Had he played college ball about 45 miles south of where I'm standing in Palm Beach County, you better believe you'd have heard of him before the 2012 NFL draft. A workhorse running back capable of breaking the NFL's rookie rushing record ... at The U? By the time he turned the shower on after his last game in a Canes uniform he'd have an Under Armour contract. Mel Kiper would be calling him the next great Miami running back to go along with Ottis Anderson, Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis and Willis McGahee. Ray Lewis would be sending him inspirational texts as he heads to his first playoff game this Sunday.
Had he played 300 miles north, in Gainesville, punishing SEC defenses in The Swamp and Death Valley and Tuscaloosa, he'd be mentioned as the heir apparent to Emmitt Smith or Fred Taylor. He and Tim Tebow would be buddies and he might have a national championship on his resume. At the bare minimum, you'd at least have heard the name Alfred Morris before last week; before he came out of nowhere to break the all-time Redskins' single-season rushing record with a 200-yard performance in a must-win game; before he grabbed the headlines from his electrifying teammate, Robert Griffin III; and before he finished having the best year by an NFL rookie running back in three decades.
No, Alfred Morris didn't go to the University of Miami or the University of Florida or Florida State or even South Florida. They didn't want him. He was a tad slow, a touch small, three stars short of Rivals.com's top five-star rating. But one school's two-star talent is another school's pot of gold. Enter: Florida Atlantic University.
FAU is in Boca Raton, Florida. It's ten minutes from the ocean, an hour from Miami and you'd be forgiven for driving up or down I-95 and going by the Glades Boulevard exit without knowing there's a major university nestled just off the highway. A brand new 30,000-seat football stadium anchors the campus, sitting neatly between the College of Medicine and an apartment complex. Though the program is young, it already has one legendary ex-head coach, Howard Schnellenberger, who is immortalized in statue form at the stadium's entrance and who led the recruitment of Morris.
Schnellenberger played under Bear Bryant at Kentucky and coached with him at Alabama. He coached with Don Shula. He was head coach at the University of Oklahoma and the University of Miami. He won a national championship. All of which is to mention that when NFL pundits and journalists casually say of Morris' success that nobody saw it coming, well, they're doing a disservice to a few guys who did. Maybe not this quickly, and maybe not to this extent, but when you talk to Schnellenberger and Morris' FAU running back coach, Dave Serna, you come away knowing that they believe in Alfred Morris. And they believed he could be this good.
"Alfred had three 1,000-yard rushing seasons in a row with us," Schnellenberger says. "He's a true competitor and a true athlete. He has his own running style. It's a fundamental style, but it's effective."
Effective is one word. Dominant would be another. Morris broke every meaningful rushing record that FAU had. He graduated as the all-time leader in rushing yards (3,529), rushing touchdowns (27), total touchdowns (31) and all-purpose yards (3,843). The only thing he didn't do, unfortunately, was win. In his last three seasons with the Owls, the team was 5-7, 4-8 and 1-11.
Schnellenberger is quick to point out that losing didn't preclude Morris from learning.
"He was in a system that prepared him so very well for where he is now in the NFL," he says. "Our style has its genesis going all the way to back to Paul Brown of the original Cleveland Browns. Don Shula and I continued to develop that same style over the years. Alfred was in the NFL for the last five years, and by that I mean that in college he not only learned how to run, but he also learned how to block for the other running backs, he learned how to protect the quarterback and he learned how to catch the ball out of the backfield. He wasn't green when he got drafted into the NFL. He was very well prepared."
Serna, who has now moved on from FAU, agrees.
"Coach Schnellenberger told him that when you come play for us, you have a chance to play in the National Football League," Serna says. "One of the biggest hurdles for any rookie in the NFL is learning all the protections. We didn't have as many variations as an NFL team in our protections, but it was a good intro to lots of the concepts that the Redskins are using."
And this is where we learn that Morris has just about every single intangible going for him that you could ever want in an NFL draft prospect.
He's intelligent in both the classroom and the film room:
"He was our Student Athlete of the Year as a senior." - Coach Schnellenberger
“I'll never be a star. Other people may think I'm a star, but I'm just Alfred.” - Alfred Morris in his post-game press conference after breaking the Redskins' single-season rushing record.
"He'd start at linebacker if you asked him to." - Coach Serna
He comes from a strong family:
"His parents did a great job of raising him. He comes from a family with 5 or 6 boys and he's down to earth.
He's the kind of guy I once told an NFL representative that you wouldn't mind if he dated your daughter." - Coach Serna
"It's refreshing to see a young kid come out of college and adapt so well to the NFL. And to deal with the success so magnificently. I'm really pleased with him and proud of him." - Coach Schnellenberger
The praise about his character and his work ethic is effusive. In a sports climate jaded with DUIs and drug possessions and almost daily reports of athlete suspensions, it's nice to hear. Of course, none of it matters in the NFL if you can't flat out run through defenses.
The first sign that Morris had the on-the-field skills to compete at the next level, according to Serna, came in 2009, in FAU's first game of the season, in Morris' first start. The Owls traveled to Lincoln, Nebraska, to face a Cornhuskers defense that featured one of the most dominant defensive lineman college football had seen in years -- an eventual Heisman finalist by the name of Ndamukong Suh.
"Morris had a heck of a spring that year," Serna says. "We knew he was beating up our scout team pretty good, but we didn't know how we'd do against Nebraska."
To skip the suspense, the team got slaughtered in a 49-3 rout, but Morris was the lone bright spot, rushing for 95 yards on 18 carries. Four months later, he would hold the Sun Belt Conference's rushing title, finish second in touchdowns and win the FAU team MVP award. He was officially "on the map".
"There's so many times where Alfred was willing to lower his shoulder and get the extra yards, there's too many to count at this point," Serna says, reflecting on Morris' career. "His MO has always been consistency. He's never going to shy away from contact. He's always embraced that part of the game."
In Serna's mind, what makes Morris special is that he not only ran hard and played hard in the few games that were in the national spotlight or when the team was doing well; he continued to grind it out and set an example when there was almost nothing left to play for.
"There are plenty of games that stand out," Serna says. "But to me, the game he had against University of Alabama-Birmingham his senior year was special for so many reasons. We were in the eleventh game of a zero win season. We were zero and ten. There's nothing to play for and he's [Morris] out there having his best game of the year. He got his season-high in rushing yards for that game and he scored four touchdowns. He was just out there knocking guys around. He showed such fortitude and character and he put on display that no-quit mentality that he has."
That was the Owls' lone win of his senior season and it put to bed perhaps the best career an FAU football player has ever had. Still, NFL scouts were wary.
"We went through the whole process with him as a senior," Serna says. "All the NFL scouts thought that he could be someone's second or third taliback and that he had to contribute on special teams to even make the squad. I was surprised that he got his chance so early, even though it was due to injuries, but I'm by no means surprised by him taking advantage."
Schnellenberger says that he was thrilled that Morris ended up on the Redskins because he thinks Mike Shanahan is an astute head coach who knows how to use him.
"I've seen almost every game he's played this year," he says. "We communicate on a weekly basis through texting. He's improved from game to game all year."
While most people hold back on comparing rookies to all-time greats, Schnellenberger says that the back who Morris reminds him most of is Jim Brown.
"I liken him more to Brown than anyone else I can think of," Schnellenberger explains. "He's a cross between a running back and a fullback. We recruited him as a fullback but he developed into such a good runner, we had to put him in at tailback.
"I don't think he's anywhere near close to his limit yet. After his last game, I told him that Act I of the season is complete. Now Act II is winning in the playoffs and Act III is winning in the Super Bowl."
This Sunday, we'll find out how Act II of Alfred Morris' incredible rookie season unfolds. If he has another monster game, at least now you'll have seen it coming.
-- Jon Finkel is the author of The Dadvantage: Stay In Shape On No Sleep With No Time And No Equipment. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_Finkel.
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