When Tyre Bracken left the Southern football team during the offseason, the coaches starting looking around for the right guy to take his place.
The Jaguars had lost their second-leading rusher from last season, someone whose 6.3 yards-per-carry average was the highest among players with more than 16 rushes. Bracken was an explosive back-up to 1,000-yard rusher Lenard Tillery when Malcolm Crockett was hurt and helped form an effective three-man rotation when Crockett was healthy.
But with No. 4 running back Jamarcus Jarvis also having left, the coaches expanded their search beyond the depth chart at running back.
“We went through the roster,” coach Dawson Odums said. “And we realized this guy is the prefect fit.”
That guy was senior wide receiver Justin Morgan, one of the most athletic and versatile players on the team. Morgan, who said he “played everything in high school” in Pell City, Alabama, had already shown his versatility.
In addition to his vast experience at receiver, he has lined up at quarterback in the Wildcat formation, taken snaps on faked punts and returned kickoffs.
“They said they wanted to see me get the ball a little bit more,” Morgan said. “We’ll see where that takes us.
“Anybody who’s a playmaker loves to get the ball, but it’s a team group. I’m really just trying to get myself back into shape and get my footwork right so I can showcase my talents this year.”
Morgan, who’s still working at his customary receiver position, also lines us as the “slot receiver” as Bracken did, which enables Southern still to pass to him but also hand the ball to him on running plays that take advantage of his exceptional speed.
“I’m getting comfortable in the running back role itself, finding the holes, getting a feeling for the D line, for the linebackers,” Morgan said. “I’ve just got to slow the game down in my head.”
Morgan, 5-foot-10, 172 pounds, said he has “fallen in love with wide receiver,” but when asked what position he prefers, he replied, “any place I can get the ball.”
As a freshman three years ago, Morgan touched the ball just once on offense and returned five kickoffs. The next season, he caught just nine passes, but was used in the Wildcat and wound up as the fourth-leading rusher on the team with a 6.3 average and one touchdown.
Last season, he played in all 13 games, starting the last nine at wide receiver. He averaged 6.3 yards per rush and was the third-leading receiver with 22 catches for a 7.8-yard average and four touchdowns.
“He’s very versatile,” Odums said. “He’s probably one of the most talented guys on the team. He’s compact. He’s got explosive speed. He can play the slot receiver, he can play the outside receiver, he can play running back.
“He’s probably one of the most humble guys on the team. He wants to win. He’s very competitive. No matter what we’re doing, you’re going to get his best effort. He’s just a guy that I think any coach would want to have on their team.”
Odums said the Jaguars are looking for “a dynamic duo” in the backfield with Morgan sometimes being paired with either Tillery, Crockett or leading receiver Willie Quinn.
“I think it gives us a chance to make some explosive plays,” Odums said. “As him being one of the hardest-working guys on the team, I’d like to see him get the ball more. The more times he touches it, the more explosive plays he has a chance to make.
“It’s about trying to put it in his hands in different positions. We’ve got receivers. He’s one of the receivers. But if he’s not in the game at receiver, we have the luxury of putting him in at running back. And I think that’s a good thing for us.”
Southern was ranked No. 6 nationally in the SBN Black College Football preseason poll released Monday. But that placed the Jaguars just third among Southwestern Athletic Conference teams. Defending SWAC and Black College Football national champion Alcorn State was ranked first; and Grambling, which edged out Southern as the favorite to win the West division in the SWAC preseason poll, was picked third.
Follow Les East on Twitter @EastAdvocate.