Editor’s note: This is Part 3 of our weeklong series predicting what's ahead for Florida this spring.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It's no coincidence that Florida's vaunted defense slipped last season after the departure of several 2012 mainstays. Upperclassmen such as middle linebacker Jon Bostic, tackle Sharrif Floyd and safety Matt Elam were that team's best leaders.
Florida coaches expected to ride out the leadership void because the team's heart and soul -- defensive tackle Dominique Easley -- returned with his unique and magnetic blend of intensity, silliness and determination.
Then Easley tore his ACL after the third game, and suddenly there was deafening silence.
The end of Bostic's college career was also an underrated factor in terms of Florida's lack of vocal leadership. The Gators had cultivated a pipeline of highly successful middle linebackers dating back from Channing Crowder in 2003 to Brandon Siler, Brandon Spikes and then Bostic.
The torch was supposed to be passed in 2013 to sophomore Antonio Morrison, who had already signaled his arrival with a big splash late in his freshman season. But Morrison's follow-up was full of turmoil. He was arrested twice last offseason and suspended before his on-field performance took a surprising turn for the worse. His season ended, like so many others, with a serious injury -- torn cartilage in his knee.
Instead of having a rising star at a crucial position in Morrison, the Gators were left with questions for the future. Can Morrison regain the trust of his coaches and teammates? Will he return to being a reliable tackler and playmaker?
That's what it will take for Morrison to become a leader on what is expected to be one of the SEC's best defenses.
It's easy to predict that he will, because Muschamp has witnessed Morrison's work ethic so far this offseason. The coach was quick to praise Morrison and has also seen fellow linebackers Michael Taylor and Jarrad Davis emerge as leaders.
"I think Antonio speaks more with his work habits and how he works in the weight room and how he works in practice," Muschamp said. "He's an intense player. I think he speaks volumes, like Jarrad Davis does, like Mike Taylor does. Those guys work hard. Those guys have a good work ethic.
"Those guys realize we need to be more productive at the position than we were a year ago. But [with Morrison] I've seen a guy that's, again, you get humbled, you get knocked down like we were last season, you just shut up and go to work."
"[They] have taken a little step forward as far those things are concerned and understanding it's time to step into their role," Muschamp said. "I sat both of those guys down when they came in [at the start of this offseason] and talked to them about Sharrif and Dominique: 'Listen, those guys kind of groomed you when you came in. Now it's your job to do that.' That's kind of what we need to start doing now, understanding what it takes."
In the secondary, Vernon Hargreaves III certainly understands what it takes. Muschamp calls him "a great leader," and it's easy to see why. Hargreaves not only excelled on the field as a true freshman in 2013, but off the field he's charismatic, well-spoken and popular.