UM | 2013 College Football Preview

Stephen Morris, Duke Johnson provide local power supply for Miami Hurricanes

 

Quarterback Stephen Morris and tailback Duke Johnson, who grew up in the Canes’ back yard, are a dynamic duo in what could be one of the nation’s most potent offenses.

sdegnan@MiamiHerald.com

Stephen Morris was 9 years old and at a pool party the day the Miami Hurricanes won their last national championship.

As the kids splashed outside, their parents watched UM dominate Nebraska inside.

It was Jan. 3, 2001.

“Everybody was going crazy,” said Morris, the Hurricanes’ senior quarterback who grew up in Miami Shores, graduated from Miami Monsignor Pace and turned 21 this week.

“The fourth quarter was coming down,” he said, the pots and pans emerged from the kitchen and “we were all having fun and dancing up and down, running down the street with Miami gear on … hitting the pots.”

Younger teammate Randy “Duke” Johnson doesn’t even remember the 2001 game — too distant for the sophomore running back, who was 8 then and is 19 now.

“I remember the 2002 championship game,” Johnson said of UM’s double-overtime heartbreaker to Ohio State. “I didn’t really know it was that big a deal until I woke up the next morning and saw it all over the TV and newspaper. It put Miami in my heart even more knowing that if I ever had the chance to be in a pressure situation like that, I would help my team win.”

Two local kids with national dreams to bring their hometown team back to prominence: Morris, the cool, seasoned veteran who keeps his “master plan” to himself but opens himself fully to his teammates; and Johnson, the self-proclaimed “mama’s boy” who graduated from Miami Norland High and would rather play Monopoly with his family than party with the college crowd.

Together, they form the face of the Miami offense, expected to be among the strongest offensive units in the nation. With a huge, returning line shielding them and a deep, talented receiving corps ready to take off at the flick of Morris’ wrist, Morris and Johnson could be the catalysts for a breakout season — one that kicks off at Sun Life Stadium at 8 p.m. Friday against FAU of Boca Raton.

Big first step

And though Morris and company won’t divulge the team’s goals, it’s pretty clear that winning the Atlantic Coast Conference, which the Hurricanes have not done since joining the league in 2004, would be a major one.

“It would mean a lot for us just having an opportunity to get back to the glory days when they were winning everything,” including “conference championships,” Morris said at the ACC Kickoff in Greensboro, N.C. “[I] keep drilling that in people’s heads. ‘Let us be the first team to win.’ ”

After undergoing offseason back surgery in 2012, Morris started all games and threw for a career-best 3,345 yards and 21 touchdowns while completing 58.2 percent of his passes. He set UM’s record for total offense in a season with 3,415 yards.

Morris, who is 6-2 and 218 pounds, picked apart defenses by season’s end with 11 touchdowns and no interceptions in his final four games, and has thrown 139 consecutive passes without a pick.

“I think the difference was everybody coming together,” Morris said of his entire offense contributing to his success. “Once we got a nice, little rhythm going, it was hard to stop us.”

It was nearly impossible to stop Johnson.

Listed as 5-9 and 196 pounds, Johnson, who said he put on eight pounds of muscle in the offseason, rushed for a freshman-record 947 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. The ACC Overall and Offensive Rookie of the Year also set UM’s single-season record with 892 kick-return yards and two touchdowns, amassing 2,060 all-purpose yards — second-most in program history behind Willis McGahee’s 2,108 in 2002.

“What makes Duke so good is he’s so versatile,” Morris said. “A lot of guys can’t do the things he can do. He can play slot, he can play kick return. He’s just a game-changer for us. We have to make sure we use him the right way and take care of his body.

“Obviously, he’s going to be more of an every-down back now that Mike James has gone to the NFL.”

Defenses will be keying on both players this season.

“The greatest physical strength on our offense, maybe on our team, is the offensive line,” UM coach Al Golden said. “But most people would say the most talented player is either Stephen or Randy.”

Defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio knows it’s not only “fun” for his players to “compete against Morris and Johnson every day,” but it’s also a learning tool.

“Duke has that versatility and make-you-miss ability,” D’Onofrio said. “I mean, he’s hard to tackle. He’s got great lateral quickness and burst and speed. And Stephen is a really, really smart quarterback. He’s going to look for the weakness in a defense and try to find that and exploit it.

“Obviously, he can make the throws.”

New offensive coordinator James Coley was asked about their temperaments on the field. Both seem pretty mellow off it.

“Stephen is a little more fiery,” Coley said. “Duke is a little more laid back. He’s younger, so he comes over and listens and wants to know why things ended up going the way they went on a particular play.”

Powerful pair

How rare is it for a team to have a quarterback/running back combination such as this one?

“Rare outside the top 20,” Coley said. “The great teams have it. If you look at the teams that are playing in big-time bowl games and championships, they’ve got a quarterback and they’ve got a running back.”

But not always from the same backyard.

Morris, a South Floridian like Johnson and so many of their teammates, watches clips of former UM greats such as linebacker Ray Lewis.

“How can you not watch old videos of the U and see Ray Lewis dance?” Morris said. “That’s what really made this program special. That’s what made this program what it is today.

“You talk about swag. You talk about all that other stuff. Yeah, that’s important. But first of all, we got it off of hard work and dedication. The U means a lot more than putting your two hands together.

“When you go back to your roots, you definitely understand that.”

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