Mitch Morse can remember the exact moment last season when he realized his weight had become a concern.
It was Week 4, against Cincinnati, and Morse, the Chiefs’ then-rookie center, was matched up against one of the game’s elite defensive tackles, Geno Atkins.
On one play, Atkins used his rare combination of squattiness, quickness and power to bull-rush Morse — who reported to training camp a year ago at 305 pounds but had dropped to about 290 at that point — to his knees and sack quarterback Alex Smith.
During film review following that game, Morse remembers, offensive line coach Andy Heck said something that stuck with him.
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“Coach (Heck) was so patient with me, and always gave me constructive criticism,” Morse said. “But on one (play) — and Geno Atkins, who is such a monster, bulled me — Coach goes, ‘Man, Mitch, maybe you should drink a milkshake; you wouldn’t have gotten bulled right there.’ Because I had good technique and everything, and he just bulled me.
“It was the truth.”
Morse, a second-round pick out of Missouri a year ago, still went on to start 15 games and emerge as one of the game’s best young centers. The 24-year old was named to the Pro Football Writers Association’s all-rookie team.
But there is always room for improvement, and while Morse’s combination of size — he stands 6 feet 6 — and athleticism is rare at his position, maintaining his bulk remains a priority in year two. So does mastering the mental side of the game.
The bulk part is something he tried to rectify quickly. Morse said shortly after the Cincinnati game, he sat down with his coaches and Chiefs trainer Barry Rubin and hatched a plan to help him gain back the weight he lost since the start of training camp.
“I followed that plan, I gained my weight back, and my play was elevated,” Morse said. “By the end of the season, I was back to 300, and I’m about 308 right now. And I think that’s a comfortable playing weight for me.”
Morse, who is noticeably bulkier this year — particularly in his upper body — is intent on maintaining his current weight throughout camp, though it will not be easy in the sweltering St. Joseph sun in July and August.
“We call it a necessary evil,” Morse said of training camp. “You’re going to become such a better player, but you’re going to leave with some soreness and you’re going to leave with maybe a little weight-distribution changes.”
Morse will try to prevent the latter by consuming plenty of calories through protein shakes and other healthy food.
“Getting calories in (is important), but not bad calories, because I can put on fat real easy,” Morse said. “I really watch what I eat.”
One other benefit to Morse’s offseason training was he got a chance to spend some time with Chiefs backup quarterback Aaron Murray, who works out at the same facility, Chip Smith Performance Systems in Atlanta.
Morse said he stayed with Murray for about a month a half, and the two spent up to an hour and a half each day looking at film of last year’s games. The film sessions, which focused on identifying blitzes and defensive fronts, allowed Morse to analyze nuances he’d missed because he was so focused on learning the basics.
“He was picking my brain, I was picking his,” Morse said of the time spent with Murray. Tight end Ross Travis also joined them. “We worked out in the morning, and we kind of felt guilty sitting around all day playing video games, so we said, ‘Let’s do something productive.’”
It looks like the film time has been helpful. The Chiefs have held nine offseason practices in May, and Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said Morse is coming along nicely in terms of identifying fronts, changing protections and making calls at the line.
“Going into the second year, you have to know every single protection, run play and all that stuff,” said Smith, who also helps with those tasks. “You’ve got to know that, plus every single front.
“Our defense does some of those unorthodox things … you have to be able to think on the fly up there, be fast, make good decisions, communicate clear. Those are the things in your second year I see from Mitch. He’s up there, he makes a decision, he’s loud, he’s clear.”
And while Morse knows he’ll still make the occasional mistake — “It helps a lot as a rookie to see guys who are older still make mistakes,” he said — he understands that he plays a crucial position, and that the Chiefs need some improvement from him in year two to fortify the offensive line.
“You’re not a rookie anymore,” Morse said. “You’ve got to come in there, step up and make some difficult calls.”