Some say it's determination, others willpower. For every athlete, in every sport, that thing can change.
Whatever it is, when the great find it, harness it and nurture it, that thing can be their fuel, their swag-inducer and their spark.
To D.J. Morgan, it was his instinct.
Morgan is a runningback at USC. A former Taft High Toreador, Morgan (5-11, 187) knew he was going to be great from the age of six. It wasn't a cocky thought, though. It just was.
He found this instinct at the age of five, after watching a tape of great running backs, including Walter Payton, Earl Campbell and O.J. Simpson.
He harnessed it a few years later, by surrounding himself with older football players and working out with them, including USC graduates Steve and Malcolm Smith, both current NFL players.
And Morgan nurtures his instinct by realizing he has yet to reach his potential.
"My old coach used to say ‘you'll never be good until you realize you suck. So I thought about it and said, ‘I suck,'" Morgan recalls. "Off the top it didn't really work but initially I took it as I'm not going to be good until I know I need to get better."
That humbling mentality has allowed Morgan to improve every year.
From starting on varsity as a freshman (he logged most of his playing time that year on the other side of the ball, as a safety), he rushed for three touchdowns. Despite the low numbers, former Taft head coach Troy Starr recruited Morgan to come to Florida under Starr and Urban Meyer. But Morgan didn't don USC wristbands throughout his childhood to become a Gator.
As a sophomore, he zipped past defenders as the lead back, rushing for 10 touchdowns and 1,185 yards. That year he was offered by USC.
Colleges still sent mail. The letters remained unopened, in an unlocked locker, so teammates could fill out questionnaires.
Morgan was done being charmed. He could have sat back, enjoyed his remaining years at Taft and reveled in his long-awaited accomplishment.
But that following year, as a junior, Morgan once again outdid himself. He rushed for an insane 1, 841 yards and 26 touchdowns, including an 80-yard run.
While he still mumbled "I suck" under his breath, he knew the statement was more ritual than valid.
His final year as a Toreador, where he led his team in rushing for a third consecutive season, Morgan played on a torn ACL—on defense, special teams and as Taft's main running back. Morgan had already rushed for 20 touchdowns and had two receiving touchdowns before the ligament was torn completely at the end of his senior year.
Despite the eye-widening statistics, USC has been referred to on many occasion as Running Back University. Morgan joins a laundry list of great backs—and he knows he hasn't impressed any Trojan fan until he can reach the endzone in Cardinal and Gold.
It's why his parents didn't attend a single game.
"I didn't want them seeing me on the sidelines. I was like ‘nobody's going until I play.'"
Playing—that's the ultimate question. Morgan's coming off his redshirt year, he's learned the playbook, dissected the other backs' respective games and "matured as a person and an athlete," he says. But will he get an opportunity to show all that knowledge?
"I don't care if there are 10 running backs in the room I feel like I can beat out anybody. If I'm at 100 percent I can beat out anybody…I just believe my talent is better than anybody else's," Morgan said.
Not for lacking on confidence, Morgan showed in the Spring he is capable of backing up that swag. He and Curtis "Moody" McNeal outshone nearly anyone on the field at USC's Spring Game.
But, again, it's USC, or "RBU" as fellow tailback Marc Tyler recently put it.
Tyler, a senior-- and USC's leading rusher last season—and sophomore back Dillon Baxter can't go without mention in the competition conversation.
"I think I just need to be explosive and fast. Because I'm not the biggest guy, so Marc [Tyler] has that on me. So I at least need to have something on the backs. Whether I'm the fastest or if I have the best cuts, I just want to be that playmaker on offense. The overall playmaker, I want to be the go-to guy to establish myself on the football field this year. And get bigger so I can take the hits," Morgan said.
Perhaps Morgan, who exudes both wisdom and maturity, admitting he does not drink alcohol, has already separated himself.
Tyler has been suspended from USC's season opener as well as from team activities, after making public comments about USC on the media outlet TMZ. He has allegedly been involved in two off-the-field incidents prior to his comments.
Baxter has been inconsistent this offseason and dealt with an NCAA violation during the 2010 season for soliciting a ride in a then NFLPA-certified agent's golf cart.
And Curtis McNeal was unable to participate last season after being ruled academically ineligible.
Morgan isn't without his own issues. Last season, he was taking cuts with a brace on his knee. While the brace has since come off, the accompanying fear of re-injury will stay with Morgan until he gets repetition in games.
"I can't wait for camp. People said I had a good spring, but how you feel is the same in high school or anywhere. And I just have to get back there," Morgan said.
If Morgan can remain disciplined and passionate, and play well, his instinct could be the start of something new in USC's backfield this season.