The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Sports

November 21, 2012

Senior Morris helps keep Penn State intact

STATE COLLEGE — The whispers from some younger Penn State defensive backs about transferring started after the 0-2 start, disappeared after the five-game winning streak and resurfaced after a loss to Big Ten rival Ohio State.

Senior cornerback Stephon Morris would have none of it. He gathered his secondary teammates in a room for a heart-to-heart meeting.

The senior class might be playing its last game Saturday for Penn State, but Morris wants others with eligibility to follow his lead and stick with the Nittany Lions through the NCAA sanctions.

“I talked to those guys in front of a room, closed the doors and told them it would be stupid for them to leave here,” an emotional Morris recounted this week. “Let’s not talk about football. Let’s talk about getting a degree, the support you have.”

This isn’t the type of problem a big-time college football program such as Penn State (7-4, 5-2 Big Ten) typically has to consider heading into its season finale, when Wisconsin (7-4, 4-3) visits Beaver Stadium.

Then again, this has been anything but a typical season in Happy Valley.

The uncertainty stems from the NCAA’s sanctions in July for the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. The harsh penalties included a four-year bowl ban and scholarship cuts. The NCAA gave players an out – they could leave if they wanted without having to worry about transfer rules and play right away.

Defensive tackle Jordan Hill called it the lowest point of the year.

“It was the first time it affected us as players. We were put in a position – yes or no? It was ‘Are you going to stay or are you going to go?”’ Hill said.

In the end, 10 players – including senior receiver Justin Brown (Oklahoma) – transferred, though more than 90 percent of the team stayed. Senior linebacker Michael Mauti and running back Michael Zordich made the impassioned public statement that seemed to rally the players.

Seniors Hill and Morris were influential. Sophomore Allen Robinson, who has emerged as a star at receiver, cites the pair as his biggest mentors.

“Going out and practicing hard ... and playing for each other,” Robinson said. “You play for the man next to you. That’s something the seniors made us appreciate.”

And made other coaches notice.

“Obviously, very impressed with the way they’ve handled it,” Badgers coach Bret Bielema said. “A really good group of seniors. They have bought into what (Penn State coach Bill O’Brien) is preaching, and more importantly, what they’re coaching.”

Morris still talks with reverence about Joe Paterno, the Hall of Fame coach who was ousted in the aftermath of the arrest last year of Sandusky, a retired Penn State defensive coordinator. It was Paterno, after all, who recruited Morris out of Greenbelt, Md.

O’Brien was hired in January. Two weeks later, Paterno died.

“We never could forget about coach Paterno and what he’s done. He’s the reason why we were all here,” Morris said. “I stayed because of him. I stayed because of the team, the adversity we faced.

“You can’t run away from adversity. You’ve got to look at it eye-to-eye. You can’t run away from anything.”

O’Brien calls Morris one of the most improved players this season. The defense has had to adjust to the schemes tweaked by O’Brien and defensive coordinator Ted Roof to play more aggressively. That’s left Morris more in single coverage this year; he’s fourth on the team with 55 tackles.

As successful as this team has been despite the adversity, the future remains uncertain. The NCAA exception to transfer doesn’t expire until the start of the 2013 preseason in August, meaning a whole new round of college “free agency” could start again for Penn State players.

 in the offseason.

Robinson, who leads Big Ten receivers with 73 catches, 983 yards and 11 touchdowns, may be one of the most attractive Nittany Lions to other schools. Sophomore Adrian Amos, who has combined with Morris to form a good cornerback duo, could be an enticing prospect, too.

But for now, most key underclassmen haven’t given any signal that they’re thinking about leaving.

“I believe that everybody will be back that’s eligible to be back next year, but, again ... I don’t have a crystal ball and I’m not a genie,” O’Brien said. “But I think they know that they can achieve a lot of their goals here.”

Morris said he expects younger players to stick around, and he constantly speaks with his defensive backfield teammates about the future. According to Morris, Amos has told him he’ll be back.

If Amos and junior starting safeties Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong return, the secondary should be a position of strength next year.

“Anyone who is leaving, if I was to talk to them,” Morris said, “I would tell them to just take a deep breath and think about everything.”

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