NEW ORLEANS — After pulling off a preseason upset and beating out veteran Tim Hightower for a spot on the Washington Redskins’ 53-man roster, rookie running back Alfred Morris continued his improbable quest by earning the starting job over second-year backs Evan Royster and Roy Helu Jr.
Then on Sunday, Morris proved himself capable of being the team’s workhorse, rushing for 96 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries. With his first touchdown, Morris became only the third Redskins rookie since the NFL merger in 1970 to score a rushing touchdown in the opening game of the season, joining wide receiver Michael Westbrook in 1995 and running back Kelvin Bryant in 1986.
It was a continuation of an improbable quest for Morris, who this summer was considered a long shot to make the team.
Drafted in the sixth round out of Florida Atlantic University, Morris joined a training camp roster that included Hightower, Royster and Helu, who started at various points last season. Those three were projected to compete for the starting job, while Morris seemed destined for the practice squad.
But during the preseason, Morris forced his way into the equation after averaging five yards a carry through three games (his best effort being a 14-carry, 106-yard, one-touchdown outing against Indianapolis). Hightower, Helu and Royster all missed time with injury, and Morris capitalized. When the team made the final roster cuts, Hightower was released, and Helu, Royster and Morris got the nods.
But despite his strong preseason, Morris still wasn’t sure of his chances of starting. Then on Saturday, he received the news that he would start versus the Saints.
“My coach came and was like, ‘You’re going to be starting. You deserve it,’ and I said, ‘Thank you, coach,’ ” Morris recalled.
Said Shanahan: “Alfred came in and you could see it all the way through preseason. He really had some great runs, runs you don’t normally see by rookies. He got the opportunity to start and really took advantage of it. A defense like that, they played extremely hard, he had to earn everything he got and I was really pleased with how he did.”
Morris found the yards hard to come by early against the Saints. After the first half, he had only 21 yards on nine carries, and it was fellow rookie Robert Griffin III that led the team in rushing (30 yards on nine carries).
“That’s a tough day for a running back. Any time you run the ball 25-plus times and you’re in the upwards of 80, 90 yards, that’s tough yards,” Griffin said. “It’s not breaking a long one and padding your stats. He did a great job staying at it. The offensive linemen did a great job of staying at it when we were having one- and two-yard gains, and then it helped set us up in the second half to convert some things.”
The production started to come in the second half. Morris gained 75 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries as the Redskins began to wear the Saints down.
“Our offensive line did a great job of punishing them, and the lanes started getting bigger,” Morris said. “At first it was one and two yards, but then they started making my job easier.”
Shanahan said that the zone-blocking scheme that his team runs is designed to be at its best late in games, and that he was pleased with how his line and Morris executed.
Said Saints defensive end Will Smith, “It’s a different type of running game, it’s not something you see every week. The running back is tough and he fought for extra yards.”
Morris said he wasn’t surprised by his performance, but he acknowledged the way his journey to NFL starter has played out is hard to comprehend at times.
“I’m in awe and just thankful my parents were able to come to my first game as an NFL player. I always look for them in the stands and once I see them, it’s like, ‘All right, I’m fine,’ ” Morris said. “I never go out there saying I have anything to prove, but I know what I’m capable of. I know what kind of guy I am and I know my work ethic, and I’m going to go out there and get it done no matter what. No matter what team we face, I’m going to give it my all, and as long as I can leave it on the field at the end of the day, I’m happy with myself. But to help the team get a win in this environment, and come out with a win, then it’s great.”
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