GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The Florida Gators are a wounded bunch heading into the Tennessee game -- but things aren’t as bad as they appeared Saturday night.
UF won’t have linebacker Jelani Jenkins (thumb) or cornerback/safety Cody Riggs (foot) for four weeks, and coach Will Muschamp said end/linebacker Ronald Powell suffered a setback during his rehab from a torn ACL and likely will miss the rest of the season.
But, good news for the No. 18-ranked Gators: Muschamp said running back Mike Gillislee (groin) and safety Josh Evans (shoulder) will practice on Monday and will be able to play against the No. 23 Volunteers. Plus, UF is getting safety De’Ante Saunders (hamstring) back after he missed the first two games.
And even better news: UF has more depth this season than in 2011 and is much better equipped to handle a rash of injuries like this.
“Our depth is still not where it needs to be, but certainly much better than it was a year ago,” Muschamp said. “We’re not having to switch guys from position to position in order to finish a game or prepare guys for a game.”
Losing Jenkins, who had surgery on his right thumb Monday morning, is the biggest blow. The 6-foot, 237-pound redshirt junior has started 25 games and was the Gators’ third-leading tackler in 2011 (75 tackles). He had five tackles this season before leaving last Saturday’s game at Texas A&M in the first quarter.
Muschamp said Jenkins playing with a cast on his hand against Tennessee is not an option.
Freshman Antonio Morrison filled in for Jenkins against the Aggies and finished with six tackles. He likely will start against Tennessee, Muschamp said. Starting middle linebacker Jon Bostic, starting strongside linebacker Darrin Kitchens, and reserve linebacker Mike Taylor also can play on the weak side.
“Antonio played well,” Muschamp said. “He plays well in space. He's a physical guy in the two-back run game.
“We've got a mixture of four guys that can rotate in there, and if we get into a bind, we can play Matt Elam at the nickel (strongside linebacker) and be fine. We're going to be fine.”
Riggs’s injury won’t need surgery, Muschamp said, and the Gators will be able to replace the 5-9, 190-pound junior with sophomore Jabari Gorman and redshirt freshman Valdez Showers. They were on the field a lot against A&M as replacements for Evans, who left the game in the second quarter after injuring his right shoulder when he got run over by Aggies back Ben Malena.
Plus, Saunders started nine games at safety last season as a true freshman.
Muschamp said Gillislee, who has run for 231 yards and scored four of the Gators’ five touchdowns, will be “fully available” for Saturday’s game against the Vols. Gillislee appeared to injure his groin in the first half of the A&M game and aggravated it again on his 12-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter.
“Mack Brown and Matt Jones both stepped in and did a nice job for him in those situations,” Muschamp said. “Both guys, for the first time, in a critical time in the game had to step in and play and play on the road and play well, and they did.”
Brown and Jones, however, weren’t able to gain much on the ground. They combined for 16 yards on seven carries. Having a healthy Gillislee is imperative for the Gators in the matchup with the Vols, because the team that has rushed for more yards has won 20 of the past 22 meetings.
Losing Powell isn’t nearly as much of a blow as losing Gillislee because the 6-4, 244-pound junior hasn’t played this yet because he was still rehabbing the ACL he tore during UF’s spring game April 7. Powell, who led UF in sacks last season with six, had been ahead of schedule with his rehab, but recently began experiencing some swelling in his left knee and will be re-evaluated by team doctors next week.
However, Muschamp said he spoke with Powell and Powell’s family and it’s likely that Powell will be redshirted.
“He worked extremely hard, as hard as our medical staff has seen anybody dedicate themselves to rehabbing an injury here at the University of Florida,” Muschamp said. “It is a setback, but as he said before, ‘I’m going to be fine.’ ”
Powell’s initial timetable to return was 4-6 months, which had meant mid-October was the target. Now linebacker Lerentee McCray will remain at the hybrid end/linebacker spot while Kitchens and Neiron Ball will continue to work at strongside linebacker.