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Darryl Morris is one of the players competing to be the team’s nickel cornerback this year. He’s currently wearing No. 40.

Underdog: Speedy Darryl Morris hoping to turn heads at nickel

Published: Tuesday, Jun. 24, 2014 - 9:04 am
Last Modified: Friday, Jun. 27, 2014 - 7:53 am

This is the first entry in a series on 49ers underdogs -- players who aren't household names but who have a solid, puncher's chance to land a spot on perhaps the most talented roster in the league.

First up: cornerback.

* Shoe-ins: Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver.

* Looking good: Chris Cook, Dontae Johnson*

* Fighting for a spot: Kenneth Acker*, Perrish Cox, Darryl Morris

When Eric Wright retired last week, every cornerback on the roster got a bit of breathing space. Wright not only was the most experienced player at the position, he also was in line to take repetitions at nickel cornerback. That's where Darryl Morris took the bulk of his practice snapsthis spring and where he's trying to win over coaches this summer.

What we know about defensive coordinator Vic Fangio from previous seasons is that he prefers smart players at the nickel spot -- Carlos Roger and Michael Thomas, for example -- and he needs them to be tough -- Cox, for example -- because the position requires plenty of tackling. Morris said he played some nickel at Texas State but that he's very much in learning mode this offseason.

And therein lies the challenge. An effective nickel cornerback usually has experience, something Morris, 23, lacks. What he has, however, is smarts and quickness, and it will be interesting to see if his learning curve grows throughout training camp.

"He’s a smart guy. He’s fast. He’s tough," Fangio said. "So, he’s got some good intangibles along those ways. He just has to learn to play the position and all the nuances that go at that, which is a tall order for him coming from a small school, just making the team, making the practice squad and then being called up is a major victory. And now to ask him to take this next step, we’ll see how he does with it. And he’s made slow but steady progress through the offseason.”

Morris (5-10, 188) was an undrafted rookie last year. As Fangio noted, he initially made the 49ers' practice squad. And by the end of September he was bumped to the 53-man roster where his speed -- he's likely the fastest player on the roster -- stood out on special teams coverage units. That he excelled there also hints that he might have the grit to play close to the line of scrimmage on defense, which the nickel position entails.

Morris' speed also would seem to be an asset at the position, considering how much its used to blitz the quarterback. "I had a few sacks, actually, and I had a safety," he said of his time at Texas State. "Just hitting that opening and taking guys down."

He has some obstacles. The 49ers used their first-round pick on safety Jimmie Ward with the thought that he could play the nickel role in his first season. That might cut down on the number of cornerbacks needed on the 53-man roster. In addition, Cox has more experience and, at 6-feet, 190 pounds, has a little bit better size than Morris.

Still, Morris' ability to get down field on punts and kickoffs faster than any of his teammates likely makes him valuable to special teams coordinator Brad Seely and his smarts likely endear him to Fangio. He's no shoe-in, but Morris will be fun to watch in July and August

* rookies

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Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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