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After smaller role on offense, Arizona’s Morrison gets reward on special teams

Richard Morrison

Richard Morrison heads for the end zone on his 63-yard punt return. Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

Arizona Wildcats junior Richard Morrison has been passed over at slot receiver in the past two games by a walk-on redshirt freshman and a little-used sophomore.

He still found a way to contribute on special teams.

Morrison went 63 yards on a punt return Saturday night for a second-half touchdown against Washington, a score that earned him Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week honors.

“First of all, I want to thank the punt return team for blocking for me,” Morrison said after the game.

“It was crazy. Once I caught the ball, I heard my teammates screaming that you have an open path. I looked, and it just parted like the Red Sea and I took off. Once I knew I had gotten past the punter, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m actually going to score.’”

It wasn’t over yet.

Morrison said his legs started “giving out on me” and he was struggling to make strides while Arizona’s Mark Watley, ahead of the play, was waving Morrison on toward the goal line. Morrison knew a Washington defender — Taz Stevenson — was closing.

“I’m thankful for Mark Watley for saving me at the end,” Morrison said.

“When I was running, my leg wouldn’t pick up, and it was hurting. I looked back, and that dude probably would have tackled me at the 5-yard line. Mark jumped in front of me and blocked him.”

The touchdown gave Arizona a 45-17 lead with 9:35 to play in the third quarter. Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez called it a “backbreaker” for Washington. UA was happy to run the ball and play defense after that, winning 52-17.

For Morrison, it was a highlight in what has been a tough season. He has bobbled a couple of punts and dropped several passes, which has led to a diminished role on offense.

Two games ago, redshirt freshman Johnny Jackson played ahead of Morrison and caught 10 passes at Stanford. With Jackson out because of an ankle injury, sophomore Garic Wharton got the majority of playing time in the slot, catching a 33-yard touchdown (while running the wrong route).

“It’s not bitter, because I do what I can for the team,” Morrison said.

“I feel that when Garic Wharton came in and Johnny Jackson came in, I took them under my wing. It makes me happy because I actually taught them a lot of stuff. So, it doesn’t make me mad they’re actually playing now.

“I’m like a big brother to them.”

Rodriguez doesn’t mind the competition. On a thin team, there’s not a lot of that to go around in practice.

“I think all of our guys understand that we have open competition for every position every day, not just on game day,” he said.

“I think players like the fact that they have to perform every day, they have to compete every day. We have Richard Morrison, who we have a lot of confidence in. We’ve got Johnny Jackson, who earned a job before he got hurt, and now you have Garic Wharton.

“Now we have three guys that are all competing for that starting slot receiver position. That just makes us a better team, plus it gives us as coaches more confidence that we can play all three guys and not limit what we do offensively.”

Morrison was bothered by a hamstring injury in camp, and it should be noted that Rodriguez says the junior has not been completely healthy. Morrison still ranks third on the team in receptions with 23 for 171 yards.

“I have a lot of confidence in him,” Rodriguez said. “He’s been banged up and probably hasn’t said a lot about it,” Rodriguez said.

Now, Morrison has a feel-good moment and a Pac-12 weekly award for Arizona’s first punt return touchdown since Bug Wright went 86 yards against Washington State on Nov. 7, 2009.

“I did what I could to help the team,” Morrison said.

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You can see the punt return starting at about the 37-second mark of the highlights from the Pac-12 Networks:

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