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Each Day Providing New Opportunity To Learn For Alfred Morris

By ZAC BOYER

zboyer@freelancestar.com | @ZacBoyer

ASHBURN – As the top running back on a team that went 1-11 last season, Alfred Morris figured he was lucky to be drafted at all.

Morris

Morris rushed for 1,238 yards and nine touchdowns last season for Florida Atlantic, which struggled to its worst record in 11 years of football. It was a departure from Morris’ first two years with the Owls, who played in a bowl game at the end of each season.

Production is only one factor in the scouting process – and team success a very minor one. Thus, Morris got what he was hoping for when the Washington Redskins selected him in the sixth round of the NFL Draft in April.

“Just being here, I came from a 1-11 team, so actually getting drafted is a blessing in itself,” Morris said. “The opportunities that I’ve been given since I’ve been here, I’m definitely not taking them for granted.”

Morris’ best opportunity will come Saturday night. With Tim Hightower and Roy Helu injured, Morris will see time as the Redskins’ primary running back in the preseason game at Chicago, giving himself and the coaching staff an accurate, prolonged assessment of his readiness for the NFL.

Head coach Mike Shanahan didn’t want to divulge his plans for the running backs on Thursday, only to say that Morris, Evan Royster and Tristan Davis are likely to see significant time with Hightower and Helu out. Royster took all of the snaps with the first team in the preseason opener last week at Buffalo.

But Shanahan also likes to feature his running backs one game at a time, and because Royster is a somewhat proven commodity who finished last season with consecutive 100-yard performances, Morris should be in line for a steady amount of work.

“We’ll concentrate on those three guys,” Shanahan said. “Usually you can’t go much more than three running backs who will get a pretty good look.”

Morris rarely caught passes out of the backfield at Florida Atlantic, as he had 15 receptions as a senior and 29 in his four years with the Owls. He was also very limited in his pass protection and his ability to pick up blitzes; in college, he had a half-field read, where he was only responsible for protecting the quarterback against the pass rush on one side of the field.

The Redskins require a bit more responsibility.

“Say if I’m faking to the left, I still have protection on the back side,” Morris said. “If a corner blitzes off the back side – if he attacks the quarterback, I have to get him. That’s on me, so it’s like, you’ve got to watch both sides.”

Of more than 40 snaps he played against Buffalo’s watered-down reserve defense last week, he could only recall two in which he actually had an opportunity to block. A linebacker blitzed on one, but an offensive lineman was free to pick him up. On the other, a defensive lineman came free, and Morris “kind of missed him,” he said, “but I got a piece of him and he didn’t get to the quarterback, so that was fine.”

Neither play was on Morris when players graded out.

“It’s a learning experience for all rookies,” Shanahan said. “Not a lot of colleges emphasize the protection part of the game.”

When it comes to actually carrying the ball, Morris has done well. He gained a game-high 54 yards on 15 carries against the Bills while working primarily with the third-string offensive line, and he’s demonstrated he’s not afraid of initiating contact, lowering his shoulder to hit tackles and then using his momentum to fall forward and pick up an extra yard or two.

“He’s been running very physical in practice, very decisive with his runs, and you don’t always know how it’s going to translate to the game sometimes,” Hightower said. “Fortunately for him, it translated in a good way, and I’m happy for him.”

The Redskins were hesitant to use Royster in the preseason a year ago, especially after he gained 66 yards on 15 attempts in the opener. He did not have a carry in either of the next two games before returning for the preseason finale – part of the Redskins’ plan to keep him unexposed as they attempted to get him on the practice squad.

Morris said he hasn’t been told by the coaching staff he’ll be on the same plan as well. With Helu battling tendinitis in his left Achilles and Hightower recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee, the opportunity to do so isn’t necessarily there.

A lot of others are.

“They’re in charge, so I’m just gonna keep playing my part and doing what I can,” Morris said.

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