Tanner Morgan’s 302 passing yards in the Gophers’ 38-31 victory over Indiana last Friday were the most ever by a University of Minnesota freshman quarterback making his first start.

Morgan has completed 30 of 46 passes for 551 yards, three touchdowns and three picks this season, and his performance last week earned him the chance to start on Saturday at Illinois.

It was the first big game in what already has been a long journey for the Kentucky native, who wasn’t recruited heavily out of Ryle High School despite throwing for 10,411 yards as a four-year starter at two schools.

Morgan had committed to playing for coach P.J. Fleck at Western Michigan in April of his junior year in high school.

“I really wasn’t a big-time recruit. If you can’t tell, a lot of programs questioned my height, overall speed and things like that,” the 6-2, 210-pound redshirt freshman said. “All it took was I had a couple of offers but the right one came to me and that was Western Michigan from coach Fleck. I knew that was where I needed to be with this coaching staff.”

When Fleck took the Gophers job in January of 2017, Morgan committed to the U, sight unseen.

“I had never talked to Minnesota and Minnesota was never a thought until coach got the job,” Morgan said. “I knew this was an outstanding school, a Big Ten school, and I knew there was going to be elite things here. But the culture is just something I had to be a part of.

“I had never been anywhere in Minnesota or close, really. But when coach took this job I knew this was an elite opportunity to follow him. The overall thing was I wanted to be a part of this culture, the Row the Boat culture, the Hyper culture, and I wanted to be with those guys and people I love so much.”

Is he liking being in Minnesota now?

“I enjoy beautiful Minnesota, going to lakes, the Coughlins’ [family] cabin, things like that,” he said. “I love fishing, I love golfing, but really just being around people that I love.”

Replacing a teammate

Earlier this week Fleck described his difficult decision in the fall to start Zack Annexstad over Morgan.

“That was one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make,” he said. “I think back to making the decision eight weeks ago, I think Tanner has grown a lot since then. He is having great success because of how hard he has worked even in those eight to nine weeks.”

Morgan, who recently declared his major in human resources management, said that replacing Annexstad because of an injury wasn’t what he wanted, but he was ready for the opportunity.

“It wasn’t much pressure or anything like that,” he said. “My teammates believed in me, my coaches believed in me, a lot of belief. I just went in there and played and executed and had a bunch of fun with my teammates.

“You never want to see anybody get hurt, especially your brothers in your teammates or anything like that. We’re praying, and Zack is getting better each and every day with all of his injuries and things like that. But, yeah, no matter what the circumstances are, if your number gets called you have to be ready to go in there and wherever you’re at and do your job.”

Improve against Illini

While Morgan had an impressive first start, he knows that going against Illinois and a Lovie Smith-led defense will be a challenge, no matter the Illini’s record.

“I have a lot of things to improve on, and I’m going to attack those things each and every week and each and every play with my teammates,” he said. “[Illinois] is the next game, and we have to come in and be ready and execute and prepare like we always prepare.”

Is he giving any thought to the possibility of taking over the Gophers midseason and leading them to a bowl game?

“That’s down the road — we focus on one week at a time,” he said. “We’re focused on Illinois right now and just preparing to be able to play against them.”

Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. on Monday and Friday and at 9:30 a.m. on Sundays. E-mail: shartman@startribune.com