Stephen Morris stepped onto the University of Miami's campus in the fall of 2010 in the shadow of then-starter Jacory Harris, patiently waiting his turn. Four years later, he's still holding out for that signature win and knows what's at stake when the Florida Gators visit Sun Life Stadium at high noon this Saturday.
Morris received a baptism by fire as a freshman, thrown into action midseason when Harris went down with a shoulder injury. There was a near comeback at Virginia, some last-minute heroics in a victory over Maryland and a convincing thumping of Georgia Tech before he was relegated to second string.
A year later, Harris missed the opener due to suspension and Morris fell a few plays short of what would've been a solid win at Maryland, considering half a dozen Hurricanes were benched for their dealings with shamed booster Nevin Shapiro.
Morris saw little action the rest of his sophomore season, but he won the starting job a year later and put together an impressive season, throwing for 3,345 yards, with 21 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Morris helped lead some heroic comebacks—against Georgia Tech and North Carolina State, most notably—but on the main stage proved unable to deliver Miami any season-defining wins.
Morris didn't do much to hurt Miami in losses to Kansas State, Notre Dame or Florida State, but he wasn't able to put the Hurricanes on his back and carry them to victory, either.
Against the three biggest foes Miami faced last year, Morris averaged 213 yards through the air and had a 60.9 percent completion rate. The Hurricanes were outscored 126-36 in those games.
Because of Miami's self-imposed postseason ban, there was no ACC Championship for the team, and the Hurricanes sat out a bowl game.
As a result, Morris never had another big-game opportunity after Miami's late October home loss to Florida State, and now that he is a senior, the clock is ticking regarding his ability to rack up signature wins.
When Miami and Florida face off this weekend, all eyes will be on Morris. Hurricanes sophomore running back Duke Johnson is the more recognizable UM offensive standout, and though Johnson is the nation's rushing leader after one game, the Gators boast the eighth-best rushing defense, picking up right where they left off after a stout performance in 2012.
Johnson, like Morris, has also been limited in big games. Against the likes of Kansas State, Notre Dame and Florida State, Johnson averaged 50 yards and 7.6 carries while never once reaching the end zone.
Florida will key in on Johnson, putting that much more pressure on Morris to succeed. How he'll respond remains the great unknown. Miami's offensive line is a veteran bunch that can run-block and pass-protect, and the Hurricanes have both depth and experience on their receiving corps.
Phillip Dorsett and Allen Hurns were go-tos for Morris last season, and while Rashawn Scott will be out at least a month with a shoulder injury sustained against Florida Atlantic, Miami has true freshman Stacy Coley, sophomore Herb Waters and redshirt freshman Malcolm Lewis, who is back from a season-ending ankle injury in 2012. Clive Walford also came on late last year at tight end and had three receptions for 34 yards in the opener.
The stage is set for Morris to have a breakout performance; it's simply a matter of doing. The senior has the experience, smarts, arm strength, surrounding talent and overall ability. All that's lacking at this point is that career-changing win, which will help bolster his stock when he enters next spring's NFL draft.
Former Miami commit and current Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater exploded onto the scene as a sophomore last fall. A 23-of-28, 279-yard, three-touchdown performance in a win over North Carolina early in the season introduced the nation to Bridgewater. A midseason 416-yard, two-touchdown performance over Cincinnati in overtime helped make the Miami native a household name, but it was an all-world postseason performance against the Gators that made him an overnight superstar.
Facing No. 3 Florida in the Sugar Bowl, Bridgewater put together a 266-yard, two-touchdown performance against the vaunted Gators defense, leading No. 21 Louisville to the upset of the postseason. As a result, Bridgewater is a Heisman candidate as a junior and is seen by many as the best quarterback in the game.
Beating the Gators made Bridgewater a star. Is Morris ready to rise to the occasion using a similar platform?
If so, Miami's senior gunslinger could be well on his way to becoming this season's "next big thing."
Follow Chris Bello on Twitter @allCanesBlog
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