RENTON, Wash. – If he hadn’t been there for almost every step of the journey, Seahawks linebacker coach Ken Norton Jr. might not recognize Mike Morgan these days.
The Morgan that Norton sees now, though, is what Norton always envisioned when he stood in Morgan’s house in Dallas roughly eight years ago and began convincing him to become a USC Trojan.
Then, Morgan was a 6-foot-3, 185-pounder whose athleticism and body frame had college recruiters convinced he could someday be a great outside linebacker/defensive end.
Today, Morgan tips the scales at 241 pounds, and with every practice is getting closer to becoming known as another unearthed Seahawks gem.
“He has really grown up,” says Norton, who became Seattle’s linebackers coach in 2010, following Pete Carroll north from Los Angeles.
In fact, Morgan has been one of the fastest-rising players in training camp, taking advantage of the absence due to injury of the likes of Cliff Avril and Chris Clemons to often work with the first unit at the LEO, or rush end spot, as well as compete at strongside linebacker.
“Mike is doing great,” Carroll said on Sunday when he also noted Morgan’s ability to also play the weakside linebacker spot as well as being a key special teams contributor. “It makes him a strong bid for making the team because he does so much.”
Morgan has been with the Seahawks the last two seasons, even starting against the Jets a year ago in place of the injured K.J. Wright.
Morgan, though, was hardly considered a certainty to make the team again entering the offseason, especially when the Seahawks began experimenting with Bruce Irvin and Avril at linebacker.
Morgan responded by changing his diet and workout regimen and adding 15 pounds from the 226 he was listed at last season.
“He’s been a lot more physical this year,” Norton said, adding that at this point in camp Morgan “is one of my favorite stories.”
Norton coached Morgan for four years at USC. As a junior in 2009, Morgan led the Trojans with 13 tackles-for-a-loss and an NFL career looked like a pretty sure thing, and was named a captain for the 2010 season.
That was the year, though, when Lane Kiffin took over for Carroll, with his father Monte taking over as defensive coordinator and bringing in elements of his famed Tampa 2 defense to the Trojans.
The change didn’t help Morgan, who finished with just three tackles for a loss and 0.5 sacks, and found himself unwanted in the NFL draft.
“Sometimes certain schemes that players are in, they are not able to show their stuff,” Norton said. “But I knew he knew us and was quite comfortable with us and I thought there was no doubt he could help us in some form.”
Seattle had taken one of Morgan’s teammates, linebacker Malcolm Smith, in the seventh round, and Morgan said it was an easy decision to sign with Seattle as an undrafted free agent, considering 2011 was the year of the lockout, which meant a short offseason and a small window for players to learn systems.
“I knew I had to go somewhere where I was familiar with the system and this system was one that I knew everything, and I knew the coaches,” he said.
In fact, he’d known Norton since being a junior in high school. A former star for the Dallas Cowboys, Norton was assigned that area in recruiting as an assistant at USC. Norton jokes that Morgan was too young to know who he was but “his parents did.”
Now it’s Morgan making himself known. He’s listed as the backup to Avril at right defensive end for Thursday’s preseason opener against the Chargers, and with Avril still sidelined, that essentially makes Morgan a starter.
“You are going to get a lot of him this game,” Norton said. “With Clemons being down, Avril being down, you are going to get a big dose of Michael Morgan and he’s going to have a chance to really show everyone his improvement and who he is now.”