Where'd this guy come from? Notre Dame frosh Benjamin Morrison leaves big first impression

Greg McKenna
Tribune Correspondent
Sep 3, 2022; Columbus, Ohio, USA;  Ohio State Buckeyes tight end Cade Stover (8) tries to elude tackle by Notre Dame Fighting Irish wide receiver Chase Dixon (26) and cornerback Benjamin Morrison (20) during the NCAA football game at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-USA TODAY Sports

SOUTH BEND — Benjamin Morrison immediately popped back up. Ohio State running back TreVeyon Henderson had just barreled over the Notre Dame cornerback late in the third quarter to finish a 9-yard run to the Notre Dame 34. Morrison paid the price to stop the Heisman candidate short of a first down.

That didn’t stop the true freshman from locking face masks and briefly jawing with Henderson — along the Ohio State sideline, no less — before Henderson swiped at Morrison’s chin and officials quickly separated the pair.

Morrison’s sister, Naomi, a gymnast and junior at the University of Michigan, watched the play with surprise on TV. She doesn’t remember her brother being in “flight or fight” situations growing up.

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“I was surprised that he was a fighter,” she said, laughing, noting that Benjamin was pretty laid back growing up. “He didn't really have a chip (on his shoulder), but he's always been someone that's had big dreams and aspirations for himself.”

Benjamin Morrison made one of those dreams come true by debuting for the Irish in his very first game just months after enrolling early at Notre Dame. He recorded a pass breakup and three tackles (two solo) on 29 defensive snaps, also seeing action on special teams, during Notre Dame’s 21-10 loss in Columbus. In front of 106,000 people, on primetime network television and against the nation’s top offense last season, he didn’t back down.

'The Baby'

Morrison’s teammates, particularly running back Logan Diggs, learned he would stand his ground during fall camp. Two weeks before Ohio State, Diggs — recently cleared for contact after hurting his left shoulder in the spring game — caught a pass in the flat and was met hard by Morrison.

Diggs took exception and threw the ball at Morrison’s face as the two shoved each other before being separated by head coach Marcus Freeman.

Notre Dame's Benjamin Morrison prior to Notre Dame Fall Practice on Friday, August 12, 2022, at Irish Athletics Center in South Bend, Indiana.

As Morrison later noted, it was a minor scuffle common among teammates at camp. That doesn’t mean teammates like cornerback Ryan Barnes didn’t notice.

“It shows that you're not afraid,” Barnes said “Being able to come out, make plays, not backing down, say, from tackling Diggs or somebody like that, it really proves that these (freshmen) are where they're supposed to be.”

Morrison might not have the same reputation as a talker as fellow freshman corner Jaden Mickey. As the youngest of five, though, Naomi said Morrison had a habit of getting the last word.

“I think it was because he was the baby, so we like, 'oh, yeah, the baby, he can do whatever he wants,'” she said. “He did run the house. Everyone was at his beck and call, for sure.”

Another advantage of being the youngest? Learning from watching all four of your older siblings become college athletes.

The oldest, Faith, was a gymnast at Washington. Then came Sammy, who played corner at Arizona and then San Diego State with Irish corner TaRiq Bracy’s twin brother, TyRee.

Benjamin Morrison, 20, during Notre Dame's football practice at LaBar Practice Facility on Friday, August 5, 2022.

Grace went to Appalachian State in North Carolina for volleyball before Naomi became a national champion with the Wolverines in 2021 and an All-American this past year in vault and floor.

Back when the family lived in northern Virginia, Naomi recalled her father, Darryl, driving her 45 minutes to the gym each day after school. Benjamin, Naomi's constant “playmate” was usually in tow.

“They would get dropped off at 2:30 and get picked up at 9,” Benjamin remembers. “Seeing that at a young age, and my sister doing that when she was in fourth grade, I realized that anything in life that you want, you got to work for it.”

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Naomi said Benjamin and Sammy, meanwhile, grew “super close” over the past couple years as Sammy became a mentor, using his past mistakes to advise his younger brother. Sammy now works for a record label, per his LinkedIn, and founded Early Rising, a company that promotes emerging artists.

“I want," Benjamin said, "to be just like him.”

A way of Life

An NFL dad wasn’t a bad role model to have either. Darryl — the only immediate family on hand for Saturday's game in Columbus — spent two years at the University of Arizona as Dick Tomey built the foundations for his “Desert Swarm” defenses. He was drafted in the sixth round of the 1993 NFL draft and embarked on a four-year career with Washington from 1993-97.

“I think that’s the biggest advantage I have,” Benjamin Morrison said of his father, who recorded 165 tackles, seven fumble recoveries and one interception in his pro career. “He may not have been the best player, but he made it ... I’m trying to figure out a way to make it as well.”

Benjamin’s confidence, though, comes from his family’s faith as much as its pedigree.

“I don’t come out here to play football,” he said. “I come out here and play in honor of God.”  

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It’s a mindset, Naomi said, that strikes at the core of the family’s existence. Before all five of Darryl and Jo Ann’s children became collegiate athletes, she said, the couple was told they would never have kids.

In 2015, Darryl and Jo Ann’s ministry uprooted the family to Phoenix as the couple founded Valley Gate Church, where Darryl still serves as lead pastor. None of their kids wanted to go. Naomi said the moment her father broke the news was captured on video.

“Everyone had this look of depression on their face,” she said. “It was so funny.”

Naomi said it’s been for the best, though. She doesn’t think she and her younger brother would have made the same achievements athletically if not for the move.

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She was “super bummed” not to see a big family milestone in-person last Saturday in the Shoe. (She and Jo Ann helped Benjamin move into his Notre Dame dorm this summer, though.) She’s planning on finally seeing him play live in an Irish uniform when Notre Dame hosts Clemson on Nov. 5.

It’s another potential top-10 showdown, especially if Notre Dame can win the next seven games on its schedule, including Marshall at home this Saturday, before then. Naomi knows her baby brother won’t shy away from the big moment.

“He's closer and closer to achieving the dream that he has for himself,” she said, “so he's an inspiration to me.”