At Terry Sanford High School in Fayetteville, North Carolina, 100 tackles is not outside the realm of possibility. An up-tempo offense ensures that is the case, but more often than not, head coach Bruce McClelland sees those types of numbers from a linebacker.
“I’ve never had a defensive lineman have 100 tackles, I think maybe the last one was Paris Black and he went to Wake Forest and he was really, really good,” McClelland said. “We’ve had some really good d-linemen.”
Years before Elijah Morris accomplished the feat as a junior, racking up exactly 100 tackles, including 16 for a loss of yardage in 14 games, Black was putting the finishing touches on a storied prep career with a 146-tackle effort to earn All-State and All-Region honors.
After a trio of seasons at Wake Forest, Black transferred to James Madison and played in all 12 games during Mike Houston’s final season with the program.
Two years later, Houston is coaching another Terry Sanford High School product that eclipsed the 100-tackle mark at the prep level. Instead of being one of the Pirates’ prized recruits in Houston’s second draft class with ECU, Morris was offered only a preferred walk-on spot with the Pirates.
“The big thing around Elijah is everyone wonders how did he slip under the radar,” Morris’ father, Nelson, said. “Why didn’t he have all these offers? Why wasn’t he recruited? We can’t figure that out…You watch his film, he’s a player, he’s always been a player. He was first-team all-conference two years, he was all-region. His team won more than 10 games every year he played, the three years he played. He’s a 3.0 (GPA) student, 3.2 or 3.3 or something. We couldn’t figure it out. A lot of people told us he was undersized. I don’t know, but he’s a football player, he’s always put up the numbers.”
Across 39 high school games, Morris booked 180 tackles, including 32 for a loss of yardage and 7.5 sacks. Under McClelland, Morris found himself bouncing around from the interior defensive line positions to defensive end.
Against individuals that are now playing in the ACC, Morris regularly won battles in the trenches and consistently showed his coaches a nose for the football.
“If you watch his film consistently you’ll see him play nose guard, defensive tackle, he even played some defensive end for us,” McClelland said. “Much like you’re seeing now against Navy and those teams, he’s always around the football. It doesn’t matter if he’s on the back-side, he’s going to play his assignment and once his assignment is over, he’s going to run to the football. He’s going to make plays, he’s just a playmaker.”
Twice already this season Morris has found himself in possession of the football following a forced fumble. In his first two collegiate starts, the freshman booked a total of two fumble recoveries and racked up a career-high eight tackles against Georgia State earlier in the season.
To get from preferred walk-on at the beginning of preseason camp to starter along Blake Harrell’s defensive front, Morris had to display for his Pirate coaches the work ethic his parents and high school coaches already know he possesses.
“He’s a helluva football player,” McClelland said. “He works, he’s going to outwork everybody around him. If you do two hours of work, he’s going to do three, it’s just the type of person he is. He just will not be outworked. There’s a maturity about him that he had as a sophomore, he was one of our captains. Most of our captains are seniors. As a sophomore he was a captain on our team just because it didn’t matter if it was the film room, workouts in the summer, weight room or the practice field, he was always ahead of everybody, locked in. He’s one of those rare guys that makes everybody around him accountable.”
Growing up in a family filled with athletes helped Morris understand what it takes to be successful at the collegiate level. Morris’ older sister, Kia, played two sports at Barton College while both of his parents played basketball at the collegiate level. On the football field, Morris’ father coached him until middle school and helped instill the drive that Pirate fans have seen these last couple of weeks.
Even so, some of that drive comes from adversity Morris encountered during the recruitment process. A lack of interest from Division I programs and the overall fluidity of the offers presented to him formed something of a chip on his shoulder.
Offered no scholarship by ECU, it was the philosophy set forward by Houston that no matter your class level or scholarship status, if you play hard, you will be rewarded with playing time. Fontel Mines was tasked with passing that message to Morris and ended up building a solid relationship with the young man through his constant recruitment of the area.
“Just his presence gave ECU that legitimacy to Elijah,” McClelland said. “Elijah was like ‘he asked me about other things than football.’ I feel like coach Mines was very, very instrumental in getting Elijah to trust the process, trust everything about ECU, and then when he set up the visit, it was pretty much history. He loved it up there.”
All things being similar between ECU’s offer and offers from Division II schools, Morris put a lot of stock into the idea of going to Greenville to compete. A naturally driven and motivated individual, the prospect of working his way into the starting rotation and fulfilling his dream of playing FBS football is what ultimately convinced Morris to pull on the purple and gold.
“He just said ‘coach I know I got these other offers, but I know I can play there and I believe in coach Houston, coach Mines saying that the best people will play,’” McClelland said. “He goes ‘he said the same thing you guys say. Whoever works harder, whoever deserves it, my loyalty is to the team and that’s my job. What we are off the field is what we are off the field.’
“He took them to heart on that and trusted them in that process. He said ‘I know they’re telling me the truth.’ That’s what flipped it toward the end when he was trying to make his decision going back-and-forth like all kids do. That was the nail in the coffin.”
In his decision to walk-on at ECU instead of accepting a scholarship at a smaller school, Morris’ parents were behind him all the way. Not wanting him to end up regretting his decision and recognizing the goals their son had set forth for himself, they refused to intervene. That was rewarded when they got the call that he might be making his first collegiate start.
“He wasn’t sure, it was more of a ‘dad I think I’m starting this week,’” Nelson said. “I was ecstatic, I was like ‘great man, you’ve worked hard for it.’ First thing I told him after he started his first game was ‘you worked hard to get to the top, you’re going to have to work twice as hard to stay there.’ His answer was just ‘I know.’”
At the last minute, Morris’ father made the trip to Tampa, Florida, to see his son play but remains unsurprised to see No. 90 playing Division I football.
Perhaps most unsurprised of all is his former coach. Around Morris for nearly every day of the three years he played at Terry Sanford High School, McClelland has witnessed first-hand how impactful his former player can be on a room of his peers.
“He walks in the weight room and everybody gets to work,” McClelland said. “He’s the hardest-working guy on anything that we do. It’s a dream kid to have. Great grades in the classroom. If you could start a program with a kid, you would want somebody like Elijah Morris.”
With that stellar work ethic already shining through with the Pirates, McClelland said it is really hard to imagine a ceiling for Morris. During his high school days, there was not a stage too big for the 6’1” 283-pound Morris and not a single person that could outwork him.
“He’s going to be all in no matter what it is,” McClelland said. “He’s going to work as hard in the classroom, being a good person. I fully expect the sky to be the limit with him. I would not be surprised to see him make all-conference teams in the future and have a shot at getting looked at, at the next level. He’s just one of those kids that whoever he plays with, he rises to that. The good thing about it for ECU is he’s going to bring everybody along with him. He’s not going to allow you to take a shortcut, either.”
Players who fail to take shortcuts and succeed at holding others accountable is exactly the type of student-athletes a rebuilding program like ECU needs. While the Pirates may not have intended for Morris to be a big part of their future six months ago, he has risen to the top of the battle for playing time at defensive tackle with the same attitude and work ethic that allowed him to post elite numbers in high school.
“I remember he said ‘dad I can play FBS football,’” Nelson said. “So, we said ‘go for it.’ His motor and his intellect are the two things — he’s not the freakish athlete that some of these kids appear to be — but he’s got a motor and an intellect that will not be stopped.”