Despite a chance to evaluate the quarterbacks head-to-head in the spring game, Gophers coach P.J. Fleck isn’t any closer to naming his starter for 2019.
While sophomore Zack Annexstad’s Maroon team beat redshirt sophomore Tanner Morgan’s Gold team 38-20 on Saturday at Athletes Village, neither, apparently, did enough to distinguish himself.
“We’re going to need both guys at some point, and I think they’re both getting better at an equal level,” Fleck said. “So you’re not seeing that one guy just jump out and say, ‘That’s the guy.’ ”
That eureka moment will wait at least until August’s training camp, which is maybe good news for Annexstad, who won last year’s battle. The 6-3, 215 pound native of Norseland, Minn., began last season as the starter. But because of an injury halfway through, 6-2, 210-pound Morgan finished out the year, and led the Gophers to a historic win against Wisconsin and a bowl game victory.
In Saturday’s spring game, Annexstad had the slight edge. He went 9-for-15 for 191 yards and one touchdown, his longest completion 47 yards. Morgan was 11-for-17 with 139 yards and two touchdowns, his farthest toss 36 yards.
Annexstad endured two sacks and an interception. Morgan took three sacks and an interception, though his was a pick-six.
“They did a lot of really good things. Both had an interception. One was catastrophic,” Fleck said. “… When you look at both of them, I thought they completed balls they needed to complete. I thought they ran the offense very effectively. We didn’t have any delay-of-games. I thought they were very poised.”
Fleck said he attributed most of the sacks to having offensive lines combining first-, second- and third-stringers, so it was clear from where the pressure emanated. But the coach did like how that forced his quarterbacks into some second-and-long situations, which they handled well. He was also looking to improve the downfield passing from last year, which he saw the pair accomplish.
The team did not make either Annexstad or Morgan available for comment.
Senior wide receiver Tyler Johnson said this spring as a whole has been competitive and high-level thanks to the number of returning players. Even with that atmosphere, though, Johnson said he’s observed the quarterback battle as more of an “I’m happy for you” vibe than an I “hate” you one. The duo often help each other, and they go over mistakes together. Sophomore wide receiver Rashod Bateman said he always sees the two in the film room together.
“That’s a tough job for them, especially with being young,” Johnson said of Annexstad and Morgan becoming more comfortable. “… I really can’t tell if its different [playing with each of them], honestly. … I believe they both lead the team in the right direction and go out there and make plays.”
The signal-callers, at least, each have real-game experience, which was a bit lacking Saturday. Fleck said he had to make the call a couple of days ago to move the spring game from TCF Bank Stadium to the indoor practice facility after a snowstorm, concerned about the safety of his players as well as the fans. He said he was pleased with how the event carried on, but the players admitted it wasn’t quite the same. There weren’t thousands of cheering fans, the pep band music played from a recording, and one punt ricocheted off the rafters.
“It felt a little bit different than being in the stadium. It felt a little bit less like a game,” senior defensive lineman Carter Coughlin said. “But then you get out there, and all of that kind of goes away.”
In actual games last year, Annexstad was 3-4 as a starter while Morgan finished 4-2, with some help from an improved Gophers defense. Annexstad accrued 1,277 yards and nine touchdowns with a 51.9 completion percentage. Morgan amassed 1,401 yards with nine touchdowns and a 58.6 completion percentage.
The longest pass from Saturday, though, was freshman Jacob Clark’s 62-yard throw to Bateman. But whether this two-man competition becomes three or more, Fleck is happy with his team’s “tremendous” spring.
“I like the way this team is trending,” he said. “… We have to have a dynamite summer and then springboard ourselves into training camp.”