GAINESVILLE -- Away from the gridiron, Antonio Morrison isn’t much of a talker.
But Florida’s junior linebacker has not-so-quietly keyed the team’s defensive resurgence following the Alabama blowout.
Morrison -- who infamously was arrested last season for barking at a police dog -- has overcome multiple legal troubles and a sophomore slump to lead the Gators in tackles (67) this season.
The linebacker ranks third in the conference with nearly 10 stops a game, and Morrison credits his work ethic and natural development for his newfound consistency.
I just matured,” Morrison said.
"I treat every practice, I go as hard as I can. I treat it like a game. I get on guys and try to make the best out of our defense and our team. … I worked hard the whole offseason. I didn’t want to have the same results personally and as a team as we did last year.”
Morrison had a promising freshman season, highlighted by his ear-splitting tackle of former Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel.
The linebacker entered 2013 with lofty expectations, yet the off the field incident, poor conditioning and general inconsistencies (missed tackles, blown coverages) plagued the linebacker all season.
The former hotshot prospect wasn’t even assured of a starting job this fall, but after reining in his intensity and focusing on his leadership role, Morrison has flourished into a tackling machine.
“I think he’s playing his best football here this year since he’s been here,” defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said.
“He’s been practicing really well, he’s been consistent with how he performs every day with us, which is great. I think he’s really stepped up as a leader. … He’s been very productive, and he’s been playing within the scheme of the defense. He’s not just out there making plays. He’s been real effective in many ways for us.”
Morrison has racked up double-digit tackles in five of six SEC games, a product of improved physical condition, per Durkin.
“He’s made those steps and those strides because of how he approaches the game,” Durkin said.
“He’s very serious about football. It’s important to him. He’s a great guy to coach. He does anything and everything you ask him to do on the football field.”
A year ago, Gator players were forced to defend Morrison’s integrity. Now, teammates gush over the linebacker’s football impact.
“He’s a rock in the run defense,” end Bryan Cox Jr. said.
“He’s the middle linebacker, so he’s like the quarterback of our defense. He’s been working really, really hard every day in practices and it shows up in the game.”
Sophomore cornbacker Vernon Hargreaves III added: “He’s grown up so much. He’s matured. He fell into his leadership role. He takes it very seriously. He’s playing well and I’m happy for him. … In practice, he’s always the guy who’s getting us going. He’s going to call you out if you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing. And it shows on the field on Saturday.”
The Gators lost to Vanderbilt at home for the first time since World War II last year, and Morrison’s season ended in the embarrassing loss. On Saturday, he wants payback.
“I tore my meniscus and actually played the whole game,” Morrison said. “But I’m ready to play these guys.”
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