Breaking news: The unlikely tale of Raiders
During training camp in Napa, Derek Carr threw a slant pass off a receiver’s hands that bounced into the air. Knowing the Raiders’ defense was in an alignment with no free safety, Carr was confident the ball would fall harmlessly to the ground as an incomplete pass.
“This man comes out of nowhere,” Carr said. “He runs and dives, 15 yards away, and picks it off. I said, `Who is this guy?’ ”
Out of nowhere.
If you wrote the book on Morrow, that would be the title.
Morrow himself wasn’t buying the storyline until he made a big play as a junior at Division III Greenville College.
“I got off a block, stripped the ball and scored,” Morrow said. “One of the refs came up to me and said, `Keep doing your thing and you’ll get to the league.’ That’s when it hit me.”
Playing before crowds numbering in the hundreds, Morrow was a four-year varsity starter, first team All-Upper Midwest Athletic Conference as a junior and senior and the league’s defensive player of the year in 2016.
“He stuck out like a sore thumb in a lot of ways,” said Robbie Schomaker, Morrow’s coach at Greenville. “He just looked and played different than anybody else.”
Schomaker devised a scheme built around the 6-foot, 216-pound Morrow. His position was a hybrid: part safety, part linebacker. And why not? Morrow was capable of doing anything from guarding smaller receivers in the slot, taking on tight ends and even rushing the passer.
As fate would have it, the Raiders are looking for such a player on their defense. They drafted Obi Melifonwu of Connecticut in the second round to do those very same things and experimented with cornerback Sean Smith.
Melifonwu will make the roster, but is way behind after an ankle injury on the second day of training camp. Smith has been working outside again of late and embroiled in a legal issue, having been arrested for two felony counts of assault and battery.
In the meantime, Morrow has gotten some work with the first team as a weak side linebacker, narrowly missed a game-clinching interception against the Los Angeles Rams and has participated on special teams.
A long shot? Absolutely.
Morrow is the first Greenville player to actually sign a contract and make a run at the 53-man roster, although four have had tryouts. If he is one of the more than 1,000 players to be set free on Sept. 2, the practice squad is a possibility either with the Raiders or another team.
Coach Jack Del Rio has preached since the day he arrived that he isn’t interested in pedigrees or reputations. Running back Jalen Richard made the Raiders last year after arriving on a tryout basis.
“I think Jalen was a great example,” Del Rio said. “Once they get here, it’s really a great opportunity for them. We put action behind it. It’s not just words. I think they understand that. With Morrow, we’ll see how he continues. He’s done a good job.”
The “out of nowhere” practice interception against Carr was something Schomaker saw on a near weekly basis.
“We’re playing Millikin, his man gets into the flat, catches it and has all kinds of space. No way we’re catching him,” Schomaker said. “He’s got a 15-yard head start on Nick. Nick is at a standstill. Nick runs him down at the 20-yard line to save a touchdown.”
There was also the time as a senior against Minnesota-Morris that Morrow scored a touchdown as a wildcat formation quarterback, caught a pass, intercepted a pass and recovered a fumble. All in the same game.
Raiders assistant director of player personnel Trey Scott was one of the first scouts to visit Greenville, and up to 20 scouts came out to practice in his senior year. Morrow had pre-draft visits with the Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs, and his pro day along with other Division II and III players in the area was a packed house.
It was heady stuff for someone who didn’t play football until the ninth grade in Huntsville, Alabama, and was an offensive lineman until his senior year. There was precious little film of Morrow and and recruiting interest was nil.
“We had a saying at Greenville, `Compete against your best self,’ ” Morrow said. “So even if my competition wasn’t at the highest level, I wanted to make sure I played at my highest level every day. I was competing against what I did yesterday or the day before.”
Carr, whose locker was near Morrow’s during training camp, likes what he sees.
“Mentally he has a good grasp for the kind of football he was playing before he got here,” Carr said. “It’s obviously a different level. I don’t think that the game is too big for him.”
Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. is also impressed.
“You’re watching the games — a lot of speed, a lot of passion,” Norton said. “The guy shows up when the lights come on. (He’s) really good on special teams, so we like where he is, and the evaluation process continues.”
Morrow is too busy learning to stop and consider how far he has come.
“It’s humbling. You can’t write this up,” Morrow said. “I’m just out here playing football, trying to learn and absorb what’s going on.”