For better or worse, Shane Morris stays Blue

Thursday, September 22, 2016 - 6:19pm

Shane Morris was one of the top high school quarterbacks in the country when he committed to Michigan.

Shane Morris was one of the top high school quarterbacks in the country when he committed to Michigan. Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

 

Standing in the parking lot outside the tunnel of Michigan Stadium on a June afternoon in 2015, Shane Morris spoke with arms folded and a smirk creeping up on his face, exuding the same confidence he had when he first arrived on campus in 2013 as an elite high school quarterback with a cannon for a left arm.

The long-presumed heir to the Wolverines’ offense was serving as an instructor at coach Jim Harbaugh’s Aerial Assault quarterback camp, and he was fielding questions about his latest competition for the starting job: Iowa graduate transfer Jake Rudock, who had arrived on campus two weeks earlier.

“Right now, it’s my job to lose,” Morris said. “He came here to take my job, and I’m just not gonna let it happen.”

Morris delivered the words with all the conviction of somebody who had already been handed the keys. Even with just two starts under his belt, an experienced quarterback to compete with and a new head coach to boot, it was almost as if Morris couldn’t believe anyone was questioning his destiny.

Anointed as one of the nation’s top quarterbacks when he was just a high school sophomore at Warren (Mich.) De La Salle, Morris knew how talented he was. As a lifelong Michigan fan who rejected numerous other offers from better programs to come to Ann Arbor — including Nick Saban’s Alabama — he was born for the job.

Most of the Wolverines’ fanbase knew his name long before he set foot on campus. In most of their minds, he was going to be the quarterback to usher in a new golden age of Michigan football. It just never panned out that way.

Fourteen months later, it’s Michigan’s team media day, and another quarterback competition rages on. But now Morris sits alone at a locker, while a throng of reporters first gathers around redshirt sophomore Wilton Speight and redshirt junior John O’Korn. Morris didn’t beat Rudock for the job last season, and now he’s being written off as a distant third-place finisher for the coming season.

By the time reporters finally approach him — and when he speaks to a slightly larger crowd a few weeks later — it first appears that not much has changed about the now-redshirt junior. The confidence, the fire and the devotion to football are all still there. The familiar smirk even shows itself when he says he’s capable of being the starting quarterback, and that he’s right there in the race, no matter how the media views it.

But what is missing is the sense of entitlement. The same player that once implied that Rudock would be taking not just his job but also his “livelihood” now speaks as a gracious competitor, not the Wolverines’ Chosen One.

“I’m not really focused on just being the starting quarterback and making the perfect play,” he says. “Other things in life matter.”

Morris’ path in Ann Arbor has not gone the way most people expected. The hotshot 18-year-old who was supposed to be the face of the Brady Hoke era has become a humbled and hardened 22-year-old after enduring years of public scrutiny. He’s had rival high school crowds bitterly taunt him, diehard Michigan fans bark at him from behind keyboards, and television cameras camp out on his family’s street for all the wrong reasons.

This was the same elite recruit who arrived on campus with the expectation to take the reins as soon as he was ready, but he never quite reached his ceiling. That’s why it’s so interesting to hear how he sums up his experience, just weeks before he begins what could be his final season at Michigan.

“It’s a dream come true for me,” Morris says, “and I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Shane Morris says attending Michigan has been a dream come true, despite his fate on the field.

Shane Morris says attending Michigan has been a dream come true, despite his fate on the field. Buy this photo
James Coller/Daily

 

Morris made his debut in his first game on campus, against Central Michigan on Aug. 31, 2013. He wasn’t handed the quarterback job — Devin Gardner was the well-established starter — but in the third quarter of a blowout game, the jumbotron at Michigan Stadium showed Hoke place his hand on the back of Morris’ No. 7 jersey and send him onto the field. He promptly led his team right down the field on a touchdown drive.

“It (was) very overwhelming,” said Jennifer Morris, Shane’s mother. “I know I remember crying when he ran through the tunnel for the first time. To watch him and to see his dream come true out there was just unbelievable.”

Morris spent all of his first season sitting behind Gardner before a golden opportunity appeared at the end of the season. Gardner was ruled out for the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against Kansas State with a broken left foot sustained in the regular-season finale against Ohio State, and Morris got the call to make his first start.

Despite losing to the Wildcats, 31-14, Morris completed 24 of 38 passes for 196 yards and showed off his athleticism with a 40-yard run late in the game. It wasn’t a particularly flashy performance, but it was a showcase of his skills and a promising sign for the future.

Morris even got to bring his family along for the game, resulting in what his father called “one of the neatest times we’ve ever had with him as an athlete.” As the family took advantage of one hour of free time during bowl week to hit a drive-through restaurant for dinner, the excitement of the Michigan experience finally hit them.

“We sat in the car, the whole family just kinda talking about it and laughing and picking at him and just enjoying it,” said Shane’s father, Bruce. “It was exciting — he was very excited. From the bottom of his heart, he loves that university and he loves that program.”

* * *

Just nine months after that moment, everything came crashing down.

Reporters are parked outside the Morris family’s house. They’ve come by so often that Jennifer Morris has to call her husband on her way home from work to ask if they’re gone. They aren’t.

It’s the last week of September 2014, and Shane’s image is plastered over almost every major television network in America. By now, the details of Morris’s second career start on Sept. 27 are practically common knowledge. Morris struggled early in his attempt to spark the scuffling 2-2 Wolverines against Minnesota, and then a pair of hard tackles left him with both a severe ankle sprain and what would later be infamously labeled a “probable, mild concussion.”

Morris was briefly left in the game after both injuries despite nearly collapsing in offensive lineman Ben Braden’s arms, and he later was reinserted into the game for a play after Gardner had finally relieved him. ESPN’s commentators lambasted the coaching staff on live television for appearing to endanger their quarterback, and the rest was unfortunate history.

In a bitter twist of fate, the presumed poster child for the Hoke era of Michigan football suddenly became unwittingly painted as a symbol of the program’s dysfunction.

It was a rough time for the entire Morris family. “Good Morning America” came to their house three times in a week. Bruce had his phone blow up with calls from multiple media outlets. One network reporter even told the family that the public “had a right to know” what they were thinking.

But for Shane’s parents (who maintained communication with Hoke and the team trainer, among other Michigan officials, but never spoke to the public), the concern wasn’t about the scandal, but about their son’s mental well-being. Not only was Shane worried about the university he loved coming under fire — his “biggest concern in the whole deal,” according to his father — he also was afraid it meant the end of his dream.

“I got the sense that he felt like he would never get another shot,” Bruce said. “Like he took that burden, he kind of put that whole burden on himself of that game. Which is, that’s what you’re supposed to do as a quarterback, as a quote-unquote leader, and a guy in that position. I just kind of tried to, not take that away from him, if you will, as far as not completely dismiss that — I just kind of wanted to put everything in perspective. ‘At the end of the day, you’re still a part of this team and you all still have work to do.’ ”

Neither Hoke nor Athletic Director Dave Brandon would keep their jobs through the end of the year, leaving Morris as the only remnant of the debacle. Even though it was, to date, his final start at Michigan, the young quarterback leaned on his support system and found a way to remove himself from the fire. In the end, it may have been that guidance that saved him.

“It was a tough deal,” Morris said. “Obviously it got to me a little bit, having to go through all that. But my teammates, my roommates, my parents and the coaching staff did a great job kind of keeping it away from me, keep me away from it. They didn’t make me do any interviews or anything like that, so I was never directly involved in it, and I think that helped a lot. … It’s the past of my life, I don’t really think about it at all anymore.”

* * *

As he battled with Rudock for the starting job the following season, Morris started to let some of the pressure go to his head. When he threw a pick in practice or overthrew a receiver, he said he would immediately let the mistake ruin his day and start throwing the ball all over the place.

He maintained his confidence in interviews off the field, but he found himself struggling to rebound quickly from football mistakes. To make matters worse, he was having to learn his third offense in three seasons, and the head coach who brought him to Michigan was gone. Despite his successes in high school, Morris couldn’t find a way to play up to not just the fans’ expectations, but his own.

“I think all quarterbacks have it — when they make a mistake, it gets in their head, just like any player,” said Paul Verska, Morris’ coach at De La Salle. “You try to tell them that the most important play is the next play and it’s part of the growing process where you have to let it go. … Being able to shut it out is a tough thing to do, but it’s something you do and mature.”

After Morris lost the job to Rudock and was written off again this season, though, a curious thing happened.

Instead of letting the frustration ruin him, Morris let the burden that he had carried on his back since he was 16 years old slowly slip away. His world didn’t crumble — if anything, he learned that his world and football were not always one and the same.

Part of that realization came from having a strong foundation of loved ones to back him up. Morris still calls or texts his parents every day, and he mentioned that his girlfriend of two years, Irene, a recent Michigan graduate, is always there after games. (“She’s a keeper,” he said with a smile.)

“As college has gone on, you kind of learn to put things in front of yourself and not make yourself the most important,” Morris said. “Kind of realize you’ve got other things that are way more important, like other people. … I feel like I’ve done that. I’ve become a much happier person, enjoying life and really taking in all it has to offer.”

It’s not clear when, exactly, Morris’ mindset shifted. Bruce Morris isn’t sure it ever did, but thinks rather that Shane simply decided to “(wear) it a little more on (his) sleeve.”

In any case, the constant competition has helped Morris’ game on the field just as much as it maintained his confidence off of it. No longer does he cringe when he throws an interception in practice or dwell on the fact that he’s not the first player taking snaps on Saturdays.

He’s also managed to solve the one problem that a number of players probably couldn’t: separating his love for Michigan from his love for football.

“He approaches things differently, I think,” Bruce Morris said. “His team is very important to him. He loves them guys, he truly loves his teammates and the guys. That’s one of the things, I think, that keeps a lot of those guys going when they feel like they should be the starter, if you will, because every one of them do.”

His teammates have noticed, too. Wilton Speight was an early enrollee during the second semester of Morris’ freshman year, and Morris took him under his wing as soon as he got on campus. Now, over two years later, Speight holds the starting quarterback job that Morris coveted, but he still finds ways he can learn from Morris.

“That kid’s been through a lot,” Speight said. “With the whole Minnesota debacle, how much hype he came in with, the coaching changes and stuff — he’s stayed very level-headed through it all. He’s never gotten too down, he’s never gotten too high. He’s just a really chill dude. And I see that if he can maintain that roller coaster that he’s been through and been just the same dude, then no matter what I go through this season as the starter or not, hopefully I can remain a chill dude, too.”

Shane Morris has played all backup minutes as a redshirt junior in the twilight of his career.

Shane Morris has played all backup minutes as a redshirt junior in the twilight of his career. Buy this photo
Sam Mousigian/Daily

 

It’s unclear what the future holds for Shane Morris, but he has no regrets about his last four years, no matter how it played out.

“When I was 17, 18 years old, you can kind of let (the hype) get to you and start to think you’re expected to do these things, when in reality you’re not expected to do anything,” Morris said. “The fact that I’m here playing football at the University of Michigan and getting a degree from here is amazing enough in itself. You’ve gotta kind of realize that as you get older.

“I just turned 22 (on August 4). You grow up and you kinda realize how life works. All you can do is go through life, and I believe everything happens for a reason. Just keep fighting and work as hard as you can.”

There was a time when Morris probably couldn’t have imagined life after football. But in April, he will graduate with a degree in sport management and may leave it behind forever. There is no set alternative in mind, but his father speculates that his love for getting to know people might lead him into something like business or coaching.

Still, the fact that Morris took a redshirt year last season leaves him with an opportunity to play his final year of eligibility next season either at Michigan or as a graduate transfer somewhere else, a la Rudock. Even Morris’ own parents have heard rumors from strangers that their son might be transferring.

But for the Morrises, it’s easy to laugh that off. As of now, they say there has never even been a discussion.

“He’s blue, let me tell you,” Bruce said. “He would have left a long time ago, would he not have?”