By Zac Ellis
Early NFL mock drafts for 2014 feature plenty of the expected college quarterbacks, from Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater to Clemson's Tajh Boyd to Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel. But one name might be higher than we might think, in terms of talent: Miami's Stephen Morris.
NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks attended the Manning Passing Academy over the weekend and offered his thoughts on the crop of collegiate passers. Even among some of the country's most high-profile quarterbacks, the Hurricanes' second-year starter displayed enough natural talent to stand out in Brooks' mind.
Stephen Morris might be the most talented quarterback in college football. I say that even while fully aware of the gifted passers across the college football landscape. The Miami signal-caller's natural talents made him stand out above the rest of his peers at the throwing exhibition at the Manning Passing Academy. Morris spins the ball with exceptional velocity and zip while showing a deft touch on intermediate and deep passes. Most impressively, he is deadly accurate, capable of making pinpoint throws to every area of the field. This was evident not only when Morris won the air-it-out competition by hitting a variety of moving targets, but also when he connected with receivers on a number of intermediate throws, particularly on deep comebacks and digs.
After cross-referencing the notes from my evaluation of Morris' game tape with my observations of his performance at the Manning Passing Academy, I believe he could rate as one of the top pure passers in college football. He is an outstanding rhythm passer who displays terrific anticipation, awareness and timing in the pocket. Although he only has one year of starting experience at Miami, Morris' remarkable physical tools and superb game-management skills could garner him high rankings on quarterback lists around the NFL.
Morris might not be a household name, but he was hardly a slouch in his first season as a starter in Coral Gables. He threw for 3,345 yards and 21 touchdowns against only seven interceptions in 2012, and the Hurricanes enjoyed the third most potent passing attack (295.4 yards per game) in the ACC.
What likely impressed most about Morris was his improvement as the 2012 season progressed. In Miami's final four games, Morris completed 60 percent of his passes and didn't throw an interception while tossing for 11 touchdowns. The 'Canes themselves went 3-1 in those games, and Morris and the offense helped carry the team in spite of an awful defense.
But why don't we hear Morris' name mentioned among the country's top quarterbacks? Miami's relative mediocrity as a program in 2012 probably played a part; though the Hurricanes tied for first place in the ACC's Coastal Division at 7-5 (5-3), postseason ineligibility kept the team out of the conference title game. The porous defense -- which allowed 486.4 yards per game, good for 116th in the country -- turned potentially winnable games against Florida State and Virginia into losses, and you didn't hear much fanfare surrounding this five-loss ACC squad.
But Morris himself still found ways to impress with his individual statistics. It's worth comparing Morris' 2012 season to that of three of the more prolific passers in the nation heading into the fall:
Stephen Morris: 245-of-421 (58.2), 3,345, 7.9/catch, long pass: 87, 21 TDs-7 INT, 138.1 rating
Teddy Bridgewater: 287-of-419 (68.5), 3,718, 8.87/ catch, long pass: 75, 27 TDs-8 INTs, 160.5 rating
Tajh Boyd: 287-of-427, 3,896 (67.2), 9.12/catch, long pass:69, 36 TDS-13 INTs, 165.6 rating
Johnny Manziel: 295-of-434, 3,706 (68.0), 8.54/catch, long pass: 89 26 TDs-9 TDs, 155.3 rating
One factor that sticks out is Morris' accuracy. With a 58.2 percent completion rating, the quarterback ranked a paltry 81st among last year's signal-callers. His quarterback rating of 138.1 was likewise mediocre, falling just outside the top 50 at No. 51. Morris hardly jumps out with such numbers, yet he managed to keep his interceptions rather low (seven) despite throwing more passes than Bridgewater and just short of the number of attempts by Boyd and Manziel. What that means is Morris limits turnovers even though he's not among the top-tier quarterbacks in efficiency, which is exactly what Brooks alludes to when he describes Morris and his "superb game-management skills." Such a moniker bodes well for a career in the NFL.
Pro scouts love quarterbacks who are poised and controlled in the pocket, and there are plenty of reasons to assume that Morris' accuracy and production will rise in the fall. Miami returns all five of its offensive line starters, while the team's top two receivers -- Phillip Dorsett and Rashawn Scott -- also return. Throw in a complementary rushing attack in tailback Duke Johnson (947 yards, 10 TDs in 2012), and this offense could once again find itself among the top units in the ACC with Morris as one of the headliners. Brooks liked what he saw in Morris' mechanics, as well, which could mean further improvement after another offseason of workouts. Given the quarterback's natural talent and the Miami offense's experience heading into the 2013 season, more NFL scouts could be jumping onto the Morris bandwagon as the season progresses.