University of Miami quarterback Stephen Morris capped last season’s final four games with 1,131 yards, 11 touchdowns and no interceptions.
It created both excitement and expectation heading into his senior year, even more so when he earned praise for his performance at the Manning Passing Academy this past summer.
But through the first two games this season, the passing game struggled to find its groove under a new offensive coordinator and a new system.
Despite beating Florida Atlantic 34-6, Morris threw for just 200 yards, while tossing an interception and touchdown. A week later, the entire offense failed to get going against Florida. The team still managed a victory, relying on the defense and timely forced turnovers.
Drops plagued freshman Stacy Coley. The timing on deep balls seemed to be off. Third-down conversions (19 percent) were hard to come by.
“We come in each week focusing on what we didn’t do very well and learning from that,” senior wide receiver Allen Hurns said. “Learning from every game and just communicating better.”
Since facing the Gators, Morris has 628 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions over parts of three games. He played sparingly in the Savannah State and South Florida games because the scores were not close.
Miami, which plays at North Carolina on Thursday at 7:45 p.m., now ranks 34th in the nation with 274.8 passing yards per game and 29th in completion percentage (64.7).
The three quarterbacks who have seen playing time have combined for a 174.7 rating, sixth best in the nation.
“I thought we made great strides from where we were in the beginning of the season,” Morris said. “Obviously, in the beginning of the season — new coordinator, new system — our receivers … we weren’t really on the same page.
“The [defensive] line got great rushes on the offensive line because we weren’t making the right calls. Our biggest focus on that off week was just focusing on ourselves. I think we made great strides, and it’s showing.”
Players agree on the turning point: the 49-21 win over South Florida on Sept. 28 in the season’s fourth game.
Morris, who has been dealing with an ankle injury, focused on improving his accuracy and hand coordination with the ball to compensate for his limitations. He finished 11 for 15 for 222 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the win over the Bulls.
Backups Ryan Williams and Gray Crow both entered the game. Williams went 8 for 14 with 153 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
“I definitely thought the USF game was a big confidence booster for everyone on the team, myself included, especially with my ankle and how I responded,” Morris said. “Ryan came in and [it] just shows you no matter who’s in — the system’s working and guys are communicating and running the ball well and opening up the passing game.”
The following week against Georgia Tech, seven different players caught a pass. On the season, seven players have caught a touchdown.
A variety of options makes it tough for opposing defenses to plan for each position, especially when Morris can distribute the ball to the running backs, tight ends or wideouts.
Hurns leads the team with 383 receiving yards. Coley has rebounded with 205 yards, second most on the team, and a team-high three receiving touchdowns. Twenty of junior tight end Clive Walford’s last 22 touches have resulted in a first down or a touchdown.
“They’re fast. All of them. You can’t just pick one of them out,” junior cornerback Ladarius Gunter said. “They’re different in a lot of different aspects. You’ve got good route runners that are fast, you’ve got speed guys that are extremely fast, guys with great hands. Bigger receivers. Morris and the receivers are clicking on all cylinders right now.”
And additional ammo is on the way for the Hurricanes (5-0), who continue to nurse injuries and would happily welcome more depth.
Junior Rashawn Scott has not been cleared for full-contact work but should return soon.
Morris and the coaching staff said his aching ankle continues to get better every day.
“I think we’ve improved in a lot of areas,” coach Al Golden said. “I think we’re catching the ball better. Obviously, we’ve been working a lot of different concepts — I don’t really want to get into all that. I think we’ve improved and, hopefully, we’ll bring that into this game.”
North Carolina (1-4), which allows 238.8 passing yards per game, ranks 30th in the nation in pass defense. Last season, the Tar Heels held the Hurricanes to 235 passing yards. Morris threw two interceptions before exiting with a lower left-leg injury in an 18-14 loss.
“We’ve seen some really great catches and great routes and great throws,” offensive coordinator James Coley said. “I think when you can execute and you’re dialed in and you catch the ball and you throw the ball and make great reads and protect — I think that helps you. That’s the name of the game.”