The loss of Mike linebacker Antonio Morrison to a torn meniscus injury will force the hand of Florida's coaching staff to make its biggest adjustment to the defensive front since losing defensive tackle Dominique Easley to a season-ending knee injury in September.
Versus South Carolina, freshman Jarrad Davis will enter the starting rotation at the Will linebacker position and Michael Taylor will slide into the Mike role to fill the void left behind by Morrison, as told by coach Will Muschamp to Thomas Goldkamp of Gatorbait.net.
Mike Taylor will play Mike and Jarrad Davis will start at Will. In dime, Darrin Kitchens and Neiron (Ball) can play sub situations inside. Neiron will play inside regardless and Darrin will play on the edge. Alex Anzalone keeps coming along and doing a good job for us, and he'll get some snaps.
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The absence of Florida's leading tackler certainly stings, but the coaching staff appears to be high on both Davis and Taylor, and thoroughly expects the two to man the interior part of the defense.
"We've talked about [freshman defensive back Vernon Hargreaves III] a bunch as a freshman who handles things well and doesn't act like a freshman," coordinator D.J. Durkin said, via Gatorzone.com. "I think Jarrad [Davis] goes into that same category."
Davis, a former 3-star recruit, according to Rivals.com, has made his presence felt despite limited playing time. Through nine games, the freshman has recorded seven tackles, including one for a loss.
#Gators defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said freshman Jarrad Davis, the least discussed of 4 LB recruits, has been “a pleasant surprise.”— Edgar Thompson (@osgators) November 13, 2013
More importantly, the Kingsland, Ga., native has maintained gap control and has flashed his ability to play downhill despite limited reps in the starting lineup.
"Jarrad shows up a bunch, whether it's on special teams or even in the limited snaps he's played on defense," Durkin said, via Gatorzone.com.
Taylor, the team's second-leading tackler (45), has appeared in each of Florida's 13 games in 2012 and has played steadily alongside Morrison through nine games in 2013.
Facing South Carolina's Mike Davis, who tops the SEC with 1,058 rushing yards, will be a tall order to fill for the newly minted co-linebackers, as noted by Jesse Simonton of the Miami Herald.
He’s a really good player, a guy we thought a lot of coming out of Stephenson (Ga.) there in Atlanta, Muschamp said in an interview with Simonton. He is having an outstanding year and certainly has been a huge difference in [South Carolina’s] run game, especially losing [Marcus] Lattimore last year.
Both Taylor (6'0", 226 pounds) and Davis (6'2", 226 pounds) appear to have enough bulk to shed unblocked linemen at the second level.
Can Jarrad Davis fill in during Morrison's absence?
But it's hard to imagine the combination of Taylor and Davis will serve as an upgrade at middle linebacker despite Morrison's recent struggles.
Against Georgia on Nov. 2, Morrison was responsible for a 78-yard touchdown reception by Todd Gurley after failing to maintain his assignment in coverage.
And just last week versus the Commodores, the Bolingbrook, Ill., native struggled to shed unblocked linemen at the second level and was removed entirely from a 10-yard scoring run to his play side.
Expectations at this point in the season are rather low. But if this pair of underclassmen can maintain communication and gap integrity, Florida could limit Davis and the Gamecocks offense.