In his first game as Shorter University’s head football coach, Zach Morrison went to one of his favorite talking points: that of building a brotherhood, of becoming something more than mere teammates.
Then one of the Hawks’ offensive linemen reminded Morrison just how far they were from that goal:
“Coach, I’ve just got to be honest with you: I don’t know the names of half of our defensive linemen,” he said.
“And I was like, ‘Yeah, I could see that,’” Morrison said on Monday, just under 11 months since that Thursday night matchup with Samford.
Morrison, a member of Forsyth Central’s Class of 2004 and the only county alum currently serving as a college football head coach, was an unusual hire for a number of reasons when Shorter, a Division II school in Rome, brought him on in January of 2018. He came directly from the high school ranks, and not even from a head coaching position: He had most recently been the offensive coordinator at Kennesaw Mountain High in Cobb County.
And Morrison slid right into what might have been one of the toughest jobs in all of college football. When he arrived at Shorter, which had joined Division II from the NAIA in 2014, the Hawks had less than 50 players on their roster. To meet the school’s quota, the team needed to get up to 120.
The months since were a mix of triumphs and disappointments. The Hawks, in a mad rush of recruiting, nearly tripled the size of the team by the start of the next school year. Then they went 0-11, stretching the program’s winless streak to 39 games. But now Morrison is a year-plus wiser, more comfortable, and seemingly no less enthusiastic than he was when he giddily accepted the job.
“I still feel extremely blessed,” Morrison said.
Shorter’s hire of Morrison was a clear attempt to bring the program back to its roots. He played offensive line for the school from 2005, the first season in program history, until 2008, earning All-American honors and eventually being inducted into the Shorter’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2013.
Morrison has used his own playing career as an example for his current players, but not in the expected way. His dream coming out of Central was to join a Division I program and get a scholarship. To join an NAIA program at the time would have been seen as a failure.
“We talk about failure a lot,” Morrison said.
It’s a topic Morrison has had to bring up consistently with the team, given how much they’ve seen it. The Hawks held a lead just two times in 2018, and they had to look for moral victories, like when they held Valdosta State, the eventual national champion, to just 10 points in the first half. The program’s rebuild is further complicated by the fact that Shorter plays in the Gulf South Conference, which is regularly one of the toughest in Division II.
Morrison frames failure, whether in his case or that of Biblical figures like Peter, as a way to gain knowledge and become stronger. With that in mind, he has to be transparent about the program’s goals, modest as they are.
“As much as we want this to be a sprint, it’s not,” he said. “It’s a marathon.”
Morrison recognizes that Shorter isn’t at the point of dreaming of a conference title yet, or even of fully stacking up with the heavyweights like Valdosta State, West Georgia and West Florida. He said that if the Hawks can get a few wins in 2019, it would be “fantastic,” and mentioned weaker opponents like Delta State, Mississippi College and Allen University as potentially favorable matchups.
And some parts are already in far better shape than they were when Morrison arrived. His first crop of recruits had some notable hits, like South Forsyth grad Jake Nitowski, who started every game at right tackle as a freshman in 2018, but also plenty of misses, no doubt exacerbated by the truncated recruiting calendar.
Since they had a whole year to put the most recent class together, Morrison and his staff got to know the incoming group that much better, and they have 72 players on campus for the summer. The Hawks are returning 10 starters on both offense and defense, and the spring practices and game had plentiful signs of progress.
“I left our spring game (feeling) like this is a different team,” Morrison said.
The whole process, from building numbers to reshaping the team’s off-field routines, isn’t terribly different from what Morrison’s high school alma mater recently underwent. In Frank Hepler’s first season, Central went 3-6 and was shut out in each of its last three games. In 2017, the Bulldogs were 0-10. But in 2018, they turned it around sharply, going 7-4 and making the state playoffs.
“I think about that all the time,” Morrison said. “… If you are there long enough, if you are able to implement your culture and guys start buying into that culture, you’re going to be successful.”