Football: AHEAD OF THE CURVE
By Brandon Hurley
The greatest punt returners heavily rely on two incredible skills – creativity and vision.
Tim Dwight, Devin Hester and the often forgotten Dante Hall honed them. Deon Sanders was a blur while Desmond Howard picked his spots with ease. They all shared another rare and captivating talent – electricity. When those legends took to the field well behind the line of scrimmage, the crowd hushed to a silence while the opposing team held their breath in fear.
A return man is much more than producing lightning in a bottle. It requires a certain amount of improvisation and patience. The ability to combine quickness with unrivaled intelligence.
Greene County’s Carter Morton has quickly mastered the varying intricacies of football’s most exciting play and blasted his way into the record books.
As he takes several calculated paces back well beyond the secondary, locks his eyes toward the sky and anxiously awaits the pigskin, his mind clears and the field opens up.
There’s only one suitable outcome once he hauls in the football – touchdown.
There’s no time to play for field position. The athletic punt returner wants to set the tone, shifting momentum in favor of the offense. And Morton has certainly done that with historical consistency three weeks into the fall season.
He returned two punts for a touchdown in Greene County’s week three win over Saydel, bumping his record-breaking season total to three scores, becoming the Rams’ single-season, single game (2) and career record holder in one full swoop. The senior leads the entire state, across all classes in total return touchdowns (4), punt return touchdowns (3), punt return yards (299), and yards per return (33.2).
It’s quite the incredible start for an athlete who’s enjoying his rookie year as a punt returner. Greene County head coach Caden Duncan wasn’t entirely sure how well Morton would do as he pegged the senior to replace last season’s returner, Nick Breon. Duncan wanted to see how his top returning receiver (36 rec., 800 yards and 7 TDs) could handle the added pressure. It was more an experiment than anything. The gamble sure has paid off.
“It was something that I kind of thought of in the offseason,” Duncan said. “Maybe we could try it our first couple games. He’s extremely explosive. He’s good with the ball in his hands and making people miss, too.”
The natural instincts were obvious right away. But it’s rather challenging to pinpoint where Greene County’s most prolific punt returner excels best.
Shattering the history books isn’t supposed to look this simple. But Morton demands nothing less than perfection.
“Just get the ball and score,” Morton said, who’s also caught nine balls this fall for 229 yards and four touchdowns. “I always want to have the mentality of scoring. When I get the ball in my hands, I want to do as much as I can to score.”
There’s usually an adjustment period for a new return man, especially when you sprinkle in the different rotation and velocity of an air born punt, an entire field of 21 players in front of you and various directions to choose from. Not only does Morton need to make quick decisions, but he has to flip the switch into a full sprint at a moment’s notice.
Those varying challenges is why Duncan has Morton and his fellow teammates work on kick returns every day in practice. He realizes how important a strong return can be, but also understands where a crippling mistake – either a fumble or an ill-timed fair catch – will lead.
“He works on it everyday, about the first 10-15 minutes of practice,” Duncan said. “That’s something we’ve harped on. You want to get those reps. It’s kind of become second nature. I think you’re seeing that with Carter, because he’s now able to catch (the ball) while he’s on the move (and) coming forward.
He’s already usually the fastest guy on the field, so if he’s able to catch it moving forward, it’s going to pay off big time. That speed plays a lot into it.”
The amusing thing is, Morton finds the punt return process rather stress free. When he finally escaped tacklers and found the end zone in the second half their opening night win over Perry after threatening to score on several other occasions, it wasn’t furious excitement that crept into Morton’s head. No, he was fairly surprised how simple it was, and a tad bit relieved.
“I was like ‘dang, this is actually easy,’” Morton said. “I got two more against Saydel and coach (Caden Duncan) told me to stop returning.
He continued, “I’m not really a nervous person. I don’t get nervous.”
What sets Morton apart is his incredible field vision. Yes, Greene County’s blocking has been top-notch as well, but it takes a supremely talented athlete to find the right hole every time, then use a burst of speed to reach the end zone, scoring without a scratch. Morton has returned three of his seven punts for scores this fall, with five of those longer than 40 yards. Two of his touchdowns have been from more than 65 yards out while his third was roughly 60 yards. This explosive start is no fluke. Indeed, those angles and gaping holes are set up by a swarm of Greene County blockers. Without them, Morton wouldn’t have hit pay dirt three times already this season.
“It’s definitely seeing the holes (well) but it’s my blockers in front of me,” Morton said. “They’ve done a really good job blocking. Props to them.”
The Iowa High School single season state record for punt return touchdowns is nine by B-G-M’s Jack Kline back in 2013. Morton is currently tied for 10th along with a swath of more than 20 players. Six players have returned four punts for scores while a pair of athletes sit in a distant second with five returns.
Morton has already shattered the Greene County single season punt return record, which was previously set at one score achieved by several different players.
Nick Breon returned a punt for a touchdown a year ago for Greene County’s most recent return. No Ram has ever returned more than a single kick for a score in school history. Prior to Breon’s return last year, there hadn’t been a Greene County punt return for a touchdown since JC Weitl returned one 83 yards for a score back in 2013, a drought of five years.
Morton enjoys that extra pressure during kick returns, hundreds of eye balls are fixated on the athletic senior wearing number 3.
“(It’s pretty fun), oh yeah. It feels like I’m individualized,” Morton said. “It’s all on me.”
Like any good return man, Morton is open to different paths to the end zone. There’s no set route, it essentially comes down to a week-by-week basis. If the defense is flying at him in a man coverage, the blockers converge to the middle which prompts him to bounce it to the outside. Greene County deploys a rather simple scheme, if the punt sales to the right, the blockers slide to the left, opening up a path for Morton, and vice versa. He has to process a number of different possibilities before he pulls it in.
“It’s kind of a cycle. I’m looking for the ball, then I look down real quick to see if anybody’s in front of me and if I need to fair catch, but I haven’t yet,” Morton said. “I (then) look to the right and left, find a hole and hit the hole.”
There is a brief moment of doubt once Morton crosses the goal line. Not because he’s unsure of where he’s at, but he’s praying for the touchdown to stand.
“Every time on special teams, whenever we score, I always look back for flags,” Morton said. “So I scored that first touchdown and was like ‘Wow, I didn’t get any flags. That was pretty easy.”
When game day rolls around, keep your eyes glued to number 3, he may just take a kick to the house and cement himself further into the record books. He’s still learning his role, which is scary to process. Morton recently surpassed the career 1,000 yard receiving mark and is halfway to 500 return yards.
Could he make a season run at 2,000 all purpose yards? With at least six games left, there’s an outside chance.