Florida International U

This is how FIU Panthers star player Maurice Alexander got his well-earned nickname

FIU wide receiver Maurice Alexander on changing positions, diversified skills

FIU wide receiver Maurice Alexander on transitioning from quarterback to wide receiver over his career and how his diversified skill set sets him apart during Panther Media Day on August 7, 2019.
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FIU wide receiver Maurice Alexander on transitioning from quarterback to wide receiver over his career and how his diversified skill set sets him apart during Panther Media Day on August 7, 2019.

Born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, nothing’s come easy for FIU’s 22-year-old star wide receiver, Maurice Alexander.

His mother, Kevia Morrison, was in labor for three days with Alexander. Her mother, Sandra Terry, was in the waiting room for hours, and when Alexander was finally born on Jan. 10, 1997, she had his nickname picked out.

“We’re going to call him ‘Hard Time’,” Terry said.

The nickname has stuck, and last year — after a slow start to his college career — Alexander finally started giving defenses a really hard time.

Alexander caught 40 passes for 474 yards last year, playing all 13 games and starting nine. He also ran 17 times from scrimmage for a 6.8 average. But it was as a punt returner where he truly distinguished himself, earning first-team All-Conference USA honors. He returned 23 punts for a 15.5 average, including one touchdown.

With enough attempts last year, Alexander would’ve ranked fifth nationally in punt-return average.

“He can plant his foot and get vertical as good as anyone,” said FIU special teams coordinator James Vollono, who previously coached at Georgia, Mississippi State and North Carolina.

“[Alexander] has the ability to make people miss in close proximity.”

Quarterback at heart

Alexander has been playing football since he was four years old, winning two national title as a Pop Warner quarterback for the Florida City Razorbacks. Up until last season, he had never played wide receiver or punt returner.

But after 2018 spring practices concluded, Alexander approached FIU coach Butch Davis.

“Coach Davis never switched me. He always believed in me at quarterback,” said Alexander, a 5-11, 180-pound redshirt senior. “But I was looking at what would be best for me. Because of my body type and speed, I have a more realistic shot at the NFL playing receiver.

“And being able to help on special teams is what took me to another level. Once I told [Davis], he was all in.”

Alexander’s decision worked well for FIU, opening the door for Bowling Green transfer James Morgan to win the quarterback job and earn honors as Conference USA’s Newcomer of the Year.

Even so, Alexander still believes he could’ve been a starting college football quarterback under the right circumstances.

“But God had a different calling for me,” Alexander said.

As it is, Alexander was the only FIU player to score touchdowns three different ways last year. He scored five times as a receiver, twice as a runner and once on a 69-yard punt return. He also had a 76-yard reception, which was the longest by any FIU player all season.

FIU lost its top receiver from last season, C.J. Worton, who signed with the Atlanta Falcons as an undrafted free agent. That means Alexander — along with Austin Maloney and tight end Sterling Palmer — should become the focal point of FIU’s passing game.

But don’t expect him to be removed from punt-return duties just because he has become more valuable at receiver.

“With [Davis],” Vollono said, “no one is off limits for special teams.”

The danger zone

Punt returning is kind of like standing in the middle of the lane in basketball, contemplating taking a charge from a barreling LeBron James.

A fair catch is sometimes the smartest option on punts, but judgment is key.

“You have to understand the flight of the punt,” Vollono said. “Whether the nose is up or down can change the distance of a punt by 12 to 15 yards.”

Vollono said a lot of punt returners also played baseball as kids, learning to track balls in the outfield. But that’s not the case with Alexander.

Catching a football just comes natural to him.

“I’ve always had the best hands,” Alexander said quietly, not intending it as a boast. “I’ve always been an athlete. It just comes down to looking the ball in and having a feel.”

Alexander said he wants to return kickoffs this year, too, and Davis has promised to give him a chance.

After all, special teams could be Alexander’s ticket to the NFL. Vollono points toward New England Patriots star Julian Edelman, who was a quarterback at Kent State and was selected in the seventh and final round of the 2009 NFL Draft, as a receiver/returner.

In his first NFL exhibition game, Edelman returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown, and that jump-started his long-shot NFL career that now includes three Super Bowl rings and one Super Bowl MVP award.

Looking at how Edelman’s career evolved gives Alexander hope.

“He played all his college years at quarterback,” Alexander said. “With me playing two years at receiver, it’s going to give me an edge, getting a feel of how to run routes.”

Hard time to good times

Alexander, who is from Florida City, played at Homestead High until his senior year. But, tired of losing, he transferred to Booker T. Washington, where he quarterbacked his new school to a 15-0 record and the 2015 state title.

He passed for 3,060 yards and 32 touchdowns that season while playing for Tim Harris Jr., who is now FIU’s running backs coach.

No one who knows Alexander well calls him Maurice. It’s always “Hard Time,” and that stems back to that story of how he entered the world.

“I was in labor for three days — they kept sending me home due to false labor,” his mother said. “Finally, I had to have an emergency C-section. My heart rate was dropping. His heart rate was dropping. We were both at risk.

“Of my three kids, that was the hardest labor. But he’s the most humble and respectful of all my children. I couldn’t ask for a better son.”