Tanner Morgan walked off the field at Ross-Ade Stadium with coach P.J. Fleck, having just delivered the most accurate passing game in Big Ten history. He had completed 95.5% of his attempts, the Gophers had beaten Purdue — and Morgan was unsatisfied.
“He looks at me and says, ‘I can be better,’ ” Fleck recalled. “I said, ‘I have to tell you that. You don’t tell me that right after the game. You’re not the one to say that. That’s for Sunday. Let’s celebrate now.’ ”
Anyone who knows Morgan, though, could tell you that’s much easier said than done for the sophomore quarterback. Even with an 8-2 record as a starter. Even coming off a game in which he missed just one of his 22 passes en route to totaling 396 yards and four touchdowns. Even with praise and records and awards raining down upon him. He wasn’t good enough and needs to improve before the Gophers play Illinois on Saturday.
In earlier games, the 20-year-old owned up to some interceptions where he tried to thread the ball between defenders instead of waiting for a better window. After Purdue, he self-deprecatingly pointed out what anyone watching the game probably saw, that he walked right into some sacks.
His mom, Pat Morgan, said her son’s ability to beat himself up and identify his own flaws before others can has been inherent even since the first grade.
“He’s very critical and hard on himself,” Pat Morgan said. “… I can remember telling his teachers because they didn’t realize because he masked it very well.”
She described her son as a fighter, someone who knows he won’t always win but tries valiantly anyway.
“Part of it comes from failing a lot, to be honest with you,” Tanner Morgan said. “… I’ve failed a lot in my life, failed a lot in my career, and I’m going to continue to fail. But it sets you up for success.”
The Union, Ky., native is used to his intangibles being what differentiates him. During the recruiting process, they’re what he hoped coaches would see instead of his size. He’s listed as 6-2, 215 pounds now, but behind the Gophers offensive line — with a 6-9, 400-pound right tackle — he looks tiny.
As a three-star recruit, Morgan had early offers from Wake Forest and Louisville. He made some visits to Indiana. But Morgan’s coach at Ryle High School, Michael Engler, said he remembers some college coaches, even at the Mid-American Conference level, telling him Morgan wasn’t tall enough to play in the FBS.
Woody Wommack, a Southeast recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, said he still can’t believe some of the schools — especially Kentucky-based programs that currently struggle at the quarterback position — that passed on Morgan.
Because coaches recruit quarterbacks so early, choosing just one or two per class, many teams are unwilling to veer from the traditional traits of big size, big arm. But Morgan had something unmeasurable. Call it being a winner, call it leadership ability, call it clutch. He just gets the job done.
Morgan’s shown that with the Gophers, with big wins last year at rival Wisconsin and in the Quick Lane Bowl. He’s displayed it this season, going 4-0 in all one-possession games. He demonstrated it even at Ryle, which went 2-9 two years before he became quarterback as a junior and 12-1 his final season.
When Fleck was at Western Michigan, he saw what made Morgan special beyond the stats, and Morgan committed there ahead of his senior year.
“When you’re an underdog yourself, and you know why you were passed up, I think at times you look and value more in the intangible part than just the physical part,” Fleck said. “Do you need the physical part? Yes. If he was 5-1, would we have recruited him? Probably not. But he had just enough height. And just enough arm strength. And just enough of these measurables.”
What was “off the charts” in Fleck’s mind, though, was Morgan’s X-factor. The coach was sure he could develop that into an even better quarterback. So when Fleck took the Gophers job in 2017, one of his first calls was to Morgan, offering him a chance to follow him to the Power Five. Morgan said yes, without hesitation, sight unseen, and started his redshirt year a couple of days later.
Morgan lost the starting quarterback battle ahead of last season to Zack Annexstad, a true freshman with a bigger frame and stronger arm than Morgan. But Annexstad’s injuries gave Morgan an opportunity.
The two still had to compete this past offseason, until Annexstad injured a foot early in training camp, leaving Morgan as the only choice.
“Sometimes, you just luck into that,” Engler said of Morgan’s journey from Group of Five recruit to Big Ten starter. “If he had gone to Western Michigan, I think he would have been just as successful and would be putting up huge numbers. Now, he gets a bigger stage.”
Morgan soaked up that spotlight at Purdue, proving the skeptics wrong — not with his immense size or powerful arm but with his confidence and charisma, his decisionmaking and defense-reading, all the incalculable aspects that make him who he is.
After a close win in the opener against South Dakota State, Pat Morgan said she could feel her son’s stress. So she told him, “This is football. Football is fun. Football is a gift.”
His response: “Thanks, Mom. I really needed to hear that.”