FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas outfielder Jacob Morris had an unwanted view of the Razorbacks’ run through the NCAA Tournament last year.
The Coppell, Texas, native — who started 49 of Arkansas’ first 52 games in center field — sat and watched every step from Fayetteville.
Morris was left behind when the Razorbacks traveled to Houston for an NCAA Regional, Waco, Texas, for the Super Regional and Omaha for the College World Series. He was rehabilitating a broken index finger, which he suffered during Arkansas’ final home game against Auburn on May 12.
“It was terrible,” Morris said. “I missed the best part of the season.”
Morris is determined to make sure it doesn’t happen again as the Razorbacks inch closer to Friday’s season opener against Western Illinois in Baum Stadium.
The outfielder was selected by the Cleveland Indians in the 37th round of the 2012 Major League Baseball Draft, but elected to return to Arkansas for what he hopes will be another successful postseason run. One he’s part of this time after sitting and watching Arkansas win postseason games without him.
“Being healthy, that’s key for me,” Morris said. “Our team is supposed to be good this year. We know that we’re good. So it’s going to be exciting to get out there and play.”
Morris’ 2012 season ended when he squared his bat for a safety bunt during the program’s senior day game. He took a pitch off the index finger — poor mechanics Morris admitted — and had an idea it was broken as soon as the injury occurred.
Morris’ season was over. He underwent surgery to repair his broken index finger and then watched as teammate Matt Vinson filled in at center field throughout Arkansas’ postseason run.
Morris said he was happy for Arkansas’ success. He just had hoped to experience it, too, after spending so much time in the lineup before the injury.
“It wasn’t fun watching the guys on TV,” Morris said. “I was rooting for them, but more from being on the team. I wasn’t a fan. I was on the team.
“So I was kind of watching the way the other pitchers were throwing. The strike zone for the umpires. More like I was sitting in the dugout than watching it on TV.”
Morris has a chance to make up for the absence this year.
He is one of four players competing for a starting spot in the Arkansas outfield for opening day, joining Vinson, sophomore Joe Serrano and redshirt freshman Tyler Spoon. Coach Dave Van Horn said the competition was tight last week and hoped to have some clarity after the final weekend of preseason scrimmages.
“There are four guys for three spots and I don’t know how I’m going to work it yet,” Van Horn said. “I think they’re all going to play a lot.”
Morris is regarded as the best defensive center fielder of the four, earning rave reviews because of his speed, instincts and athleticism.
Arkansas hitting coach Todd Butler, in fact, said Morris is simply “the best” center fielder he was worked with. But how much he’ll get to flash his glove this season could depend on his improvement at the plate after hitting just .237 last season.
It’s an area Butler said Morris has worked on diligently since last season.
“He has changed up his approach a little bit,” Butler said. “He has seemed to stay in the strike zone better. He has more walks than strikeouts going into (last Friday’s) intersquad (scrimmage). He is a fantastic athlete and he is a brilliant person and he is ultra-talented. If his bat gets going, this guy can be unstoppable.”
It’s no secret to Morris. He knows his offensive performance — which included 50 strikeouts in 140 at bats — wasn’t good enough last season.
So his goal is to be more of an all-around performer in 2013.
“I understand my role a little better,” Morris said. “In the past, I’ve been striking out too much, swinging too hard. Trying to do too much at the plate.
“I understand that I’m a big guy and I don’t have to swing as hard as I can to produce and get on base. So understanding my role has been a big part of my game.”
Butler said it’s evident Morris is serious about excelling in that role at the plate and in the outfield after the disappointing end to his 2012 season.
He’s healthy and wants to be part of another run to the College World Series.
“He could’ve signed pro,” Butler said of Morris. “He said he didn’t want to finish that way. He wanted to come back and do one more thing. That kind of speaks volumes of his character of how he wants to leave this program.”
Western Illinois (0-0) at No. 3 Arkansas (0-0)
When: Friday at 3:05 p.m., Saturday at 12:05 p.m., Sunday at 1:05 p.m.
Where: Baum Stadium in Fayetteville
Radio: Razorback Sports Network
Series Record: Arkansas leads 4-0
Last Meeting: Arkansas 8, Western Illinois 7 (10 innings) on 2/27/09