Niyo: ‘Hard Time’ Maurice Alexander knows making Lions’ roster won’t be easy

Detroit News

Detroit — Maurice Alexander knows there’s no easy path to making an NFL roster.

But the Lions’ wide receiver also feels as if this is something he was born to do, and the nickname he has carried since he was an infant is merely a testament to that.

That’s something Teddy Bridgewater wanted everyone to know, too, amid the postgame excitement Friday night in the Lions’ dressing room at Ford Field. Detroit had just beaten the New York Giants in a preseason opener, and Bridgewater, the newly-signed veteran quarterback, stood filming the scene on his cell phone as a pack of reporters surrounded Alexander’s locker stall.

“That’s ‘Hard Time,’” he said, smiling. “Ask him about it.”

So I did, eventually, after the crowd had moved on but before Alexander had a chance to respond to any of the 100-plus congratulatory text messages he’d gotten by that point. His highlight-reel 95-yard punt return for a touchdown had sparked the Lions’ exhibition win — and a little curiosity along with it.

Becoming ‘Hard Time’

First, there’s the nickname, And the story behind it, Alexander says, is the story of his life. Turns out his mother, Kevia Morrison, had some difficulty bringing him into this world, as days of false alarms and hours upon hours in the hospital finally ended with an emergency C-section delivery. Alexander was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, and once mother and child were in the clear, his grandmother, Sandra Terry, spoke for everyone.

“When I came out she was like, ‘His name is Hard Time’,” Alexander said, laughing. “And since I was little, from elementary to high school to college to now, people just call me that. My grandma said it first, but now everybody calls me that.”

That includes Bridgewater, who has known Alexander since childhood growing up in Miami, where Alexander led Booker T. Washington High School to a third straight state title as its star quarterback in 2015. From there, Alexander joined his high school coach in moving on to Florida International, where he remained an undersized quarterback (5-foot-11, 175 pounds) his first three seasons before approaching head coach Butch Davis in 2018 about making a position switch to receiver.

Alexander led the team in receiving that fall, scoring touchdowns as a receiver, runner and returner. But after a broken ankle cut short his senior season, the pandemic helped derail his NFL dream. There was no pro day, no scouting combine, and no in-person offseason across the league. Alexander didn’t even get an invite to an NFL camp in the fall, so he found work back at his high school and made a few extra bucks on the side training local high school athletes for the next two years.

One of those athletes was Anthony Rubio, now a walk-on freshman running back at Florida and the son of U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). The latter helped Alexander try to find an agent and, ultimately, to get his shot in the USFL, where he was the 37th of 38 receivers drafted in 2022.

He made the most of that chance with the Philadelphia Stars, earning All-USFL honors as a kick returner that spring and helping the Stars reach the championship game. Alexander’s 87-yard punt return for a touchdown with 2 minutes left proved to be the winning play in a 19-14 win for the Stars over the New Jersey Generals in the division final.

“That meant a lot to me,” Alexander, 26, said. “Because Teddy can tell you, just two years ago we (were) fighting just to get a workout. I didn’t know what was coming and it just so happened that God blessed that league to come upon and I got an opportunity there to show what I had in Detroit.”

There was an initial tryout with the Dallas Cowboys last summer, but then another with the Lions, who signed him early in training camp and kept him on the practice squad after making roster cuts at the end of the preseason. After the team lost Quintez Cephus to a foot injury in Week 4, Alexander spent a month on the active roster, seeing limited action in four games in October before an ankle injury hobbled him.

Now he’s trying to keep one foot, or more, in the door this preseason. And moments like the one he enjoyed Friday night certainly don’t hurt.

“That was electric,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said of Alexander’s return.

‘Electric’ performance

It began with him drifting back to the 5-yard line to field a punt with the Lions trailing the Giants, 13-3, early in the third quarter. It continued with Alexander spinning out of a pair of would-be tackles inside his own 30, before breaking outside — rookie cornerback Starling Thomas V helped spring him — and outrunning everyone to the end zone

“I thought we blocked it well and then really the rest was up to him,” Campbell said. “He broke a couple tackles there and kept going.”

And going. And by the time he’d reached the goal line, punctuating his return with a flip into the end zone, the crowd of nearly 50,000 inside Ford Field was roaring. So were his teammates who nearly drew a penalty for their sideline celebration.

“It definitely felt good,” Alexander said. “It was a little crazy because all week I was telling them, ‘I’m going to get a touchdown. I’m going to return (one for) a touchdown.’ When it happened, they already knew because we had talked about it. …

“But I felt like they (were) more excited than I was. You see (Jared) Goff running up the sideline, Teddy coming up the sideline. It felt good, man. Ain’t no better feeling.”

Alexander is one of a dozen receivers on the Lions’ 90-man camp roster. But realistically, he’s among a handful vying for just one or two available spots, which makes him a bit of a long shot to make the 53-man roster to start the regular season.

Detroit’s first four wideouts are essentially set: Amon-Ra St. Brown, Kalif Raymond, Josh Reynolds and Marvin Jones. Jameson Williams will be the fifth once he’s done serving a six-game NFL suspension to start the season. That leaves perhaps two spots open for now — one of them temporary — and injuries have clouded the competition with Tom Kennedy already on IR and Denzel Mims and Trinity Benson both sidelined last week.

Undrafted rookie Dylan Drummond (Eastern Michigan) seems to have grabbed the upper hand in camp as he continues to earn rave reviews from coaches and teammates alike for his diligence and reliability. Rookie seventh-round pick Antoine Green has been inconsistent thus far but had a better showing Friday, while Campbell dubbed Chase Cota “the quiet sleeper” of the group after the big wideout (6-4, 205) capped a solid week with a game-high four catches for 60 yards against the Giants.

Friday’s snap counts further highlight the challenge for Alexander, who was on the field for just 10 plays on offense and another nine on special teams, well behind Cota (42 offensive snaps), Drummond (35) and Green (28) in the rotation.

Alexander’s return ability adds value, as he showed in flipping the momentum Friday. But he dropped one of the three passes thrown his way Friday — he finished with one catch for seven yards — and he didn’t distinguish himself on his three kick returns, which qualifies as a missed opportunity. The Lions have Raymond locked in as their punt returner, but the kick return job may be up for grabs, especially with the abrupt retirement of Justin Jackson last week.

Then again, the Lions do have a pretty good idea of what he’s capable of in that spot. In addition to what he showed in the USFL, Alexander broke a 61-yard kickoff return against the Colts in last year’s preseason opener.

So even if it looks he’ll have a hard time carving out a spot on the initial 53-man roster, it would be a mistake to count him out.

“Man, I’ve been through a lot of adversity,” Alexander said, nodding. “Always taught to fight. Just work hard, control what I can control. and … I’ll just look to keep pushing, stacking days and keep getting better.”

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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