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Tuesday, June 25, 2024
The Observer

‘That’s the sign of a great one’: Benjamin Morrison ready to level up in sophomore season

Notre Dame cornerback Benjamin Morrison (20) celebrates after a pick-six during the game between Notre Dame and Clemson at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022. Credit: Max Petrosky/The Observer
Notre Dame cornerback Benjamin Morrison (20) celebrates after a pick-six during the game between Notre Dame and Clemson at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022. Credit: Max Petrosky/The Observer

You probably didn’t know Benjamin Morrison’s name this time last year.

After all, he was still in high school, finishing his senior year at Brophy Prep in Phoenix. But after a standout true freshman season that saw Morrison record a team-high six interceptions and earn freshman All-American honors, you probably know it now.

As Notre Dame football wraps up spring practice and prepares for Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, the soon-to-be sophomore cornerback hasn’t been phased by the extra attention that followed his star turn last fall.

“I wouldn’t say there’s any hype or pressure,” Morrison said about expectations for him this season. “I feel like this is the position I’ve been blessed to be in.”

Morrison did not enroll early and was not widely expected to carve out a significant role in the secondary rotation as a freshman, much less become an All-American. This meant he couldn’t rely on any outside pressure to inspire his rapid rise from a talented, but unheralded, cornerback into one of the nation’s best defensive backs. He was instead fueled by an internal desire to grow into the best player he could be. Last year’s success did nothing to change that.

“I just know that I want to become the best DB I can be and player I can be,” Morrison said. “[Reading] too much into the hype, you just can’t do that.”

Part of not getting swept up in expectations means always being locked in on the present, on getting better every day, even while fans and media rehash his 96-yard pick-six against Clemson or his three-interception effort against Boston College two weeks later. This is no problem for Morrison, who is proud of how he played as a true freshman but is eager to get back on the field to prove that he is capable of even more.

“If I’m still focused on the past, I won’t be benefitting my team in any way,” he said. “I just feel like last year was scratching the surface for me... It’s cool, because in many eyes, I did a lot [last season], but I feel like there’s still a lot more I can do.”

Reaching those new heights will be made possible by hard work in the offseason. The message of maintaining a continuous drive to improve, regardless of results, is one that has reverberated throughout Notre Dame’s practice facility all spring.

“You can’t be complacent at this level. On any day, your job can be taken, or you can mess up,” Morrison said. “That’s just a ‘no’ in the building. We don’t strive just to be complacent. We strive to become the best version of ourselves.”

The Irish have high hopes for what the best version of their cornerback group could look like. The unit played at a high level in 2022, holding opponents to under 200 passing yards per game on the year. But they really hit their stride during a four-game stretch toward the end of the regular season in which they intercepted eight passes (five of them Morrison’s) after recording just one in their first seven games combined.

The cornerbacks will look to build on their strong conclusion to last season and boast an impressive group of returnees who should help them do so. Morrison is joined by fellow sophomore Jaden Mickey and senior Clarence Lewis. The Irish also bring back graduate student Cam Hart, whose decision to return to school announced to college football that the unit would be a force to be reckoned with.

“Our room, it’s growing. Just the people in the room, the players in the room, the leadership in the room. Having Cam Hart coming back has been just awesome,” Morrison said. “We have depth, and that’s the best thing about a DB room, having depth and people you can trust to go out there and execute what they’re asked to do.”

Despite the competitive atmosphere that comes from having several experienced returnees grappling for playing time, the cornerbacks are a tight-knit group. Their shared trust is built on the knowledge that pushing each other to succeed is what will lead to better results in the fall.

“It’s just been all love and helping each other get better,” Mickey said. “Really helping the team instead of just trying to beat somebody out.”

That team-first mentality comes from strong leadership within the group. While Morrison considers the more veteran Hart and Lewis the primary leaders in the room, the Irish coaching staff has praised his and Mickey’s willingness to step up and set an example for their teammates during their second year in South Bend.

“You get a Ben Morrison and a Jaden Mickey,” Irish cornerbacks coach and defensive pass game coordinator Mike Mickens said. “[They’re] younger, but they’ve grown and become mature and [are] speaking up, as well.”

Morrison’s leadership has extended specifically to freshman Christian Gray, a highly-touted recruit who joined the cornerbacks this spring. Morrison described Gray as like a “little brother” and a “great player.” He has helped ease Gray’s transition to Notre Dame in the same way that last year’s veterans helped him.

“I see a lot of myself in him, so it’s cool being able to walk him through things that I had to go through last year,” Morrison said. “When you get on campus, there’s going to be things that you don’t know what to do or understand, so just having that person to go to is awesome. [Former Irish cornerback TaRiq Bracy] was that for me last year, so it’s nice being that for [Gray].”

While much of that leadership has come off the field, Morrison’s dedication to improving his skills provides a blueprint for the Irish’s strong freshman class. His work ethic helped him earn his first collegiate start in just his third career game. It has never waned in the months since.

“He’s a hard worker, that’s the great thing about him. He’s a very humble kid, always been that way. He’s very competitive,” Mickens said. “All he wants to do is get better and find ways to get better. His same routine, he’s taking the same approach as he did as a true freshman, and you just see him growing and growing and growing on the field and off the field.”

To second-year defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Al Golden, that competitive spirit is what has led Morrison to so much success early in his career. Humble off the field, he has full confidence in his abilities and seeks out the most difficult coverage assignments in order to help his team as much as possible.

“He wants that challenge, he wants the sombrero on him. He’s up to the challenge and it’s been fun being around him,” Golden said. “He’s finding little ways to improve in every aspect of his game, and that’s the sign of a great one.”

Golden is not the only one expecting Morrison to be great this season. Notre Dame’s defense battled through a few tough outings in 2022 to emerge as one of the better units in the country, and they will be counted on to reach even greater heights in the coming year. At the core of those goals is the cornerback group — and Morrison.

But don’t expect that to change his approach to the game. Don’t expect him to stop pushing himself and his teammates to get better every day.

“Never be satisfied,” Morrison said of his mindset. “There’s always more you can do.”

In his sophomore season, Benjamin Morrison is ready to take his game — and the Irish defense — to the next level. He’s not going to stop until he gets there.