MOBILE, Ala. — Antonio Morrison has been down the path Myles Jack and Jaylon Smith are trying to navigate during this draft cycle.
Jack and Smith, the consensus top two linebackers in the draft, are both on their way back from devastating knee injuries that ended their seasons. For UCLA’s Jack, it’s torn lateral meniscus that’s already almost healthy but will limit him to the bench press at this week’s NFL combine. Notre Dame’s Smith has a tougher task; the torn ACL and LCL he suffered against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl could cost him part of his rookie year.
Morrison’s proof that Smith can make it back earlier than expected. The Florida linebacker — one of the top linebackers in the next tier of players after Jack, Smith and Ohio State’s Darron Lee are projected to come off the board in the top 15 picks — tore his ACL and suffered other damage to his knee in the Birmingham Bowl at the end of the 2014 season.
Despite undergoing two surgeries a month apart and a predicted 10-to-12 month recovery time, Morrison was back for Florida’s season opener in 2015.
“I had a great staff at Florida; a great trainer, Paul Silvestri, one of the best in the country; great doctor, Kevin Famer; great therapist, Marty Huegel,” Morrison said. “Having good people around me helped me get back, but it really came down to my will.”
Morrison, according to an ESPN story — The Advocate’s interview with Morrison at the Senior Bowl was cut short by an NFL scout — had a first surgery in early January to repair the ligaments around his ACL, then another in late February.
He came roaring back.
Not only did Morrison make it back on the field by the time the Gators opened their season against New Mexico State, he was back to full strength. One season after becoming the first Gator to break the 100-tackle barrier since 2010 with 101 before suffering the injury in the bowl game, Morrison repeated the feat as a senior, racking up 103 tackles, 12 tackles-for-loss and 2.5 sacks.
He never felt any hesitation.
“I know guys get hurt playing football,” Morrison said. “It’s a 100 percent injury chance playing this game, but you have to realize, any play you can get hurt, so any play, you have to go your hardest.”
Now, Morrison is on the hunt, trying to establish himself in a linebacker class that looks like one of the deepest in years. Jack, Smith and Lee are making the headlines, but players like Morrison, Missouri’s Kentrell Brothers and Temple’s Tyler Matakevich proved at the Senior Bowl that there will be good options available after the first round.
Morrison played both middle linebacker and weak-side linebacker at Florida, but at 6-foot-1, 232 pounds, he likely projects on the weak side in the NFL. During the week of practices in Mobile, Morrison lined up mostly on the weak side, proving to be surprisingly capable in coverage. On the final day of practices, Morrison dropped into a zone during seven-on-seven, got his hand on a ball over the middle and then picked off the deflection.
The linebacker position is evolving, both in the NFL and at the collegiate level. A good linebacker has to be just as adept in coverage as he is against the run, and there is a long list of teams, including the New Orleans Saints, in the market for a linebacker who can fit that bill.
Morrison believes playing under Will Muschamp and defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin for his first three years at Florida prepared him for that kind of versatility. In Muschamp’s defense, both the middle and weak-side linebackers have to be versatile enough to slip into the other role at a moment’s notice.
“They all prepared me for this,” he said. “It’s nothing. I was privileged to get coached by those guys.”
Morrison has a chance to polish his credentials at the NFL combine, where his speed and agility will be under the microscope for a player credited with only three passes deflected and one interception in his career. If Morrison can prove he’s got the ability to line up in coverage, his lighter frame will be no issue.
He already has the tackling ability, and there are no questions about his effort. Morrison approaches every snap the way he approached his rehab.
“Any time I’m on the field, I want to give my all,” Morrison said. “That’s how I was raised. That’s how I was born. I’ve been playing that way forever.”