Penn State Football: Fresh Start Has Pumped New Life Into Senior Cornerback Stephon Morris
When the topsy-turvy 2011 season finally ended with a bowl loss in early January, Penn State cornerback Stephon Morris gave some serious thought to hopping on the transfer train.
He had one foot already out the door.
"To be honest, I'm pretty sure I wasn't – I wasn't going to be here," Morris said recently.
The diminutive Morris, who is only 5 feet 8 and 186 pounds, was banished to the bench a year ago in his role as the nickel back by a pair of senior cornerbacks – D’Anton Lynn and Chaz Powell. They were both five inches taller than Morris and more than 20 pounds heavier.
Morris made just two starts last season after starting 10 games as a sophomore and one as a freshman. He finished with only 19 tackles a year ago and played 381 snaps, both career lows.
"All I wanted was honesty,” Morris said. "I didn't know what my role was going into the first game of the season, the second game of the season. Then I was pretty much on the bench.
"Chaz Powell was definitely athletic as hell. He was tall, a freak of nature. D'Anton Lynn had 33 starts (actually 37) in his career. You couldn't bench him. And I couldn't play safety."
Morris had already started reaching out to other colleges by the time Bill O’Brien was hired to replace Joe Paterno on Jan. 6. But a few days after O’Brien’s hiring was made public, Morris reversed field and decided to return for his senior season.
He owes a big assist to his father, Roman, who did some research on O’Brien, the long-time college assistant and New England Patriots’ offensive coordinator, and came away impressed.
Roman Morris told his son to stay put, and Stephon did.
"My dad did his background checks and he liked the way (coach O’Brien) handled Tom Brady," Morris said, referring to the highly publicized sideline spat between O'Brien and the Patriots’ quarterback last season. "He said I needed discipline like that.
“Coach O’Brien was honest from the get-go. You could go to his office right now and say, 'What's going to be my role on the team?' And he would tell you right now and let you know, whether you like it or not. He's been like that since the spring."
Morris, a native of Greenbelt, Md., said he enjoys the different options Ted Roof’s defense provides for the cornerbacks after working mainly in zone coverage packages under former defensive coordinator Tom Bradley.
“I came here as a man-to-man corner,” said Morris, who has 88 career tackles, one sack and one interception. “I didn’t know it was going to be a zone-base concept. Just for it to be my senior year and get a chance to play the style of play that I can play, it’s definitely a blessing.
“I just have to go out there and do everything to help our team and back up my words as well.”
Morris is scheduled to make his 14th career start Saturday in the opener against Ohio University opposite sophomore cornerback Adrian Amos. Redshirt junior Malcolm Willis is at one safety spot while redshirt junior Stephen Obeng-Agyapong or senior Jake Fagnano, a former walk-on, will be at the other.
The Bobcats return 15 starters, including quarterback Tyler Tettleton, and are coming off a 10-4 season in which they won their first bowl game in school history.
Morris and the secondary will face a stern test.
"They say we're supposed to be weak back there in the secondary, which I don't really see," he said. "But like I said, we like the criticism. We just want to prove everybody wrong, so we're going to keep working each and every day."
Morris, who is both funny and outspoken, happens to be one of the most active Nittany Lion players on Twitter (@12_darKnight). And he will be the first to admit that he likes the attention.
But Morris also is aware that the nation will be focused on Penn State’s opener and season, given the attention the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal has attracted since November, when Paterno was fired.
“We like that everybody in the world will be watching,” Morris said. “You are going to have people that want to see us fail. We all know that.
“But we have the whole community around us, we have each other, we have the Penn State support. That’s all we need. That’s going to drive us.”
Morris is happy he didn’t leave now. He truly believes he can be part of a successful season, even with a postseason bowl ban among the harsh sanctions handed down by the NCAA this summer.
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