Quarterback Stephen Morris understands pressure, and not just because he was thrust into his college debut as a scout-team freshman who expected to redshirt but became the Miami centerpiece when Jacory Harris was injured during a game at Virginia.
And not just because in his first start the next week he lofted an impeccably placed 35-yard touchdown pass to receiver Leonard Hankerson to give UM a six-point victory over Maryland.
And not just because he was named the starting quarterback to open the 2011 season on the road in Maryland after Harris was suspended by the NCAA.
But it’s also because Morris, now a junior, has seen how fans can be ugly if the quarterback makes too many mistakes — a common theme the past several years for the Hurricanes.
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“I’ve seen the highs, and I’ve seen the lows,” said Morris, who finally will start in a season opener Saturday at Boston College purely because he earned it. “Even from my freshman year when Jacory was doing extremely well. At the end of the day, you’ve just got it take it with you and have tough skin to play this game, especially when you play quarterback.
“You can’t really rely on the people outside. You’ve got to listen to the fans and thank the fans every single day for coming out and supporting us, but you’ve got to [ultimately] listen to your teammates and coaches and family.”
Morris, who turned 20 on Monday, is more confident than he ever has been. He spent the spring recovering from back surgery and was given the role as a player-coach during practice. He strolled the field with a whistle and was put in charge of a freshman quarterback every day.
UM coach Al Golden said the experience not only changed Morris, but it made Golden realize how valuable it is to give quarterbacks room to grow.
“A lot of guys when they have adversity go into a shell or take a dip in terms of their energy or their leadership,” Golden said. “He went the other way. He made himself vulnerable, went out on the edge, got to know his teammates better, developed relationships with guys that he didn’t know, maybe guys on the other side of the ball. More than anything, he just took a deep breath, which is what we have to do.
“We have to get back to redshirting some quarterbacks so they can learn the game. He learned the game. And he coached. And he studied film. He didn’t just sit there and say, ‘I’m going to throw it.’ He looked at his weaknesses, and he erased some of them. I’m as excited to watch him play as probably anybody on our team.”
Morris’ teammates are also believers, saying their new leader has matured a great deal, exudes confidence and has mastered the offense. His missile-like arm has always been an asset, but they say he has even learned the art of when to hold back.
“He has worked a lot on his touch because he has a cannon,” receiver Phillip Dorsett said. “Now he can make all the throws. Sometimes you really don’t need to throw the ball 100 miles an hour.”
Tight end Clive Walford spoke of Morris’ “great passion.”
“I came in with him as a freshman,” Walford said. “The strides to now are amazing. His vocal leadership stepped up, the way he throws the ball with great confidence, his accuracy .”
‘A great leader’
And this from center Shane McDermott, who roomed with Morris their first two years: “Every single time there’s a problem he’s the one that steps up and gets in people’s faces when they’re doing it wrong. He’s just a great leader.”
Morris, 6-2 and 214 pounds, didn’t play against BC in UM’s season finale in 2011, when Harris ended his career with four interceptions. But Morris threw for 1,240 yards and seven touchdowns in six games (four starts) as a freshman, with nine interceptions. Last season, including the lone start in the opening loss at Maryland, he was 26 of 37 for 283 yards, with two interceptions.
“My biggest thing right now is to play fast and smart,” Morris said. “I know this offense inside and out.”
Miami Herald sportswriter R. J. Rico contributed to this report.