With arguably the most impressive arm strength in the 2014 draft class, evaluators were obviously going to flock to Morris and assume the best for his senior season. With a quick trigger, tightly spun ball, and flashes of the necessary “wow” throws needed to be a high draft pick, Morris was pegged as one who could rise to the first round if he built upon an impressive junior season.
But Morris continues to live and die by his aggressiveness and arm strength, and the gunslinger has consistently put his team in difficult positions to win games. And it finally caught up with him when the Hurricanes suffered their first loss against Florida State last weekend.
As I wrote earlier this year after his first signature win over Florida, Stephen Morris’s stat-line doesn’t tell the whole story about his aggressive decision making that could easily lead more than the 10 interceptions he’s already thrown this season.
Against Florida State, he certainly continued to showcase his high velocity throws, consistently targeting his receivers deep initially and finding his best receiver, Allen Hurns, consistently through the game, including for both of his touchdown passes. Spinning a tight ball and plus-placement in shorter and mid-range routes (though he isn’t efficient in giving his receiver a chance to make runs after catch nearly enough in the mid-field), Morris can certainly be effective at the next level in timing routes in the mid-field.
However, based on a handful of throws this past weekend, it seems Morris doesn’t have much audible control at the line of scrimmage, leaving himself in poor post-snap situations that almost force him to throw into coverage based on defensive alignment. Also, while he’s open to adjusting his eye level and switching fields, he consistently takes too long moving away from his first check-down, including when he’s forced to adjust to the rush and gets sacked more often than an athlete like himself should.
Finally, Morris does not have consistent footwork or mechanics, and seems to throw with primarily just his arm as the source of velocity, not using his lower half as well as he should. With too much faith in his arm strength, Morris put himself into repeated trouble as he tests team’s vertically, to which defensive backs now expect and capitalize on when he takes a seven-step drop.
With that, let’s take a look at a few plays against Florida State that both highlight the throws he’s capable of making as well as add to the question marks that Morris has unfortunately earned in his senior season.
Play #1 – Morris Sets His Feet, Moves Safety, and Delivers Strike Along Sideline
After a Jameis Winston interception and an ensuring facemask on the Hurricanes first play of the drive, Morris had his offense in position to even the score at 7-7. After four successful rushes by Duke Johnson, Morris tested the Florida State defense deep along the sideline. After running a quick zone-read with his running back, Morris immediately looks to Allen Hurns along the right sideline.
Thanks to his offensive line and running back adequately pick up the six-man initial rush, Morris does a great job of keeping his feet wide, setting up balanced, and actually using a higher than usual release point to place the ball along the sidelines and just past the defensive back for a touchdown. Fundamentally, this was Morris’s most impressive throw of the entire game.
Play #2 – Morris Rushes Throw, Doesn’t Set Feet, Leads to Incompletion
A similar play design, defensive set, and initial read as the previous play, Morris targets the pressing man coverage on the short side after a zone read look and five rushers.
This time, however, despite having at least another second before the pressure gets to him, Morris throws off his back foot, off balance, and trying to place the ball purely from velocity control, a skill set that is a strength of Morris on those type of throws. As a result, Morris over-throws his open receiver, leading to a missed opportunity on a throw that Morris had no business missing.
Play #3 – Morris Pre-Determines Read Pre-Snap, Forces Throw For Easy Interception
For the final play, let’s take a look at exactly what Morris was seeing pre-snap, and why he was doomed as soon as the ball was snapped. In the first cut here, we have Morris’s vision of the defense. What you can’t see from this shot is that there are two receivers outside of the tight end on the left. The outside receiver is running a vertical route, while the slot is running a short slant-out. The basic premise of the play is that, thanks to the Seminoles being in a two-high look, having a three-verts play design forces the safeties to split and leave tight end #46 Clive Walford on a linebacker in the middle of the field.
However, despite Morris reading correctly pre-snap that his tight end should be the first read, he refuses to look off his first option that is no longer looking like a promising completion. The safeties do split well enough to leave a gap in the middle of the field, his tight end is getting held up by the linebacker, limiting his ability to get to the middle of the field. Despite seeing this, Morris chooses to throw the ball anyways, right to where the linebacker is about to open up and face Morris.
Finally, as you see the entire play develop in the below GIF, none of Morris’s receivers were open on this play. The linebacker did a great job on the tight end, and the safety-cornerback collaboration of the vertical routes gave him no options. However, instead of taking the gap left on the left side of the offensive line that should have easily given him the 7 yards for the first down, Morris decides to trust his arm strength and placement. And the gunslinger throws his second interception of the game.
Morris certainly struggled in this game after his first two touchdowns. The Florida State defense didn’t do anything too creative either. They consistently had safety help to prevent him from having one-on-one matchup’s vertically in the middle of the field, and they pressured him by either delayed blitzes or trusting their four-man front.
Morris certainly has elite arm talent and modern-day NFL athleticism (though he could use it more often) to be worthy of a top two round selection on draft day. And similar to Logan Thomas of Virginia Tech, it’d be a surprise if a quarterback with an elite skill set fell past pick 100 on draft day.
But if Morris hopes to eventually be trusted as a starting quarterback in the NFL, he’ll need to drastically improve his control at the line pre-snap and decision-making post-snap. Morris can certainly beat college and NFL teams vertically, but he’s trying too hard to do so.
Morris has an NFL future, and the excitement around his arm talent won’t fade once the all-star circuit begins. But if Morris hopes to truly win over an NFL team by May, it’ll need to start with him responding to this loss by playing more controlled, having longer and safer drives, and keeping the ball in the hands of his teammates.