Alfred Morris came out of nowhere to become an NFL star. (Getty Images)
With rookie minicamps starting for so many teams through this weekend, there will be hundreds of young men new to the NFL who are convinced that the league sold them short. And every season, a few rise up from the rabble to become the new "How did THAT guy last THAT long in the draft?" stories. Perhaps the most glaring example that the 2012 draft was not an exact science came from former Florida Atlantic running back Alfred Morris, selected in the sixth round by the Washington Redskins. Morris ran for 3,506 yards and 27 touchdowns in three seasons for the Owls, but the team went 1-11 in his last year there, and 1-11 in the Sun Belt doesn't get you a lot of looks at the next level.
But Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan, who had a bit of success with another sixth-round running back in Terrell Davis, took a shot, and off Morris went. After decent preseason performances against Buffalo and Chicago, he ran for 107 yards against the Colts, which had Shanahan thinking he'd seen enough. He told Morris that he'd be the starting halfback the day before the season opener against the New Orleans Saints, and that proved to be a wise decision. Morris ended his rookie campaign with a franchise-record 1,613 rushing yards on 335 carries, including a 200-yard, three-touchdown performance in the regular-season finale against the Dallas Cowboys that clinched Washington's first NFC East title since 1999. Quarterback Robert Griffin III was the marquee rookie, but Morris gave just as much with far less fanfare.
So, when I spoke with Morris during his recent media blitz for a DirectTV sponsorship, I asked him what he'd tell this year's class of rookies who believe that they've been undersold for whatever reason.
Morris had to come in through the back door, but no more. (Getty Images)"Don't go in with a chip on your shoulder -- at least, I couldn't have done it that way," he said. "Don't go in looking to prove anything. You just be who you've been since Day 1, and you'll catch their eye. Hard work pays off. You stay focused, you stay positive, and don't get down just because things didn't go the way you expected them to go. It's gonna be a grind, and when you get that opportunity, you make the most of it."
It was a gradual process for Morris -- he started the preseason in competition with the usual battery of running backs, and ended it as the de facto man in charge.
"As things progressed, I became a better ballplayer," he remembered. "My coaches were staying on me -- teaching me instead of just yelling at me. 'This is how you do it better,' and I became better. So, stay focused, and the hard work will pay off. I can definitely attest to that, because I busted my butt, and I came from nowhere, but I got an opportunity, and I made the most of it."
Like most rookies who prove their worth beyond their draft position, Morris was never told by anyone in the league why he had to wait so long. There were 11 backs taken before him in the 2012 draft, and none of those players -- including third overall pick Trent Richardson -- came close to his productivity. Morris had a few dings on his scouting reports that really didn't make sense in retrospect. Some said that he didn't have the burst to hit the edge with authority, when he did that quite a bit in the NFL. Others questioned his ability to run quickly through one-cut gaps, which he did about as well as any back who's ever played in Shanahan's well-established zone-blocking system. And, of course, there's always the default small-school question.
Read More »from Alfred Morris tells this year’s class of unheralded rookies: Act like you’ve been there before