NC State football: Assessing MJ Morris' skillset through his first 3 starts
Last month, NC State received a devastating blow, as starting quarterback Devin Leary was ruled out for the rest of the season with a torn pectoral muscle.
That meant losing someone with a career touchdown-to-interception ratio of nearly 4-to-1 and who had a seat among the top 10 of the program record books in passing yards — mind you, Wolfpack passers over the past 2 decades have included Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson, Mike Glennon, Jacoby Brissett and Ryan Finley — it was a brutal end to Leary’s college career, and a tough pill to swallow for the program.
But in Leary’s absence, the Wolfpack has gotten a chance to get a glimpse into its future at the position. That future is defined by MJ Morris.
“He’s so young, but he’s so energetic,” senior receiver Darryl Jones said after the 30-21 win Nov. 5 against Wake Forest. “He’s making us smile. It’s nice to see that he has that confidence. His energy is bubbling over.”
Morris has thrown for 7 touchdowns and 1 interception on 61.7% completions since entering as the starter in for the Oct. 27 win against Virginia Tech. Going deeper into the tape, here is what the Georgia native has done well, and what he needs to improve on.
1. Pocket presence
When faced with pressure, Morris has done an adequate job of sliding up in the pocket, keeping his eyes downfield and delivering. Late in the 2nd quarter against Wake Forest, with the Wolfpack trailing 14-10, Morris moved to his left while keeping his chest turned downfield, then he fired a laser into the end zone to find Jones for a 13-yard score.
However, Morris also has been sacked 5 times during the past 2 outings, which is in part on his offensive line but also on his presnap audibles (in terms of protections) and reactions to impending rushers after the ball is snapped. His mobility and feel for the position is clear, but a little cleaning up in this area would not hurt.
2. Ball placement
The Wolfpack passing game is heavily predicated on timing, with run-pass options and deeper-developing routes dominating the playbook — with Morris and Leary under center. Therefore, putting the ball exactly where it needs to be, so only your receiver can grab it is essential for a quarterback in coordinator Tim Beck’s offense.
Morris was excellent in this department in NC State’s win against Wake Forest, as the freshman showed an ability to anticipate windows and fire the ball into them with touch and velocity. On a deep strike to Keyon Lesane, Morris looped it with perfect trajectory to ensure that only his receiver could make a play on it. Lesane, despite being blanketed by tight coverage, came down with possession and the Wolfpack drive was jump started.
It has not all been cookies and ice cream in this area, though. Morris was bailed out by Terrell Timmons Jr. on a deep shot against Virginia Tech, as the freshman underthrew his wideout and forced Timmons to come back to the ball.
Timmons caught it, and set up a goal-to-go situation in the NC State comeback, but on future deep balls, Morris needs to show greater consistency.
As for his interception during the 2nd half Saturday against Boston College, Morris simply underthrew it. Coach Dave Doeren said as much during his Monday availability.
“Of course he could have thrown a better pass there. That’s going to happen from time to time,” Doeren said of Morris. “He made some mistakes. Like I told him, ‘You’re human, too. You’re going to learn from the things you do and you’re going to get better from this.’ We don’t expect him to be perfect.”
3. How should NC State build its offense around Morris?
As a freshman, Morris figures to be in Raleigh for at least the next 2 seasons, so Doeren and Beck should spend much of the offseason tailoring the offensive attack to his strengths.
Zone reads, quick hits to the flat to maximize the receivers’ ability to get yards after catch and deep strikes should continue to be staples of the offense, and considering Morris’ high-level ability to go through his progressions quickly, intermediate routes should be part of the playbook.
Beck’s offenses are not known for their creativity, but with a passer such as Morris, who brings fast processing, mobility, a strong arm and poise to the table, the playbook could be expanded.
Morris has shown he is the quarterback of the future for NC State, despite the need for improvement in some areas. It might not occur this weekend against Louisville, or next week against No. 13 North Carolina, but Doeren and company should go all-in on the freshman.