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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The Gators’ list of early departures continues to grow.

Weakside linebacker Jelani Jenkins announced on Monday his decision to declare for the NFL Draft via a UF release. Jenkins is the fourth UF junior who has decided to go pro.

“Jelani informed me that he wishes to pursue his dream of playing in the NFL,” coach Will Muschamp said in a statement. “We wish him the best of luck and encourage him to return to Florida and complete his degree.”

Jenkins follows safety Matt Elam, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and tight end Jordan Reed in forgoing his final year of eligibility to play in the NFL next season.

Defensive end Dominique Easley has yet to announce his plans beyond this season.

Jenkins’ final season in Gainesville was an injury-riddled campaign.

Thumb, hamstring and foot injuries sidelined Jenkins for four games, including Florida’s 33-23 loss to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2. In limited action, Jenkins recorded 29 tackles, five tackles for a loss, two sacks, two quarterback hurries and interception.

Perhaps Jenkins’ most memorable play from his final season at UF came in a 27-20 win against Louisiana on Nov. 10 in The Swamp. With the score tied 20-20, cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy blocked a Ragin’ Cajuns punt. Jenkins caught the deflection on the fly and ran it back 36 yards for the go-ahead touchdown to help the Gators avoid the biggest upset in school history.

Freshman Antonio Morrison will step up in Jenkins’ absence next season much like he did throughout the 2012 campaign. Morrison led all UF freshmen with 34 tackles. He also recorded two tackles for loss, a sack and a quarterback hurry.

Morrison changed the momentum in Florida’s 37-26 win against Florida State on Nov. 24 on a key play early in the fourth quarter. With the Gators trailing 20-16, Morrison sacked EJ Manuel and forced a fumble recovered by Easley.

On the next play, UF took the lead for good on a 37-yard Mike Gillislee touchdown run.

In Wednesday’s loss to the Cardinals, Morrison recorded three tackles while starting in place of Jenkins, who was recovering from surgery on Nov. 26 to repair a broken bone in his right foot.

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Florida defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who has consistently praised the play of the Bolingbrook, Ill., native since the early days of fall camp, is optimistic that switching from Jenkins to Morrison at weakside linebacker will be a seamless transition.

"Morrison is one that's really caught my attention," Quinn said. "He's a physical guy who came in as a true freshman, enrolled early, was able to get the system down.  And he's one that had to step up for us. … The future's bright how he goes." 

Contact Joe Morgan at joemorgan@alligator.org.

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