Zach Morrison has always had football blood in his veins.
For the past four years, however, his heart has become one of the main organs that has helped give life to Shorter College’s football program.
Despite being denied the chance to fulfill a dream to play in the major college ranks after closing out his prep career at Forsyth Central High School, the Cumming native has emerged as one of the best NAIA centers in the nation and is eager to end his four-year career with the Hawks by helping the team prove its worth well beyond the regular season.
And the 6-foot, 270-pound senior will do it using all the traits that have made him a keystone for Shorter’s offense — strength, experience and, more than anything, humility.
“Zach personifies all the factors you want from a player,” Shorter head coach Phil Jones said of Morrison, a two-time Mid-South All-Conference and All-Academic selection who was named an NAIA Preseason All-American this season.
“He motivates others by his work habits and performance.”
Hard work has always been the mantra for Morrison. After all, he is the son of one of the main reasons why the University of Georgia won the 1980 national championship — Tim Morrison, who paved the way for Georgia running back legend Herschel Walker and earned All-Southeastern Conference honors.
“Dad taught me to be tough and work hard,” Zach Morrison said, “and I set my sights high about playing at a big school like my dad did.”
Morrison had high hopes of playing on the major college level after graduating from high school in 2004. Instead, he remained in recruiting purgatory as none of the big-name programs made him offers and he was left with only a few smaller schools expressing some interest.
“After going through all that, I said I was through with football,” Morrison said about the disappointment.
Instead, he enrolled at a junior college in Gainesville, and shifted his football attention to the sidelines when he became a volunteer coach for Forsyth Central’s ninth-grade team.
But early in 2005 the door to college re-opened when his dad saw a newspaper story about Shorter starting up a football program and mentioned it to him.
“I kind of balked when he told me about it,” said Morrison, “but I started thinking and praying about it a lot, decided to call coach Jones and one thing led to another.”
“We had a couple of recommendations about Zach,” Jones said about the process, “and watched some tape of him. You could see on film that he was committed to work and had the mental toughness.
“He went beyond the call of duty, but we later learned that’s the way he does everything.”
Morrison had been planning to transfer to Georgia and continue his studies before the opportunity to play at Shorter came along. Even while he was taking classes in junior college with the assumption that his playing days were over, he continued to keep in shape, working out five times a week and running in Gainesville. It turned out to be a good choice.
“I don’t even know why I was doing it, but ... there was just something in me that said ‘I need to work out’,” he said.
A member of the Hawks’ inaugural team in 2005, Morrison initially got the call to play at guard his freshman year, but when the 2006 season arrived the Hawks’ coaching staff made the decision to move him under the quarterback at center.
Not surprisingly, the move was the right call, as Morrison immediately became the center to watch in the Mid-South.
“I’d say he’s the best center in the NAIA,” said Shorter offensive line coach Tim Mathis, who noted that Morrison has always graded out as one of the Hawks’ top linemen each game. “When you see him play on tape every week, all you can say is ‘Wow.’”
“Zach’s a natural at it,” Mathis added. “He can play with a flat back better than anyone I’ve seen. When he comes off the ball, he’s like a dinner table all the way down the field and with him being one of the strongest kids on the team, he always has the edge.”
Morrison said playing at an NAIA school has probably helped him emerge as a “big fish in a little pond,” but he doesn’t disparage the level of competition found at that level, comparing the opponents Shorter plays to NCAA Division II schools. In fact, Shorter recorded a win over D-II North Greenville this past weekend.
“The level of competition is pretty high,” he said.
Morrison and the Hawks’ line have helped Shorter emerge as a team that lives by the run.
In 2006, the first season Morrison started snapping the ball, Shorter was ranked No. 4 in rushing offense, ending the season averaging 239.1 yards a game. Last year, the Hawks improved to No. 3 with a 284.4 mark at the end of the season. Currently, the Hawks are No. 1 in rushing average at about 316 yards a game, a point of pride for Morrison and his buddies on the offensive line, four of whom share a house off-campus.
Anytime a running back is interviewed following a big performance, he’s quick to point to Morrison and the other linemen for their work paving the way for him.
“That makes all of us on the line appreciate the practices and the work we’ve done,” Morrison said of the team’s success running the football.
“Our offense needs to be strong right down the middle,” Jones said, “and Zach has been a leader helping us do that. He leads by doing.”
The Hawks are currently 5-2 and probably need to win out to secure a playoff spot.
Still, things have come a long way since his freshman year, where the Shorter team won only three games. The Hawks had about 115 true freshmen on the roster that first season, Morrison estimates.
“We were kids,” he said. “It’s night and day [comparing then to now].”
Off the field, Morrison has completed his requirements for a four-year history degree and now spends his days as a student-teacher in economics and world history. After getting his teaching certificate, he’d like to coach football and teach high school history.
“This semester has really taught me to focus on time management. This is the least amount of time I’ve had for myself in a long time,” Morrison said, describing days that begin at 6:30 a.m. with classes and don’t end for 14 hours, with team meetings following practice in the evening.
Not surprisingly, he finds it hard to make it home during football season, saying he typically finds time to visit family in Cumming once during the fall.
Friday marked one of those rare occasions, though. Morrison planned to visit his old stomping grounds to watch Forsyth Central play Chamblee.
Looking down from those bleachers as the Bulldogs take the field, he’ll have occasion to think of his time wearing that uniform, and how far he’s come since.