There really is no other way to pose the question, so I may as well just throw it out there.
What the hell happened to Miami Hurricanes quarterback Stephen Morris between his junior and senior seasons?
The overall stats between both campaigns weren't worlds apart. In 2012, Morris threw for 3,345 yards, completing 421 passes with 21 touchdowns and seven interceptions. This year, 344 completions led to a 3,028-yard, 21-touchdown and 12-interception showing, including the recent bowl loss to Louisville.
Numbers aside, the quarterback's lost his mojo and there was noticeable regression in just about every aspect of his game.
As a freshman in 2010, Morris' redshirt was burned at halftime against Virginia after starter Jacory Harris was knocked out of the game. The newbie almost led the Hurricanes back from a 24-point deficit in his first career start.
|SEASON||CMP / ATT||YDS||CMP%||TD / INT||RAT|
|2013||198 / 344||3,028||57.6%||21 / 12||144.7|
|2012||245 / 421||3,345||58.2%||21 / 7||138.1|
|2011||26 / 37||283||70.3%||0 / 2||123.7|
|2010||82 / 153||1,240||53.6||7 / 9||125.0|
A week later, Morris tossed a 35-yard game-winning touchdown with half-a-minute remaining in his first-ever start—a thrilling comeback against Maryland. Next up, a crisp 230-yard performance at Georgia Tech for a convincing win, Miami's first in Atlanta since 2004.
Morris played sparingly for the rest of the season and again backed up Harris in 2011, but earned his shot as a junior and appeared primed for a solid senior year.
The most obvious reason for Morris' regression in 2013—an ankle injury suffered in late September, which continued nagging him throughout the season.
Where Does Miami's Season Go Had Offensive Stars Remained Healthy?
Morris played sparingly in the opener against Florida Atlantic and was handcuffed a bit the following week in what coaches expected to be a slugfest against a defensively sound Florida team. Miami then welcomed a bye before taking on Savannah State, where Morris was rolled up and his night over after a few early possessions.
The severity of the injury, his inability to heal in-season and the limited mobility because of it all played a part in Morris being unable to rediscover his groove, as did setbacks with other key offensive personnel.
Rashawn Scott hit the turf with a shoulder injury on opening night after two receptions and was a non-factor after a midseason return.
A year before, the up-and-coming wide receiver was good for three to six receptions per game—including a 180-yard, two-touchdown performance against North Carolina State. Morris also lost deep threat Phillip Dorsett to a torn MCL six games into 2013, with the junior merely used as a decoy upon his return in the regular-season finale.
Duke Johnson's ankle injury in early November proved even more detrimental, making the Miami offense one-dimesional when no other running back was able to fill the sophomore's shoes.
The Hurricanes were a completely different team offensively for the final five games of the year, with issues much bigger than just quarterback play. The injury bug was the most glaring, obvious reason for Morris' setback, but behind the scenes it's impossible to ignore the coaching effect—especially with rotating offensive coordinators.
Morris cut his teeth under the air-it-out stylings of Mark Whipple in 2010. The former NFL coordinator preferred Morris' rocket-arm ability to Harris' style of play. When the true freshman saw the field by way of a starter's injury, Whipple suddenly had a player capable of throwing deep every other play.
With top to bottom staff changes in 2011, Morris was then under the tutelage of Jedd Fisch, who had nine years of NFL experience and spent the previous season coaching up quarterbacks for Seattle. As a backup to Harris, Morris spent his sophomore season learning Fisch's system from a true quarterback guru, and the message resonated, as proven by the junior's efforts in 2012.
After Departure of Fisch, Coley's Arrival Greatly Impacted Morris' Progress
Fisch's return to the NFL in January had Miami scrambling for a replacement. Head coach Al Golden tapped the inexperienced James Coley to call the shots on offense. Coley spent time as Florida State's coordinator, with a caveat that head coach Jimbo Fisher called all the plays on game day.
The South Florida native was also the Seminoles' chief recruiting coordinator, which wasn't lost on Golden's decision to give Coley a shot. Especially with "signing day" weeks out and both the Hurricanes and Seminoles battling over some key recruits—like the prized Stacy Coley, who now had one more reason to choose "The U".
While Coley brought Miami his recruiting prowess, it's been a slow learn on the coaching front. Fisch's innovation was missed this past season and a quick look at 2012 shows a more diverse Hurricanes offense that helped Morris thrive.
In a fourth-quarter comeback and overtime win at Georgia Tech in his final season, Fisch pulled out some wrinkles unseen up to that point.
Morris hit speedy receiver Davon Johnson on a slant route four plays in a row as the Yellow Jackets had no way to stop it. There were also consistent passes to both running backs—Johnson and Mike James—including a 16-yard pass to Johnson and a 10-yard dump-off to James for the tying score.
As running backs, James and Johnson combined for 57 receptions in Fisch's second-year offense. Under Coley, the explosive Johnson only hauled in four grabs, while three other backs combined for 20.
Fisch also opened up the Miami offense with some calculated trickery during his short-lived stint. Over a three-game span in 2012, Johnson, Dorsett and running back Dallas Crawford threw a combined four passes. Dorsett threw to a wide-open Morris for a 20-yard gain in a win over Virginia Tech, while Johnson hit Allen Hurns for an eight-yard touchdown at Virginia, after convincing coaches the play would work.
"I told the whole offense the first time we get inside the 10-yard line we're calling this play. And when we got to the 10-yard line, I didn’t want to be a liar," Fisch told the Miami Herald's Manny Navarro two Novembers back. "You have to hold your breath and say 'We're going to call it.' And he executed fantastically well, threw a beautiful ball."
Miami Chapter Closed But Morris Can Rise From Ashes
Two head coaches and three coordinators over four years, multiple changes in offensive philosophies and injuries to both himself and a handful of key teammates needed to move the ball.
All played a role in the senior's regression, which is unfortunate considering expectations were so high coming into the season—yet all make the senior's struggles that much easier to accept and understand.
Morris was also considered a quality NFL prospect. ESPN analyst Todd McShay had the quarterback third behind Teddy Bridgewater (Louisville) and Brett Hudley (UCLA), but ahead of AJ McCarron (Alabama), Tajh Boyd (Clemson), Marcus Mariota (Oregon), Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M), Logan Thomas (Virginia Tech), Braxton Miller (Ohio State) and Aaron Murray (Georgia).
While the ending at Miami was far from fairy-tale, it's far from the end of the football road for Morris. The next several months will be spent getting NFL draft-ready, and with some proper guidance, training and the cleaning-up of some bad habits, what's been broken can still be repaired.
Three years ago, Sam Shields ended a disappointing four-year career at Miami. Originally recruited as a wide receiver, Shields failed to live up to expectations and converted to defensive back as a senior.
Always a superior athlete, Shields had the speed, but at times lacked the desire, which made it difficult for Hurricanes assistants to properly coach him up.
Shields went undrafted in 2010 as a pot-related arrest hurt his stock. Green Bay signed him as a free agent. Four seasons later, Shields is a decorated NFL cornerback, having won Super Bowl XLV while earning Defensive MVP honors in the NFL championship in his rookie season.
Morris has the arm and at one point of his career had the head for better decision-making. For his sake, here's hoping a Shields-like opportunity presents itself, as well as a coaching staff that can pull the most out of him next season.
Follow Chris Bello on Twitter @allCanesBlog.