Kevin Gorman: Center Jimmy Morrissey might be Pitt’s most pivotal player
When Jimmy Morrissey ran through the tunnel at Heinz Field on Friday at Pitt’s rehearsal scrimmage for the season opener, it was not just as the starting center but a team captain.
It’s just the latest accolade for Morrissey with the Panthers. He’s ascended from former walk-on to All-ACC third-team selection, from earning a scholarship prior to his redshirt freshman season to becoming Pitt’s iron man on the offensive line.
Morrissey started 23 consecutive games before a season-ending injury last November, one that required surgery and a long road to recovery for Saturday’s game against Virginia. Morrissey didn’t need a letter to be a leader, but he’s proud anyway.
“It was an extremely high honor, something that’s been a goal since I got here,” Morrissey said of joining seniors Maurice Ffrench and Dane Jackson as a captain. “Getting the scholarship was probably one of my greatest memories. Coming back, it’s a great responsibility being the only underclass captain.”
Morrissey was a natural choice. He’s been a member of the Eagles, the football program’s player leadership council, since the spring of his freshman year. Just last week, Narduzzi was asked about Morrissey being spotted sitting on a bench having a conversation with wide receiver Dontavius Butler-Jenkins.
“Jimmy has a knack for leadership. He’s just a guy that everybody looks up to,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “They have heart-to-hearts with everybody, really. Jimmy is one of those guys he can go attack it and get it done.”
But I’ll go out on a limb and say this: Morrissey might be Pitt’s most pivotal player this season. Not only is he Pitt’s only returning All-ACC selection but the lone returning starter on the offensive line, the player in charge of calling protections to prevent quarterback Kenny Pickett from getting touched.
Morrissey, of course, is too modest to accept such a compliment.
“That’s definitely an overstatement,” Morrissey said, noting the possibility his 16 fellow offensive linemen loaded the ballot box. “It’s flattering to hear. That’s not how I feel.”
But we saw what happened when Morrissey was lost for the final three games last season, losses to Miami in the season finale, Clemson in the ACC championship game and Stanford in the Sun Bowl. The line looked lost without him.
Morrissey watched from the sidelines on a scooter after surgery to repair his right ankle, a devastating by-product of what should have been Pitt’s feel-good play of the season.
When left tackle Stefano Millin took a lateral from Pickett and dived into the end zone for a touchdown, it was designed to put an exclamation point on the final play of Pitt’s 34-13 victory at Wake Forest that clinched the ACC Coastal Division title. But Millin rolled up on Morrissey, costing the Panthers their center.
“It was terrible,” Morrissey said. “I was happy we clinched the division, but it was probably one of the worst (moments) of my life. … It could’ve happened on any play. Football is football. I consider myself lucky. This is my first surgery — and hopefully, my last — but the timing was bad.”
Morrissey wanted to play against Miami All-American defensive tackle Gerald Willis III. Morrissey had dreamed of playing for the ACC championship, so he had to swallow hard as the Panthers were overwhelmed by Clemson’s trio of NFL first-round picks from the defensive line in Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence.
You have to wonder if Morrissey could have made a difference in those games, even if it wouldn’t have changed the outcome.
“I think I’d lose a lot of sleep if that was true,” Morrissey said. “I’d like to think that I’d make a difference, but it would be tough to stomach. There was nothing I could do about the injury, but I felt like I let my teammates down because I couldn’t play. To not be able to be out there and make the calls, to play and block was frustrating.”
So was sitting out spring drills, even though it allowed the 6-foot-3, 305-pound Morrissey to work on a weakness by concentrating on building his upper-body strength.
Now, Morrissey can’t wait to run through the tunnel at Heinz Field for the opener against Virginia as Pitt’s only returning All-ACC selection, its only returning starter on the offensive line and, yes, one of its team captains and leaders.
“I think it says more about the team that I’m on and how I was raised by my parents,” Morrissey said of Jim and Shivaun Morrissey, who instilled the values of accountability and respect in their son. “They taught me to work hard and only to give your best at all times. I came here as a walk-on and four years later, I’m a captain and All-ACC.
“Not many programs where that could happen.”
Not many programs have a Jimmy Morrissey.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .