SAULT STE. MARIE - Alex Morrison is determined to get a jump on the competition.
The Sault Ste. Marie athlete has been back on the West Coast for four weeks, running routes and working out in anticipation of taking to the gridiron for his third season with the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds football team.
The 22-year-old returned to the UBC campus in Vancouver early to train with a small group of players that includes freshman quarterback — Ottawa native Mike O'Connor — who transferred from Penn State to UBC this year. O'Connor decided to return to Canada after red-shirting at the Big Ten university last season. “I'm with him right now, just throwing several times a week and really trying to develop a sense of chemistry and a feel for one another on the football field,” Morrison said.
“Hopefully, that will pay dividends, not only for he and I, but for the rest of the team this upcoming season.”
Morrison was a special teams monster for the Thunderbirds during his first season in 2013.
He led the team in both punt and kick returns, running back 40 punts for 454 yards to post a 11.4-yard average. He averaged 22.2-yards per kickoff, returning 31 balls for 689 yards and scoring one touchdown on a 102-yard scamper. He also lined up at wide receiver in 2013, catching eight passes in nine games for 129 yards to average 16.1-yard per reception.
Although he didn't return as many balls on special teams during his second season, he again led the team in kick returns with 23 for 365 yards, averaging 15.9-yards-per-return. However, he played a bigger role on offence in 2014. “I started every game last year at wide receiver.” He caught 20 passes for 312 yards in eight games to average 15.6-yards-per-catch and finish second among receivers in total yards.
Morrison is the only starting receiver returning to the Thunderbirds this year, but that doesn't mean he's guaranteed a starting spot. He must fight for the job again this season, especially with new head coach, Blake Nill from the Calgary Dinos, taking over the program this year. “I think that's the mindset to have, regardless of your skill set or your past resume. You should be coming into camp to try and fight for every opportunity you get. And that's what I'm planning on doing,” said the six-foot-four, 220-pounder.
Morrison has been dedicated to “defining” his body in the past year-and-a-half. He says he is leaner, stronger and faster heading into training camp, which begins in mid-August. He ran UBC's best 40-yard time at training camp in 2013, 4.46 seconds. “I'm in very, very good shape right now.”
The carefully regimented workouts and the all the reps have helped improve his technique and ability, he said. “I'm able to break a lot easier, to cut easier and just really have a quick and explosive step, which I think is most important for a receiver especially.”
Morrison is looking forward to travelling with the Thunderbirds to Quebec City at the end of the month to practice with the Laval University Red and Gold. UBC will also play an exhibition game against Laval. “That's definitely a big opportunity for us to measure up against what has been the most dominant program in Canada for the last several years.” Laval won seven national titles between 2003 and 2013.
UBC plays in the six-team Canada West Universities Athletic Association, a regional membership association of the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS). The Western league includes the University of Calgary Dinos, the Alberta Golden Bears, Manitoba Bisons, Saskatchewan Huskies and Regina Rams.
The Thunderbirds posted a 4-4 win, loss record in the regular season two years ago. In 2014 they went 2-6 during the season. “Two-and-six wasn't a very good year. Personally, I think I could have done better,” Morrison said.
His goal this year is to help build a Vanier Cup contender. The Vanier Cup is the Holy Grail of CIS football. “We really want to win ... That's the ultimate goal, to win the Vanier Cup and to have success along the way and enjoy the ride.” Of course the long-term goal is to make it to the CFL, he admitted.
“Every player who takes this game seriously wants to play professionally. After winning the Vanier Cup, that's the next thing I would like to do, be drafted and ultimately play in the CFL. That would be a dream come true and something that I keep in the back of my mind and I'm very motivated by.”
Morrison is a general arts major at UBC. He played high-school football locally at St. Mary's College, where he was also a standout in basketball, hockey and track-and-field. He lined up at receiver for three seasons with the Sault Sabercats in the Ontario Varsity Football League.