If running backs are supposed to be the glory boys of football, then somebody ought to tell Johnny Morton.
Morton, South Torrance High School’s standout receiver, could have been a running back if he had wanted to. He could have carried the football 25 times a game and blasted off right tackle or swept around the end to his heart’s content.
But now, Morton is back were he feels he belongs--split end, where he starred last year as a junior. After shuttling around in South’s Power-I offense for the first four games of this season, including cameos at tailback and tight end, Morton is out in the open pastures again, where he likes it.
“I didn’t mind carrying the football once in a while,” Morton said. “But I just like playing receiver too much to give it up.”
After six games, Morton has 28 receptions--third in the South Bay--for 439 yards. That’s an average of 15.6 yards per catch.
He was a pretty good little running back, too. In South’s 27-20 opening win over Torrance, Morton started at tailback and rushed for two touchdowns. He caught a screen pass for another and stunned the Tartars with a kickoff return for his fourth TD of the evening.
But pretty soon, Morton longed for the thrill of sprinting into the open passing lanes. He missed everything about his old position. It got to the point where Morton would have gladly taken a clothesline hit across the middle from a psychopathic free safety--just for old times’ sake.
He even missed those turbo-powered cornerbacks hellbent on dragging him to the earth by the jersey. Bring ‘em on, Morton said, just give me my old position.
Morton got his wish. With a little lobbying from his father, Johnny Sr., and a foot injury that slowed him a bit in the backfield, Morton was reinstated as South’s full-time flanker last Friday against Culver City.
“We experimented with John at tailback,” South Coach Joe Austin said. “But every time we put him back there, everyone knew what was coming. So now we try to get him the ball as much as we can at receiver without being too obvious.”
Whether it was obvious or not, Morton responded to the recent switch by burning Culver City for a pair of TDs. He returned a kick 87 yards for one score and added another when he outran the secondary to the corner of the end zone and cradled a 45-yard strike from senior quarterback Dan Jenkins.
“It was nice to do some receiver-type things again,” Morton said.
Especially after sitting out the previous game after injuring his foot while playing running back in South’s 31-14 loss to Bishop Montgomery. Morton hurt the foot in the pile-on that followed a short gain into the gut of Bishop Montgomery’s defense.
“I was on the ground and a 340-pound guy (nose tackle Christian Maumalanga) just fell on my ankle,” Morton said. “It got all twisted sideways.”
Morton played in the next game against Redondo, but he was favoring the injured foot. After that game, he could barely walk. His doctor diagnosed a sprain of the deltoid ligaments, and Morton had to watch from the sidelines when South beat Mira Costa, 10-6, on Oct. 7--Morton’s birthday.
Tonight, South (3-3, 2-1 in the Ocean League), plays host to Centennial of Compton at 7:30. It’s South’s homecoming game, and Morton will be back again at split end--a belated birthday present from Austin.
Last year Morton emerged as one of the top receivers in the South Bay. He became one of quarterback Zak Krislock’s favorite targets and hauled down 49 passes for 811 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has 8 TDs this year.
He had a crucial TD catch in the first round of last year’s playoffs against Hueneme. South, with tailback Mike Wyrick having a big game, kept the ball on the ground. Morton’s defender was playing him close to the line to stop the run, so Morton sprinted deep and Krislock hit him with a rainbow for the score.
“It seemed like that ball was in the air forever,” Morton recalled. “Finally it just dropped in over my shoulder.”
Even though South lost the next game to Channel Islands, Morton had established himself as a deep threat. Now most cornerbacks play him off the line of scrimmage in respect for Morton’s game-breaking speed. This spring Morton was timed at 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
“If he makes a catch in front of you, you’re in deep trouble,” Austin said. “He’s very elusive and very quick.”
Morton tries to make use of that quickness by faking defensive backs away from his plotted pass route within the first 10 yards of his pattern. Since he doesn’t get many opportunities to streak past a cornerback, Morton has developed an arsenal of fakes.
“I try to get a lot of room around me by turning the defender around,” Morton said. “I disguise my patterns with head fakes or by looking where I’m not going to go. Whatever it takes to get open.”
Morton has the speed and the soft hands to be a Division I college prospect. So far, he has met personally with scouts from USC, Washington and Stanford. The three Pac-10 schools have scouted him “about evenly,” he said, and all are equally attractive to him at this point.
Just as long as they don’t make him play tailback.
His half-brother, Michael Morton, a former Inglewood High star, was a journeyman running back for a few years in the National Football League. The elder Morton played briefly with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Washington Redskins and as a replacement player with the Seattle Seahawks during last year’s NFL player’s strike.
“I’ve seen how he’s gotten banged up a few times,” Morton said. “It can get kind of hard to gain yards back there sometimes.”