If Tanner Morgan can recover from a concussion in time to play Saturday against Northwestern, he will attempt to burnish one of the best stories in college football: How a guy who couldn’t win a starting job as a freshman became a star who elevated an entire program as a sophomore.
If he can’t play, something even more interesting might happen: P.J. Fleck will test his depth at the position that could separate him from his predecessors.
Lou Holtz leaned on Rickey Foggie, who earned affection but never won more than six games in a regular season.
John Gutekunst tried to continue in Holtz’ footsteps, and did, never winning more than six regular-season games.
Jim Wacker never displayed confidence in his ability to play traditional football, so he recruited quarterbacks who could sling it. They produced yards but not victories.
Glen Mason’s expertise found him underappreciated backs, tight ends and offensive linemen. Tim Brewster found athletes. Jerry Kill mimicked Mason’s strengths, and he and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys produced quality secondaries.
Quarterback was not a strength for any of them, with the exception of Adam Weber overcoming Brewster’s coaching for most of his four seasons.
Fleck speaks of “culture” and speaks in slogans, but the true opportunity for building a better program lies at the quarterback position. He appears to be off to a pretty good start.
In 2017, he played Demry Croft and Conor Rhoda. In 2018, he chose true freshman Zack Annexstad over Morgan to start the season. When healthy, Annexstad displayed talent and a little of the magic you like to see at the position.
Morgan took over when Annexstad was injured. The last time the Gophers played Northwestern, Morgan looked overmatched in a 24-14 loss at TCF Bank Stadium that left the Gophers at 5-6.
Then something strange happened to a Gophers quarterback: He got better while wearing maroon. Morgan led the Gophers to victories at Wisconsin and in a bowl game against Georgia Tech, then led them to a 9-1 record this season.
His development is one of the most important developments of Fleck’s still-young regime. If Fleck can find and develop quarterbacks, Gopher football will have a raised floor and elevated ceiling.
If Morgan wasn’t his best quarterback last summer, and Morgan is able to take the Gophers into the top 10, what might Morgan be able to accomplish as he gains experience? What might one of Fleck’s preferred recruits be able to do?
“I feel like we can do that,” Fleck said when asked about finding and developing top quarterbacks. “I feel like you can do that here at the University of Minnesota. I think there’s a lot of strategy behind it, how you’re going to be able to get those kinds of players to come here. But it’s not just about the stars or the rankings or things like that.
“Tanner Morgan was a two-star. Started out that way, then worked his way up into a three or 3½, 3.9, four, I don’t know what he was. He was committed to us at Western Michigan. I’ve known him for five years. He’s a winner. I think you need to be able to find winners at the quarterback position.”
If Morgan can’t play on Saturday, Fleck will choose (or alternate) between true freshmen quarterbacks Cole Kramer and Jacob Clark. Fleck also has received a commitment from Athan Kaliakmanis, a four-star prospect out of Illinois, who is part of the 2021 recruiting class.
With Annexstad expected to receive a redshirt season because of his injury, the Gophers could be holding high-level quarterback competitions for the foreseeable future. They could also find themselves riding Morgan to a big-time bowl game, then asking themselves whether he gets to keep the job.
“We have a young man who is committed out two years, and we have four quarterbacks right now,” Fleck said. “I know they’re young and they’re going to keep developing and getting better and there’s competition within the group, which is really healthy.”