The numbers jump right off the page.
• 30 touchdown passes vs. seven interceptions, a 4.28-to-1 ratio.
• 3,253 passing yards, or 250.2 per game.
• 66% of his passes completed.
All of them belong to Tanner Morgan, all were accumulated in 2019, all are Gophers single-season records.
So, how does Morgan get better in his second season as a full-time starter?
“Just fundamentals, just doing the little things right,” the unassuming fourth-year junior said. “I’ve taken a step there, and that’s something I’ve preached to our entire team — the little things and the fundamentals.”
Morgan and the 21st-ranked Gophers will put those fundamentals on display Saturday night, when they face No. 18 Michigan in their COVID-19 delayed season opener at TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota will try to build on its breakthrough 2019 season, when Morgan made full use of a pair of All-Big Ten wide receivers and a potent rushing game as the Gophers went 11-2, beat Auburn in the Outback Bowl and finished No. 10 in the final Associated Press Top 25.
The 2020 season — with COVID-19 a constant threat to wreak havoc on a team’s lineup — will offer Morgan and the Gophers the added challenge of being able to adjust on the fly.
“You have to be willing to adapt your play to the people around you, and I think that’s where Tanner’s got to be able to evolve the most,” Gophers coach PJ. Fleck said. “Not that he isn’t, but he’s just got to continue to evolve the most, and that’s making every single person around him better, by elevating his play.”
Morgan, who takes a 15-4 record as a starter for the No. 21-ranked Gophers into the game against No. 18 Michigan, is embracing his coach’s challenge.
“It’s 2020. You never know what can happen,” Morgan said. “You can go from being a scout-team guy to a starter. That’s a critical message to echo: Everybody has to be ready and everybody’s role is incredibly important.”
With that in mind, Morgan provided an example for his teammates beginning in March, after the coronavirus pandemic ended Gophers spring practice early. He organized video conferences with teammates, using the time they weren’t allowed on the field to hone their game mentally. As a quarterback, Morgan is expected to be a leader, but teammates and coaches saw those skills evolve.
“He’s reaching out to more people. He’s connecting with more people,” running back Mohamed Ibrahim said. “You could see it throughout the whole quarantine time we had. We would have a call, and he’d call another meeting just afterwards to clear up some details. … He just really took control of this whole team.”
Added Fleck, “His leadership has gone through the roof. It’s better now than it’s ever been.”
The same could be said for Morgan’s play. On his way to earning second-team All-Big Ten honors last year, he showed how efficient he can be. In the 38-31 win at Purdue, he completed 21 of 22 passes for 396 yards and four touchdowns. In the 31-26 win over then-No. 5 Penn State, Morgan went 18-for-20 for 339 yards and three scores. That marked only the second time in the past 20 years that a QB has completed 90% of passes in two games in one season. Florida State’s Jameis Winston did that during his 2013 Heisman Trophy-winning season.
Though the Gophers lost only two starters on offense compared with five on defense, Morgan doesn’t buy in to the premise that he’ll have more of a burden to shoulder as the young defense grows.
“We’re a collective unit — offense, defense and special teams,” he said. “Yeah, we lost some guys on the defensive side of the ball, but we feel very good about the guys who are stepping up and getting opportunities.”
Most of all, Morgan just feels good about the opportunity to play football, to show those fundamentals he’s honed.
“There was uncertainty if we were going to even be able to play,” he said. “We were all at home for months. We weren’t even able to be around each other. So to start the year off and to be able to play football is something that we’re grateful for. … That’s all we’re focused on.’’