michael Taylor is the only middle linebacker on the roster right now. However, the 6-foot, 220-pound redshirt redshirt junior struggles in pass coverage. UF has a commitment from James Hearns (Tallahassee, Fla./Lincoln), a 6-3, 235-pound inside linebacker. But he is not one of the Gators' eight early enrollees, and it would be tough for him to show up in July and win a starting job in August.

So the best option might be Morrison, who played pretty well as a weakside linebacker as a freshman in 2012. He subbed in for the injured Jelani Jenkins and had 34 tackles. He also delivered one of the season's biggest plays when he hammered Florida State QB EJ Manuel and caused a fumble early in the fourth quarter of UF's 37-26 victory.

The coaching staff loves Morrison because of his physicality and football IQ. He's able to hold his own in pass coverage, too. He was sometimes subbed in for Taylor on obvious passing downs. But the question is if Morrison can hold up to the beating that a middle linebacker in the SEC takes.

Morrison is listed at 6-1, 216 pounds, which is pretty decent size for a safety but about 30 pounds too light to be a middle linebacker. But there's at least one person who believes that Morrison can handle being Bostic's replacement: Bostic himself.

"He's definitely going to need to put on some weight, but he's played well at that weight," Bostic said. "He puts linemen on their butts. He knocks running backs down in the backfield. He's explosive at that weight already."

But Bostic admitted that Morrison will have to gain weight, and he has no doubt that he will after an entire year in UF's nutrition and weight program. And even if Morrison never weighs 245 pounds, he can still be a playmaker inside because UF's defensive system tries to ensure that the defensive front keeps blockers from reaching the linebackers and allow them to make plays.

"He's only a freshman," Bostic said. "He's only going to put on weight. He's only going to get better. He's only going to get bigger. Only time's going to tell how good he can get. It's going to be on how hard he works, especially with coach [Dan] Quinn and coach [Bryant] Young coaching up that defensive line and keeping guys off him to where he can roam and make plays."

Mike DiRocco | email

ESPN Jacksonville Jaguars reporter