Jamal Morrow played just about every sport as a child. It's part of the reason why he's become WSU's most versatile running back
Going into this season, Washington State running back Jamal Morrow had played in 24 games, and had more receiving touchdowns (four) in his Cougars career than he had rushing touchdowns (zero).
Ironic, considering that he’s a running back?
Not in this offense.
In the second year of Luke Falk’s tenure as Washington State’s quarterback, the Cougars’ running game has exploded. After taking chances on a program that’s not known for running the ball, then biding their time as the offense evolved, WSU’s three backs Morrow, James Williams and Gerard Wicks, have been the deserving beneficiaries of a ground attack that heads into this weekend’s Oregon State game leading the conference with 22 touchdowns by their running backs.
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Morrow scored his first rushing touchdown in his 25th career game – the season opener against Eastern Washington.
The 5-foot-9, 201-pound junior has four rushing and three receiving touchdowns this season, averages 47.6 rush yards and 35.3 receiving yards per game and currently leads the team with an average of 86.1 all-purpose yards per game.
Just call him the Cougars’ Swiss Army Knife, because Morrow is arguably WSU’s most versatile weapon.
“He’s a real well-rounded player,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “If you were to average the three skills of blocking, catching and rushing the football between all our backs, he’s the best one. He’s not best in any specific area. He’s the best overall.”
He’s also the best at the coin toss, apparently. As WSU’s weekly game captain, Morrow is 5-2 in the coin toss this season and he made national news this week when, in a 10-minute press conference monologue that went viral, Leach explained that he’s picked Morrow as coin toss captain for the last 16 games in part because the running back once appeared on – and almost won—“The Price is Right.”
“I figured, well, Jamal Morrow’s a pretty lucky guy, and he’s got pretty good energy,” Leach said.
That energy, coupled with his eternally sunny disposition and wide range of athletic talents have always been Jamal’s trademarks, said his father, Johnnie Morrow.
Growing up in Menifee, Calif., Jamal and his younger brother, Isaiah, played just about every sport imaginable because Johnnie wanted to keep his two sons gainfully occupied.
So Jamal swam, played tennis and basketball and ran track. He also played a lot of soccer, which, his father swears, was his elder son’s best sport.
“He could kick equally with his left and right foot and could play the whole field,” Johnnie said. “A lot of local teams wanted him real bad.”
Jamal always wanted to play football but wasn’t allowed to until he was nine because his mother, Vera, worried about the full contact nature of the sport.
Vera finally relented, and it quickly became evident that football would be Jamal’s greatest love. Jamal played running back and safety throughout his high school career, and even though Heritage High ran a run-heavy offense, he’s always enjoyed catching the ball.
The Morrow family home in Menifee has a tile floor that leads onto carpet, and for years, Jamal used that tile-to-carpet transition as his imaginary sideline.
“On Sunday mornings when I was little, I used to just throw the ball up to myself and catch it and get two feet in before the hit the carpet,” Jamal said. “Being able to catch the ball and make moves, that’s exciting to me.”
That athleticism caught WSU running backs coach Jim Mastro’s eye when he first saw Morrow while on the recruiting trail.
“I went to a practice his senior year during our bye week, and you just saw his athletic ability,” Mastro said. “The thing about recruiting running backs in this offense, we have to see them catch the ball, and not just in a swing route, but down the field.”
Morrow did all that and more, impressing Mastro with his physicality and decision-making.
“He was always productive, he always fell forward and went downhill, and you could tell he was a team leader,” Mastro said.
All those traits combine to make Morrow a prototypical running back for the Air Raid offense, and Morrow’s third season at WSU might turn out to be his best one yet.
Seven games into the year, he’s already almost equaled his yardage totals from 2015, and he could surpass them with a big game against the Beavers on Saturday.
Oregon State’s rush defense is ranked 114th nationally and has given up an average of 231 rushing yards per game. It’s a prime opportunity for Morrow and Co. to reel off another big rushing performance.
If Morrow, Wicks and Williams were one back, that super-back would rank 10t nationally with an average of 122 rush yards per game.
The three backs each have their unique specialties, but their greatest strength as a unit, Mastro said, is that in many ways, they’re really similar.
“The biggest compliment you could give these three guys is they all look the same,” Mastro said. “If you rely on one guy and he goes down, you’re in trouble.”
So instead, the Cougars hit opponents with three backs, each of which can hurt you in a multitude of ways. Mastro says he loves the energy in his meeting room because his three co-starters are all unselfish hard workers who’ve dedicated themselves to the improvement of the team.
“Not everyone can play running back in our offense,” Mastro said. “You have to find a unique guy because they’re asked to do a lot. Besides running and receiving and blocking, they have to read fronts and coverages and protections.
“You need a special guy. Playing running back here is a trade, it’s a unique skillset.”