A few weeks ago, I created a bit of a stir when I touted Miami's Stephen Morris as arguably the most talented quarterback in college football.
My proclamation came after witnessing Morris light it up at the Manning Passing Academy in workouts. The University of Miami senior not only won the accuracy challenge, but he put on the kind of show that suggests he could develop into a franchise quarterback at the next level.
Of course, a spectacular workout in a T-shirt and shorts is certainly not enough to project a player's pro potential, but watching Morris throw in person I came away impressed with his natural gifts as a passer. From his exceptional arm strength to his superb ball placement, Morris showed the ability to make all the throws required in a pro-style offense. He also displayed polished footwork and mechanics on a variety of intermediate and deep routes.
Based on that performance alone, I'm confident Morris has the goods to be a solid pro, but I wanted to take a closer look at his tape from last year to see if what I saw at the Manning camp translated to his games at Miami. Here are my thoughts:
NFL offensive coordinators covet polished pocket passers with quickness and agility to improvise in the backfield when the pocket collapses. The speed and explosiveness of NFL rushers makes it nearly impossible to consistently keep a quarterback upright in the pocket, unless he has enough mobility to slide to open areas to make throws. Morris is not only athletic enough to elude rushers in the pocket, but he flashes the speed, quickness and burst to be an effective runner on the perimeter.
At Miami, Morris routinely runs quarterback draws with success and has the footwork to avoid tacklers in the hole. While he lacks the explosiveness of a Robert Griffin III or Colin Kaepernick, he is certainly a viable option to occasionally use on predetermined quarterback runs at the next level.
Morris' athleticism makes him a good a passer on the move. He capably completes throws while rolling to his right or left after executing bootleg action in the backfield. He also displays intriguing athleticism, avoiding rushers with a side step before resetting and delivering accurate throws from the edge of the pocket. Given the problems athletic quarterbacks pose to defenses, NFL coaches will certainly appreciate Morris' underrated movement skills.
I've already raved about Morris' remarkable arm talent after witnessing his work in person, but I wanted to see if his physical tools were as impressive in game action. When I studied the 2012 tape (Florida State, Georgia Tech, North Carolina and N.C. State), I remained smitten. Morris easily makes all of the pro throws with zip and velocity, while also displaying good accuracy and ball placement. Although he skipped a few quick slants and sailed a handful of go-routes, especially in the Florida State game, Morris definitely has a strong enough arm to thrive in any system at the next level.
I believe Morris is ideally suited for a vertical attack that features a variety of play-action concepts. He is at his best taking deep shots off of five- and seven-step drops or bootleg action. If he is surrounded by a receiving corps loaded with speed on the outside, like he has at his disposal at Miami, Morris could light it up in a pro-style system that places an emphasis on the deep ball.
One of the biggest factors in determining the pro potential of a college quarterback is accurately gauging his ability to function within a chaotic pocket. The elite passers at the next level consistently deliver accurate throws with rushers nearby. This not only requires exceptional courage, as well as mental and physical toughness, but it demands the poise of an assassin ready to fire on a target.
I believe Morris has the goods to excel as a pocket passer at the next level. He displays an unflappable demeanor under duress, which allows him to quickly identify and target open receivers against the blitz. In games I watched, he routinely found the available hot read against overload and gut pressures, but failed to consistently deliver accurate throws. Although the pressure didn't appear to play a role in his failed attempts, Morris repeatedly missed open receivers on quick slants designed to exploit the vulnerable spots in zone blitz coverage.
As a decision-maker, Morris shows outstanding football intelligence and awareness as a relatively inexperienced passer. He has a tremendous feel for getting to his second and third option in the passing progression, which allows the Hurricanes to stay on schedule offensively. Additionally, Morris displays good anticipation and awareness hitting receivers working open across the middle on dig and vertical seam routes. His willingness to release the ball well before this receiver comes out of the break is impressive for a player who has only one full season as a starter under his belt.
Elite quarterbacks at every level display the ability to take their game to another level when it is required. These instances typically occur in big games like rivalry showdowns or bowl/championship games. Looking back at Morris' playing history since his arrival in 2010, I noticed he has performed well in those games, from a solid showing against Notre Dame in the Sun Bowl as a true freshman to a set of impressive 2012 victories against N.C. State and Georgia Tech, which coincided with Morris topping the 400-yard mark in each contest.
I saw Morris make big-time throws again and again, including a 62-yard game-winning touchdown against N.C. State that showcased his sneaky athleticism and A-plus arm talent. Most importantly, I saw Morris make winning plays with the game on the line, which is a critical trait for a franchise QB.
Of course, some will point to Morris' scattershot performance against Florida State as a concern, but a nagging ankle injury from the previous week (North Carolina) plagued him throughout the game and clearly affected his accuracy and placement. Now, that doesn't absolve Morris from criticism on his errant throws in that game, but it certainly provides some context into why he might've missed some easy throws that were available throughout the contest.
Morris is certainly on the radar of NFL teams searching for a quarterback with the tools to change the fortunes of a franchise. He is not only one of the most gifted natural throwers in college football, but he is a refined pocket passer with a high football IQ and superb management skills. While Morris must show more consistency in his play, especially in big games against elite defenses, he enters the season regarded as a strong Day 2 prospect in the 2014 NFL Draft. And if the Jacksonville Jaguars decide to upgrade at the position, they already have a former tutor of Morris on staff; new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch was Morris' quarterbacks coach at Miami the last two seasons.