Howard Schnellenberger would like a word with the NFL.
Specifically, the many folks who make up the multimillion dollar NFL scouting system.
Schnellenberger, the venerable old coach who built the University of Miami football program from next to nothing into a national champion, has a question:
What in tarnation is wrong with you people?!
Toward the end of his career, Schnellenberger coached a Pensacola product named Alfred Morris at Florida Atlantic University. He watched Morris run for more than 3,500 yards in his three full seasons with the Owls. He praised Morris to high heaven to anyone who would listen and many who wouldn't. And, yet, Morris fell to the sixth round of the 2012 NFL draft, the 173rd player drafted.
Now, to the surprise of everyone except Howard Schnellenberger, Morris is a breakout star for the Washington Redskins. And none other than Robert Griffin III says Morris gets his Rookie Of The Year vote.
"He runs like Jim Brown," Schnellenberger says.
"Have you seen Jim Brown run?"
Schnellenberger has, so point noted.
Schnellenberger doesn't quite understand the scouting system. Why do running backs at the combine run without pads, a helmet, or a ball in their hand? Why sprint 40 yards in a straight line when that almost never happens in a game? Morris was never a burner – he ran a 4.67 40 at the NFL scouting combine – but Schnellenberger loved the way he ran at the end of games, when everyone else got tired.
The former Miami, Louisville, Oklahoma and FAU coach always timed sprints not at the beginning of practice, but at the end, sort of like how basketball coaches make players shoot free throws when they are most tired. "It's not how fast the guy is the first time," Schnellenberger says. "It's how fast he is the 15th time."
Morris' strength is his stamina. He runs with as much force at the beginning of the game as at the end. Many rookies have flashes of stardom early in the season, but then morph into someone else. But Morris kept going. He rushed for more yards in December (631) than in October and November combined (606). He capped the regular season with a 200-yard performance in Week 17 to beat the Cowboys and clinch Washington's first NFC East title since 1999.
He played in every game, rushed for more than 75 yards in all but two and his 1,613 yards make him just the fourth player ever to run for more than 1,600 yards as a rookie. Not bad for a rusher who came into August behind Roy Helu and Tim Hightower.
"Me, I'm a workhorse," Morris told D.C. radio station 106.7 The Fan this week. "No matter what the workload is, whether it's five carries, 35 carries; whether it's 12 games in a season, whether it's 16, it really doesn't matter. I'm always prepared for no matter what comes my way: rain, sleet, snow, freezing cold, heat … I just mentally prepare myself for any condition, any situation. And it definitely helps me. That's why I didn't hit the rookie wall."
The combine doesn't really test for that. So it was hard for him to generate excitement as a 5-foot-9 back weighing less than 220 pounds. His NFL.com draft profile called Morris "a bit of a tweener, not big enough to be imposing at the next level." Other athletes may lash out at this dismissal, but not Morris.
"I'm never a star," Morris told reporters this week. "I'll never be a star. Other people might think I'm a star, but I'm just Alfred."
That, of course, is not a good enough reason for Schnellenberger, who says he saw a star right away. This is a man who coached Alonzo Highsmith, the third pick in the '87 NFL draft, and believes Morris is every bit as good. "He's as good as we've had," Schnellenberger says.
As good as Highsmith? As good as Carwell Gardner?
"Have you seen him play?"
Maybe it was because FAU is under the radar, struggling in the scrappy but ignored Sun Belt Conference? The Owls were 1-11 in Morris' final season.
"I guess nobody wanted to come to Boca Raton," Schnellenberger says, "in a brand-new stadium in the heart of paradise."
Making this even more vexing is Morris' personality. He's a choir boy, about as risk-free as they come off the field. Alfred's the one with the 1991 Mazda, which he took from Boca to D.C. this summer, and still drives to work each day. "He had no negatives," Schnellenberger says. "Zero negatives. Scholar-athlete. Christian gentleman. The car tells you more than anything."
Did we mention Morris is also a great pass-blocker, thanks in part to his FAU years? That's a big deal in the NFL, though maybe not on sports radio talk shows and fan message boards.
At least he's a celebrity in Boca. It's safe to say Morris is now the most significant Owl in FAU history (with apologies to Carrot Top, former FEMA head R. David Paulison, NASA astronaut Steven Swanson, and former porn star Mary Carey). Though of course not many NFL fans know why Morris makes the owl sign with his hands after he scores a touchdown.
Alfred Morris isn't the first sixth-round pick to make a lot of GMs look silly. (Tom Brady, anyone?) Yet after all this time – after being lightly recruited in high school, lightly touted in college, and overshadowed by Griffin – you can't blame Schnellenberger for being a little stumped by the trend.
Quite frankly, in a world of overhype and overreaction, we are too.
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