Kirk Ciarrocca has a notebook in which he keeps a running list of problem areas for his quarterbacks. He does this every year. The Gophers offensive coordinator plans to address those issues in-depth after the season, once everyone has time to decompress.
The list is probably fairly extensive by now, with two freshman quarterbacks sharing the job this season. One thing that shouldn’t be on his to-do list:
Start over at that position.
The No. 1 objective of P.J. Fleck’s second season was to determine whether Zack Annexstad or Tanner Morgan could solidify himself as the quarterback of the future.
That question lingers entering Saturday’s regular-season finale at Wisconsin, but both quarterbacks have showed enough flashes of potential that hitting reset next season with an incoming freshman quarterback shouldn’t be necessary.
The border battle provides a big opportunity for Morgan in terms of staking his claim as the starter entering the offseason. A strong performance could establish a pecking order with two freshmen set to join the mix next season.
Predictably, both Annexstad and Morgan experienced alternately good and bad moments as first-year starters. Turnovers and inconsistency were problems. Nothing unusual for freshman quarterbacks in a power conference.
Their best stretches revealed a glimpse of their upside as passers. A foundation to build upon as their competition continues this offseason.
Annexstad has the edge in size and arm strength. The true freshman’s upside seems higher, which is probably why the coaching staff tabbed him as the starter out of fall camp. Morgan, the redshirt freshman, gave the offense a spark, showed more mobility and accuracy, and possesses a better grasp of the system having been in it a year longer. Each has different strengths.
“It’s developing, evolving,” Fleck said. “There’s been highs, there’s been lows. One thing I see from them a lot of times, once they make a mistake, they rarely make that mistake again.”
The Gophers are averaging nearly 100 more yards passing per game this season than in 2017. They also lead the Big Ten and rank 17th nationally in yards per completion at 14.3, which underscores their seismic upgrade at receiver but also requires quarterbacks to deliver passes that give receivers opportunities to make plays.
The downside: Annexstad (7) and Morgan (6) combined for 13 interceptions, which ranks 109th nationally.
They also have a cumulative completion percentage of 54.5 percent, which puts them No. 107 out of 130 FBS teams.
“They’ve played almost better than I thought they could play,” Fleck said. “When you play true freshmen or a redshirt freshman, it can get catastrophic — mentally, physically, emotionally. You can also have highs. It’s being able to get those highs sustainable over a long period of time.”
That takes time and patience. And development. That’s really the crux of this conversation. Can Morgan and Annexstad take the experience they gained this season, learn from their mistakes and elevate their level of play next season?
Improvement at that position is a process, not a snap of the fingers.
“There’s going to be a lot of things on [Ciarrocca’s] list,” Morgan said. “We’re just going to have to conquer that and attack that in the offseason.”
Ciarrocca shared a story this week. He had a conversation recently with a friend who coaches quarterbacks at another school. Ciarrocca declined to reveal his friend’s identity, but the coach asked how the freshmen quarterbacks handled this season.
“I said, ‘They’re doing well,’ ” Ciarrocca said. “My only issue is there are a couple of things every game that I feel like they should have known the answer to and they didn’t get it right. He said, ‘Kirk, they’re freshmen. My quarterback is a junior and you’re saying only a couple of times a game? Holy cow.’ ”
Their experiences — the good and bad — should be invaluable to their development. Expectations will be higher for them next season because everything won’t be new.
We’re using the plural “them” because it’s hard to know which one will return as the starter. Morgan kept the job after Annexstad returned from injury, but the competition isn’t over. The good news is that Fleck doesn’t need to start fresh with another new starter in Year 3.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org