Declaring definitive starters in May? What an asinine assignment!
Ok, admittedly, there are some for-sure starters on the Oakland Raiders roster. You can probably rattle a few off the top of your head right now. One would have to be extremely obtuse to not see the obvious. Yet, new head coach, new coaching staff, it’s not far-fetched to say new starters as well.
Let’s get to the nitty-gritty. Gruden and Co. inked Derrick Johnson and Tahir Whitehead in free agency. One could surmise the middle and one of the outside linebacker starting spots are filled. Thus, there’s a vacancy at the other OLB spot.
Enter, Nicholas Morrow.
The 6-foot, 220-pound soon-to-be 23-year-old (in July), was one of the shinier pieces of a “Silver and Bleak” Raiders team that was “poo” and seemingly run into the ground last season. Morrow played in all 16 games, started five, and finished with 60 total tackles (5 for loss) and four pass deflections. He was far from perfect, but that kind of year-one performance isn’t bad for a longshot undrafted free agent.
Morrow’s evolution from Division III to a starting linebacker last season can be seen one of two ways: Cynical or optimistic.
The cynic can say Morrow’s ascension is a byproduct of the Raiders’ devaluation of the linebacker position. No way does the Greenville College standout make the roster if the team had a competent depth chart.
The optimist can argue Morrow opened eyes and made the team based on the merit of his skill and determination. Using his speed — Morrow ran an impressive 4.52 40-yard dash at a pro day — and athleticism, he honed his craft to get to the top of the depth chart.
Highly likely coach-speak, but if you take what new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said about the holdovers from last year’s roster at face value, he’s going to give players a chance.
“I believe there are a lot of good players here, a lot of good, young players,” Guenther said. “You gotta get ‘em out and develop ‘em and get ‘em to understand your system. I think there’s a lot of good pieces here for a foundation for sure.”
The versatility that made Morrow a star at Greenville paid dividends in year one. Taking the invaluable in-game experience and applying it in year two can result in a quantum leap. Especially considering not only Johnson’s similar skill set but what the savvy veteran was told about Guenther’s scheme.
“Talking to the defensive coordinator, Paul Guenther, and the linebacker coach and the defensive coaches in general, the 4-3 scheme, the linebacker-friendly scheme is a scheme that’s built for linebackers to make plays,” Johnson said. “We have a lot of responsibility in this defense. With my wisdom from playing for 13 years, they ask the linebackers to do a lot just so we can make plays and that is right up my alley.”
Responsibility is something Morrow is all too comfortable with.
“We designed our defense around him,” Greenville head coach Robbie Schomaker said.
As the Panthers’ hybrid defender, Morrow earned the conference’s defensive player of the year nod as an impact run defender and pass disruptor. Despite being the class of Greenville’s roster, Schomaker knows Morrow can become an even better player.
“I still don’t think he’s fully tapped into his potential yet,” Schomaker said of Morrow when he signed with Oakland. “He’s got a lot of room to grow there. And I think the Raiders coaches can start to pull some of that out of him.”
That was on a questionable coaching staff. Morrow finds himself in the capable hands of Guenther and linebacker coach David Lippincott.
Morrow is going to have to beat a solid group of veterans (Emmanuel Lamur, Kyle Wilber, Shilique Calhoun) and youngsters (Marquel Lee, Azeem Victor, Jason Cabinda, and Brady Sheldon) for the outside gig. Although, Lee and Victor are more in the mold of inside run-stuffing linebackers and Calhoun is best as a defensive end.
Now Morrow has to impress a whole new coaching staff. He’s done it before. And there’s no reason he can’t do it again.
“As a rookie, you learn from everything you do,” Morrow said. “You see how people react to adversity, how they bounce back and prepare. I’ve been watching.”