James Morrison scores his first career touchdown against Colorado (Photo: ASU)
Sometimes, a player can have all the talent in the world, prove it in practice but still not see the field come game day. Such has been the case with Arizona State's senior running back James Morrison over his first three seasons.
A powerful back, Morrison has often impressed during prior offseason camps, yet never was able to get any meaningful carries under head coach Dennis Erickson. That figures to change under Todd Graham, as a fantastic performance throughout spring ball has Morrison primed to end his Sun Devil career in a productive manner.
We sat down with Morrison to get his thoughts on a number of topics such as his frustrations early in his career, the new offense, the loaded backfield and what to expect on third and ones.
Brad Denny: Thus far in your career, you've flashed your potential often during camp, yet that's only translated to 29 career carries. How frustrating has that been, and what lessons have you drawn from those years?
James Morrison: It's been both frustrating and motivating. Motivating in terms of trying to get more carries and doing whatever I can do to get more carries. It's frustrating when people say you have the potential to be an every down back and get more playing time. So far, it's really motivating me going into my senior year to do whatever I have to do to get more playing time.
BD: Last season, you had a front row seat to Cameron Marshall putting together one of the most productive seasons ever by a Sun Devil running back. How has sharing a backfield with Marshall made you a better running back?
JM: It's improved me. We watch film and do a lot of things off the field together. Watching the things he does on the field is also motivating. I feel the more motivated you are, the better you can be on the field.
BD: With Coach Graham's hiring, in many ways the slate had been wiped clean for the players, and so far you've really taken advantage of that opportunity, even earning the nickname of "Tank" from Graham. What's this new outlook brought by Graham meant both to you and the team?
JM: Coach Graham praises the way I play the game. He likes how physical I am. He named me the "Tank" for the way I run the ball downhill. All our coaches say the previous years don't matter, last year doesn't matter. We're coming in and whoever we like is going to play. Basically, I feel really motivated this season going into my senior year.
BD: With some injuries ahead of you, the door was opened and you then were arguably the team's spring MVP. What do you feel you need to do to carry that momentum over into fall camp and into the season?
JM: Just improve on the little things. Conditioning is one major thing given how fast our tempo is and how fast we play. You can never get enough film over opponents and critiquing yourself. Just working on the small things that can help me in the season and fall camp.
BD: What has it been like working with running backs Coach Larry Porter thus far?
JM: Coach Porter is a real cool dude. He's really enthusiastic. He has high expectations of all of his running backs. You can come out of a practice thinking you had the best practice of your career, then you go to film the next day and he can make you feel like you had the worst. That's good from a player's standpoint. He just wants the best out of us and he's pushing us to get it.
BD: From a running back's perspective, what are the changes between last season's offense and the new scheme of Mike Norvell? What aspects of the new offense are most appealing to you?
JM: Coach Graham and Coach Norvell have more of a run-first offense. They want to be physical, whereas last year we were more of a pass-first offense. This year is very fast, kinda like Oregon-fast if not faster. We want to keep our opponents on their heels and run it down their throat. It's good for a running back, as we get a lot of touches and we get utilized in the pass game a little bit.
BD: Obviously, a lot of the preseason talk has been about the depth of the backfield, with Cameron Marshall, Deantre Lewis, Kyle Middlebrooks and yourself being joined by D.J. Foster and Marion Grice. How do you envision the carries being distributed?
JM: We do have a lot of talent in the backfield. We're going to work with what we have when Cam gets here. Some people might get moved to other positions based on packages and formations. One other thing it's going to bring is good competition. We're going to get the best out of each other every day. Everyone's going to want to be out on that field and whoever is the best is going to be out there. It's going to challenge everyone to want to do their best every single day, and it's going to get the best out of everybody.
BD: With a first-time starting quarterback in front of you, do the running backs feel a need to step up their game to help ease the burden on the new QB?
JM: Me and Cam are the seniors of the group, and we've been talking. We want to take a load off the quarterbacks as much as we can. That depends on us as far as how we run the ball and how effective we can be in the running game. We want to take as much pressure off a first-year starting quarterback, as that'd be better for the team and the offense. We're going to do whatever we can do in the passing game, running game, pass-blocking game to do whatever we can to make the quarterback as comfortable as he can.
BD: What are your thoughts on the team heading back up the mountain to Camp Tontozona?
JM: My freshman year, we went up there just for the one day scrimmage and back. It was good and bad. Staying up there for a few days will bring us closer as a team. That's something you need in the sport of football. It's not like other sports where you can have one standout player in crunch time. In football, it's a team. If one player messes up, the whole play is down the drain. I feel going up there is going to be very beneficial for us, for bringing us together as a team. It's not going to be fun up there. It's going to be a lot of crucial and intense situations. At the end of the day, all we're going to have is us, whether that's on the field or in the locker room. I feel that's going to be a huge step towards this season's success.
BD: What goals have you set for yourself this season?
JM: I want to start. If not start, get a lot more playing time. I want to get over 100 yards. I haven't had that in one year. Of course, the goal is way higher than that. I want to have a successful season and hopefully I can make it to the next level.
BD: The overriding theme since Coach Graham's arrival in December has been "Speaking Victory". How do you define that term?
JM: Going out and winning everyday. Being a man of character, a man of discipline. Making the right choices on and off the field, away from the facility. Doing everything the right way, doing all the small things. It's not just football, it's very beneficial in life, for life after football and after college. It's not something that's been in the program, or hasn't been as strict in the program. The hiring of Coach Graham and how fast he wanted things to change has been hard getting used to as a team. I feel now that everyone is trying to get "all in". It's not one of the easiest things to do for some players given how lenient the program was in years before. Everyday that goes on, you see more people in their attitude how they go about things in the classroom, at home and in the community. You can see how things are going good now, and everyone is starting to win the day and be a man of character and be "all in" and that's the slogan we go by now.
BD: What do you feel is the one X-factor--whether it's a player, scheme, mentality--for this team to succeed this fall?
JM: I think the biggest X-factor is being more of a team, because that is one thing we have lacked in my four years in being here. Having more camaraderie and having that trust in the guy next to you that he's going to get the job done. You have to be a good team, to have good teamwork. That's the biggest thing for us. Honestly, I feel like that's one the biggest things that has improved so far.
Reader question: Many of our readers have been frustrated over the last few years that third and one has been a passing down. Will we finally see some power football in those situations, perhaps with the "Tank" leading the way?
JM: [laughs] Well, hopefully, the "Tank" is leading the way. We have a lot of packages that we've put in during the spring. We still have a lot of shotgun offense, but there are a lot of times we get down under center. We have a lot of different run schemes in there to power the ball down their throat. If there's short yardage, we'll be sure to run in those situations. Hopefully, the "Tank" is leading the way, but we have confidence in any of our backs to get the job done.