Stephen Morris came into the 2013 season loaded with a hot hand, rave reviews and the hope of Hurricanes nation.
He is leaving it with more hope than hype.
Morris has made his mark in the Hurricanes’ history books, but he has not had the consistency many expected after stringing 139 consecutive passes (and 11 touchdowns) without an interception to finish the 2012 season.
His bionic arm has often dazzled — and just as often disappointed.
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Now, the senior quarterback for Miami (9-3) is feeling stronger after playing much of the season with a severe ankle bruise. He will enter the Russell Athletic Bowl against No. 18 Louisville (11-1) on Saturday with one last chance to fortify his NFL Draft worth in his final game as a Hurricane.
Can one game make a difference?
“Absolutely,” said ESPN commentator Rod Gilmore, on the broadcast team for the bowl game. “You only need one NFL team to fall in love with you, and that often means one coach, one scout seeing the potential they like. I think Morris is talented, no question. He’s got a good arm, good size and he’s athletic enough. He just has to be more consistent at what he does so that people believe the upside is there.”
It won’t be easy. Sophomore receiver Herb Waters, who ranks fourth on the team with 28 receptions and third in receiving yards (406) and touchdowns (five), was on crutches after practice Tuesday at the Citrus Bowl.
Waters missed both practices this week, and his status is obviously in jeopardy for the game. Veteran receiver Phillip Dorsett could be called on to compensate along with top receivers Allen Hurns (1,138 yards and six touchdowns) and Stacy Coley (559 and seven TDs). Dorsett, who has recuperated from a partially torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee, is full go and finally appears ready to play at a higher level, offensive coordinator James Coley indicated Monday.
Coach Al Golden left for coaches’ meetings after practice ended early Tuesday, according to UM assistant athletic director for communications Chris Yandle, and didn’t talk to the media.
Morris will face a Louisville defense rated second nationally against the run, eighth against the pass and second in stopping third-down conversions (note that UM is 85th in converting third downs), a daunting challenge.
He welcomes it.
“They’re a great defense, man, fast and physical,” Morris said. “Their defensive line gets to the quarterback, and the linebackers are big and they can run the length of the field. It’s going to be a great challenge for us, but all we’ve got to do is focus in on our rules and we’ll see what happens.”
Gilmore believes the attention Morris will garner by being compared to Cardinals star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater can potentially be turned into a positive.
“It may or may not be Teddy’s last game, and there will be a lot of scouts looking at him and there will be a direct comparison,” Gilmore said. “It will be a lot easier for people to gauge Stephen Morris by looking at Teddy Bridgewater and seeing how far he is from where Teddy is.”
Bridgewater, a junior who is widely regarded as the No. 1 draft-eligible quarterback should he decide to leave college a year early, “is considered the top guy because he makes the smart decisions, has all the athleticism you need and performs consistently at a high level,” Gilmore said. “He doesn’t force the ball. Teddy is very, very comfortable checking down and dumping the ball off and sticking the ball in there when he can. Morris has to learn that. His composure and demeanor have to be better and more consistent. You can’t handle the blitz and not panic one out of five times — it’s got to be four or five times out of five.”
Morris’ injured foot completely hampered his mechanics and caused him to throw off balance. He threw eight interceptions in the heart of the season against Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Florida State but has only thrown two in his past four games. His last game at Pitt was a strong one as he completed 17 of 28 passes for 296 yards and three touchdowns with no mistakes.
Despite the setbacks, Morris recently passed 1992 Heisman Trophy winner Gino Torretta as the third-most prolific UM quarterback of all time, with 7,736 yards (behind Ken Dorsey’s 9,565 from 1999 to 2002 and Jacory Harris’ 8,826 from 2008 to 2011).
He needs 132 yards to become only the second Miami quarterback in history with multiple back-to-back 3,000-yard seasons. He had 3,345 in 2012.
“I’m happy, man,” Morris said after UM’s final home game against Virginia. “This was still the best decision in my life coming here.”
He added Tuesday: “Hopefully, when I leave, people still remember.”
NFLDraftScout.com, which last summer had Morris as the No. 2 quarterback prospect, now has him at No. 13 and projects him as a sixth- or seventh-rounder, calling him an “enigma prospect” who is “very perplexing” but “has a golden arm to effortlessly spin the ball anywhere on the field with the athleticism and toughness to match.”
What sets Morris apart is his big arm, at times deadly accurate in generating points during touchdown drives so quick that Hurricanes fans barely have time to throw up the U.
He’s the only quarterback in the football Bowl Subdivision with a pass of 50-plus yards in nine different games this season.
He also is the only FBS quarterback with three passes of at least 80 yards this season, all for touchdowns: an 84-yarder to Hurns, an 81-yarder to Coley against Virginia Tech on Nov. 9 and an 80-yarder to Hurns against Savannah State on Sept. 21.
Morris is third in the Atlantic Coast Conference in passing efficiency (186 of 317 for 2,868 and 21 touchdowns, with 12 interceptions) and third in passing average (239 yards a game) behind FSU’s Jameis Winston (293.8) and Clemson’s Tajh Boyd (289.4).
Golden and James Coley aren’t thinking about the draft. They just want Morris to go out on top.
“It’s important because it’s the end of his career here,” Coley said.
Added Golden: “It’s just great to see him out there the last five practices at 100 percent. We haven’t seen that since Florida. He’s really not focused on anything other than executing and playing well Saturday.”