Miami quarterback Stephen Morris came into the season on the verge of taking his game to the next level.
He ended 2012 with 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions in his last four games. He had a great summer and impressed NFL scouts with his performances at various camps. A senior going into his final season, he had firm command of his team with expectations higher than they had been in some 10 years.
But Morris has not played at an elite level yet. Rather than take his place as the top quarterback in the state, he has had to watch Jameis Winston dazzle the nation in Tallahassee, and even UCF quarterback Blake Bortles turn heads in Orlando.
When Miami and Florida State play Saturday, Winston will be on center stage.
Morris will be an afterthought.
None of that concerns Morris, though. He recognizes he has work to do to get better, and he shrugs off his stat line and the notion that the quarterback matchup this weekend is titled heavily to the other side.
“I’m not concerned about having 3,000 yards, 4,000 yards. I’m all about my team. I could care less if my stats are bad at the end of the games as long as we got the win,” Morris said in a recent interview. “I want to improve in so many aspects of the game, but overall we’ve been OK. We need to do a lot better.”
That starts with Morris. Rather than use a lingering ankle injury as an excuse, he only talks about how he is feeling when directly asked. Morris was initially hurt against Savannah State on Sept. 21, then aggravated the injury the following week against USF. In the wake of that win against the Bulls, Morris accused USF players of being “dirty” for trying to pull at his ankle at the bottom of piles.
Morris has not been 100 percent since, and says the ankle is something he has to “mentally get over. I’m feeling stronger and stronger every day, so that’s always a positive.”
“He never really had a chance to put up numbers,” offensive coordinator James Coley said. “He’s been playing hurt every week. As a quarterback, your right foot is your plant foot. You end up developing habits because you’re not going full speed in practice, and now finally he’s full speed, so I’m very excited for him. I’m excited to see him go out there and really take advantage of his athleticism, and his ability to plant and step and throw because he’s got a big arm.”
The big arm is what had scouts buzzing over the summer. Morris does have some nice touch on his deep balls, and throws great fades, too. But he has struggled with shorter and intermediate routes. The low point this year came in the come-from-behind win against North Carolina, when he had zero touchdown passes and four interceptions because he tried to do too much.
On the season, Morris has just 10 touchdown passes to eight interceptions -- more than he had the entire 2012 season. He is completing 59.9 percent of his passes, just a tick better than last year, and is on pace to throw for fewer than the 3,345 yards he posted a year ago.
Support for Morris has never wavered, though. Teammates texted him words of encouragement after the North Carolina game, and coach Al Golden has defended him at every turn.
Last week in a win over Wake Forest, Morris did not have an interception.
“I think he looked better this past game than he has looked,” Golden told reporters in Miami. “He moved better. In the pocket, he moved better in terms of when we moved the pocket on him. He looks different. His personality is coming back, he’s not worried about it. There is no anguish over anything. He’s starting to feel good and get back, and we’re excited about it.”
This would be the perfect week for Morris to get healthy. Miami needs him to play well to have any shot at pulling the upset.
“The game’s not about me, or what I’m trying to do or the next level,” Morris said. “I’m focusing right now on my team, and doing all the little things right to help us win.”
That means a near-flawless game.
ACC reporter Heather Dinich contributed to this report.