Redskins rookie Alfred Morris, a sixth-round draft choice from Florida Atlantic, was second in the NFL in rushing this season.
He’s Washington’s other dynamic rookie, the one who arrived with little fanfare and virtually no expectations.
In fact, Alfred Morris wasn’t even supposed to make the team. A sixth-round pick out of that noted football factory, Florida Atlantic, he seemed destined for the practice squad at best.
But Morris started opening eyes in training camp, beating out Tim Hightower, Evan Royster and Roy Helu Jr. for Washington’s starting job. And now, as the Redskins begin the playoffs Sunday by hosting the Seahawks, he’s a bona fide star. He set a franchise record with 1,613 rushing yards, which ranked second in the NFL behind Adrian Peterson.
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“He’s a sixth-round pick who plays with a chip on his shoulder,” said fellow rookie Robert Griffin III. “He didn’t know his opportunity was going to come this early in his career, but it has. It’s paid off for him, and us as well.”
The career rushing leader at Florida Atlantic, Morris first caught the eye of Mike Shanahan at last year’s Senior Bowl when he played for the South team, coached by Shanahan and others from the Redskins’ staff. Morris, at 5 feet 10, 218 pounds, was seemingly a “tweener” — not quite fast enough to be a featured back, and not quite powerful enough to be a fullback.
But Howard Schnellenberger, who retired as Florida Atlantic’s coach after last season, recently told The Palm Beach Post he’s not surprised by Morris’ emergence.
“He was born and bred and raised and trained to be an NFL running back,” Schnellenberger told the Post. “Not only because he runs the ball, not only because he’s so durable. He has ability to keep his feet and doesn’t fumble, he can block, protect the quarterback and catch the ball out of the backfield.”
Morris also has the benefit of working in the zone-blocking scheme that Shanahan has used brilliantly since his days with Denver, where Terrell Davis and numerous other backs flourished.
“He’s legit, very much like the running backs Mike had all those years in Denver,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “Guys didn’t know about them, and guys elevated and rose to the occasion and became great players for them.”
Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley agrees that “it starts up front” with Washington’s zone blocking, but added, “He’s a great back, and it’s proven with his stats. He just has a really good feel for the zone scheme.”
Morris has seven 100-yard games, but the capper came Sunday when he rushed for 200 yards in Washington’s playoff-clinching win over Dallas. After the game, left guard Kory Lichtensteiger referred to Morris’ “beast mode,” which calls to mind an apt comparison to his Seattle counterpart, Marshawn Lynch.
Morris outrushed Lynch by 23 yards this season. And whereas Lynch is rightly lauded for his relentless running style, Morris has more yards after contact than Lynch, 643 to 558. Shanahan saw that play-sustaining ability when he watched tape of Florida Atlantic before the draft.
“Here’s a guy that was on a football team that didn’t have a great record, and you could see some runs — some 4- and 5-yard runs — that we thought were special at the time,” Shanahan said.
Coupled with Griffin, whose running ability is well-documented, Morris presents a formidable challenge for the Seahawks defense.
“They force you to play sound football, because if you don’t, they’re going to expose it,” defensive tackle Alan Branch said. “That’s what their offense is meant to do. Hopefully, we read our keys and stay in our zone, and hopefully we can knock it out.”
Branch said of Morris, “We definitely respect him and know we have to bring our big-boy pads and bring him down to the ground.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org