Gator Bowl: Ben Morrison knows South Carolina QB Spencer Rattler from back home
FERNANDINA BEACH, Fla. — During his breakout November, Notre Dame freshman cornerback Benjamin Morrison intercepted five passes from a trio of well-regarded quarterbacks: Clemson’s DJ Uiagalelei and Cade Klubnik and Emmett Morehead of Boston College.
Grabbing interception No. 6 of the year against South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler in Friday’s Gator Bowl would come with bragging rights back home in Scottsdale, Ariz. The two figure to see each other soon at Elite U, the offseason training facility they both attend on breaks.
“We’re not too close, but we were in the same workout group,” Morrison said recently. “(Familiar) faces, know each other, same area. There’s pictures and videos of us working out and stuff.”
Before transferring from Oklahoma, Rattler was the nation’s top-rated quarterback in the 2019 signing class. Morrison, who came to defense late in his career at Brophy Prep in Phoenix, never got to face Rattler on the field but the quarterback’s exploits at Pinnacle High School were legendary.
“He was the best quarterback in the nation,” Morrison said. “The things he did were just unreal. Throwing off his back foot, like, 60 yards. He’s a generational talent. Going against him, we understand that. You have to be on your Ps and Qs. If not, he can expose you.”
Rattler struggled for much of the season, but he guided the 19th-ranked Gamecocks to back-to-back upsets of Tennessee and Clemson while passing for 993 combined yards, eight touchdowns and just two interceptions.
On the year, Rattler was picked off 11 times in his first nine games, including twice apiece by top-ranked Georgia and undermanned Georgia State and South Carolina State. In his previous two seasons at Oklahoma, he threw for 39 touchdowns against 12 interceptions.
“I don’t think people understand how strong his arm is,” Morrison said. “He’s a confident player, to say the least. When he was struggling a little bit, it never got him down. Where he’s at now is just a testament to him never giving up.”
Protecting Tyler Buchner
As Tyler Buchner prepares to face live contact for the first time since left shoulder surgery in mid-September, the Irish quarterback has an excellent resource in Logan Diggs.
Diggs was four months removed from April 29 surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder when he faced Ohio State in the season opener.
“It was pretty tough just trying to get back comfortable,” Diggs said after Tuesday’s practice at Fernandina Beach High School. “Most important was probably holding the ball. Contact, I wasn’t really worried about because when you’re running the ball you protect yourself anyway. My biggest issue probably was trying to be able to hold the ball again.”
Diggs, who enters the Gator Bowl 38 yards shy of the 1,000-yard mark for his career, had the benefit of testing his shoulder in live scrimmages late in training camp. Buchner, as a quarterback, continues to wear the red non-contact jersey in practice.
Diggs carried just 11 times for 16 yards in his first two games, losses to the Buckeyes and Marshall, before missing the California game due to illness. Sharing time with Audric Estime and Chris Tyree, Diggs eventually rounded into form and posted three 100-yard rushing games against UNLV, Clemson and Boston College.
“With time I slowly got my strength back and I became comfortable and I came back pretty early and I was ready,” he said.
His advice to Buchner?
“He’s going to take some hits, but I mean, this is what we sign up for,” Diggs said. “We sign up to play football. It’s our job as an offense to protect him and get him to take the least hits as possible. He’s not in a position to take that many hits right now.”
With Jayson Ademilola’s availability in question, the Gator Bowl could be a showcase opportunity for up-and-coming interior defensive linemen such as Gabriel Rubio and Aidan Keanaaina.
Rubio, a third-year sophomore listed at 6-foot-5 and 295 pounds, played a season-high 44 defensive snaps against Stanford when Ademilola suffered a rib contusion early in the game.
“I’m real excited about him, just long term,” defensive coordinator Al Golden said of Rubio. “Couple things he needs to improve on, but he’s rugged, he’ll run to the ball, he’s physical. He’ll lay heavy at the end.”
Keanaaina, a redshirt sophomore, returned to action for eight plays against Boston College on Senior Day after recovering from a torn ACL suffered on Day 1 of spring practice in March. At 323 pounds, the Brighton, Colo., product is 13 pounds clear of the only other 300-pounder on the Irish defense, Harvard grad transfer Chris Smith.
“Aidan has had a really good bowl practice and he’s got a great attitude,” Golden said. “He looks like himself again, which is great. I’m happy that he’s feeling better and (his knee is) healed up.”
Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.
No. 21 Notre Dame (8-4) vs. No. 19 South Carolina (8-4)
- What: 78th Annual TaxSlayer Gator Bowl
- When: Friday, Dec. 30 at 3:30 p.m. EST
- Where: TIAA Bank Field (67,164), Jacksonville, Fla.
- TV/Radio: ABC, WSBT Radio (960 AM), WNSN (101.5 FM)
- Line: Notre Dame is a 4.5 -point favorite
- Series: Notre Dame leads 3-1
- Last meeting: South Carolina won 36-32 in South Bend (1984).