The most important trait a quarterback can have is the ability to process information and make decisions quickly, quickly enough that a 300-pound dude who can run a 4.5 doesn’t decleat you. It’s what makes quarterback the hardest position in all of sports, and the ability to develop such a trait is very hard to scout. A great athlete with a big arm will entice people, but that won't actually get you far on its own.
When it comes to MJ Morris, his comfort level making reads and decisions is the first thing that jumps off the screen if you watched him last year. He is very smart. There is still room for growth in order to put it all together, but he understands what is happening. State simplified things when they put him out there last year, no doubt, but you wouldn’t notice. He looked like a complete quarterback until he got hurt.
Morris made his share of freshman mistakes of course, but the lack of panic was very uncharacteristic of a freshman. He was under control, and that only happens if you’re confident in your pre-snap reads and you know how you’re progressing through the play. He has plenty of arm strength and accuracy, but where the ceiling really shows is his processing ability.
First though, this is the kind of high-level throw Morris is capable of. This is not a freshman throw.
The window here is small. This throw needs to be accurate, it needs to be on time, and it needs to be powerful. I think, ideally, Morris speeds up his release a little during his development, but this is a high-level throw. The arm strength is plenty.
State generally gave Morris a clean pocket last year. You can see the pass protection is pretty good. Morris is pretty comfortable standing in there, though. The young quarterback never seems to be in a hurry. He's impressively patient in the pocket, and he's decent at moving within the pocket and keeping his eyes downfield when he needs to. Inexperienced quarterbacks usually aren't like that, especially good athletes who could make a living in high school bailing on the pocket and embarrassing a future accountant in the open field.
Now let's look at some reads. This is a good pre-snap read from Morris
It’s a cover 2 shell, which means there are two deep safeties pre-snap, and VT is playing press-man coverage underneath. Morris is able to tip the linebacker blitz here via the hard count. It’s kind of hard to see in the GIF, but the linebacker leans and rises to the balls of his feet when Morris claps his hands. VT tries to disguise its blitz on this play, but once Morris is able to ID where the pressure is coming from with the linebackers and a possible safety blitz, he knows he's got a one-on-one in the endzone unless the safety bails.
After the snap, the linebackers come and the strong safety fills in the underneath zone, meaning there is no help on Lesane. It’s a bad throw that should have been an interception, one of only a handful Morris made last year, but it's a good read to identify the one-on-one and give his guy a chance in the endzone. That's processing power from the young QB.
This is one where Morris makes a good play and then a freshman play.
It’s cover 3, meaning there is a safety in the middle of the field and both corners are going to drop into deep zone at the snap. The play is four verticals for State, and the linebackers are going to carry the seam routes (the routes in the middle of the field) down the field. Virginia Tech shows a linebacker blitz on the right side, and Morris’ look toward that side of the field gets the safety in the middle of the field to work that way, creating a situation on the left side where Pennix, who is in the seam on the left side, is manned-up by the linebacker. That’s a great matchup for State, and Morris opens it by identifying the coverage and then manipulating the safety with his eyes.
This turns out to almost be an interception because he wasn’t able look off the field-side corner, which is the corner at the top of the screen. You can see the corner watch Morris’ eyes and work toward the seam route immediately. It was good coverage from the backer, so it was a tough throw, but he can drop this in there by freezing the deep corner with a look toward the boundary go route. What Morris probably should have done was just hit the running back. That's the freshman mistake here. The linebackers carrying the seam routes leaves only one flat defender and nobody in the middle. It's a free 10-15 yards. He generally did a better job checking down as the games progressed last year.
This all sounds pretty simple when you’re sitting in a chair watching the play in slow motion with the ability to pause it. This is hard stuff to do in real time. Morris made plenty of great throws last year. There are no questions about his arm talent. It's his brain that I think makes a him a guy who could actually reach his ceiling. And yes, I'm aware I picked two should-be interceptions to make this point.
The sample size on Morris right now is very small. He played less than three games last year, and predicting what will actually happen when you stick him into an offense that’s struggling basically everywhere is a difficult errand. Part of the reason it’s struggled is the quarterback play though, and if Morris can replicate what he did against Virginia Tech and Wake Forest last year, it will help this offense.
State’s offense is doing lots of things poorly. If you asked me to rank them, I'd do so like this.
Wide receiver play
Morris does nothing to help the run game issues, obviously. State does get McMahon back at center this week, and that’s a boost, but I think expecting a rushing attack that’s better than bad this year is probably futile. That puts a cap on State’s offense, but if Morris can fix part two, there’s enough here to create something serviceable, and if State’s defense can continue to play at the level it did on Friday, serviceable is probably enough.
There are plays to be had down the field. The receiving corps might not be a group of world-beaters, but between Concepcion’s separation ability and Timmons play-making ability, there is enough here. It’s also worth noting that most of State’s pass blocking issues have been communication based. They aren’t just getting whooped at the line of scrimmage. That’s something that you hope McMahon’s presence at center can settle down.
That’s the optimistic viewpoint. I’m optimistic about this, and I choose that because I think the traits Morris has shown make him a good candidate to do well in a situation like the one he’s stepping into. He stepped into a dumpster fire last year too, and he did quite well.
Doing this now makes sense. Marshall is far from a freebie, but it's a very winnable game at home. The next two games are at Duke and home against Clemson. This was the time. Let's see what he's got.