NEW ORLEANS - New Orleans Saints punt returner Joe Morgan admittedly ran “scared’’ Friday night in the Superdome, resulting in a harrowing experience for the San Francisco 49ers.
The undrafted rookie free agent, who played high school and college football in the shadows of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, weaved his way 78 yards for a touchdown with 14:03 remaining in the second quarter to help the Saints beat the 49ers 24-3.
Morgan, a 6-foot-1, 184-pound wide receiver via Illinois and Walsh University, broke three tackles en route to the end zone and scored what proved to be the winning points in the opening exhibition game for both teams.
The unlikeliest of preseason heroes was making his first “live’’ appearance as a punt returner since his senior season in 2005 at McKinley Senior High School in Canton, Ohio, not far from where he completed his college eligibility at Walsh.
Since first learning of his punt-return role at midweek from coach Sean Payton, Morgan said he spent the next few days and nights before the game trying to calm his nerves and give himself confidence.
“I was really shocked when I saw the rotation,’’ Morgan said. “I’m not going to lie to you - I was scared, nervous. I was trying to get my mind together.
“There were moments I’d get back into the hotel at night and think, ?Man, I don’t want to do this at all.’ I wanted to tell (Payton) so bad that I didn’t want to do it, but if I told him that, that hurts my chances of making the team. But I did have those thoughts; I didn’t want to do it.’’
Truth be told, Morgan’s chances of making the Saints’ opening-game 53-man roster are remote. It likely would take a perfect storm for him to win a spot since the team’s receiving corps already features wideouts Lance Moore, Marques Colston, Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson.
But the longer wide receivers Adrian Harrington and Jarred Fayson remain sidelined with injuries, the better chance players like Morgan, Montez Billings and others have of making the team.
Morgan also caught a 21-yard pass from third-string quarterback Sean Canfield in the fourth quarter. Just as Morgan turned upfield, 49ers strong safety Adam West and Morgan banged helmets along the sideline in front of the Saints’ bench.
If nothing else, a punt return for a touchdown could help Morgan land a spot on the Saints practice squad or even with another team. In 2009, free agent wide receiver Rod Harper won a job on the season-opening 53-man roster with his second of two punt returns for a touchdown in the last exhibition game.
So fairy tales do come true.
“Every year - and I mention this to the group of them - a team has someone who returns a punt or a kick for a touchdown and opens eyes and (Morgan) did that tonight,’’ Payton said. “He has exceptional speed and balance. He has transitioned well in his first year without any of the offseason.”
Morgan said his best chance of making the team comes on special teams, on the return and coverage teams. A top-caliber high jumper with above-average speed in high school, Morgan played on the edge as a rusher on the punt-block unit at Walsh University.
He was the team’s backup punt returner.
“I’m an undrafted rookie so there’s no guarantee I’m going to make the team,’’ Morgan said. “I have to go out and perform every day at practice, every preseason game and every opportunity I get to go out there, not only for this team but for the other 31 teams in the National Football league.
“This (touchdown) makes my chances better to make this team or the next team. But it’s not going to stop here. I got to keep going out and working hard every day. I got to work hard the next preseason game, too. I got to keep moving on to the next phase.’’
Morgan’s next opportunity comes at 7 p.m. Saturday against the Houston Texans in Reliant Stadium.