Kirk Ciarrocca, architect of the Gophers offense, has moved on, but whomever P.J. Fleck picks as his next offensive coordinator will inherit a ready-to-roll outfit. Especially at quarterback. Yeah, the Gophers are good there.
What a welcomed change, eh? No more quarterback uncertainty. No more fall camp quarterback competition. The Gophers are wearing the other shoe now. They have their guy, and he should rank among the best in college football next season, which is so unusual for this program that it must feel like one of those fantasyland Christmas car commercials with a giant red bow placed on top of the luxury car parked in the driveway.
Tanner Morgan emerged as one of the biggest surprises in college football this season in leading the Gophers to 10 wins and a spot in Wednesday’s Outback Bowl against Auburn. Unlike last year, Morgan will enter the offseason as the starter and return next fall as the starter and will be expected to perform at a level that reaches, or exceeds, his record-setting sophomore campaign.
He’s already thinking about self-improvement.
“Know more football,” he said of his offseason agenda.
People nitpicked the Gophers’ schedule to death, but Morgan didn’t shrink when facing three top-10 nationally ranked defenses in November. In those games, Morgan completed 68% of his passes and averaged 334 yards passing per game with six touchdown passes and only one interception. The moment was never too big.
His breakout season revealed improvement in two specific areas: better accuracy and better decisionmaking. He looked comfortable running the show.
There is no substitute for playing time at his position. Experience is gold currency. The more quarterbacks play, the more they learn. The more they learn, the more they’re able to process things quicker, allowing them to show better command.
Morgan probably can pick any number of plays from memory as examples of throws he made this season that he wasn’t ready to make as a freshman.
“If you’re not confident in your throw, chances of being accurate go way down,” he said. “You’re not going to make a confident decision. The more experience you get makes it easier.”
This analysis might sound overly simplistic, but Morgan makes routine throws look routine. That shouldn’t be taken for granted. Not every quarterback possesses timing and touch.
Morgan’s completion percentage jumped from 58.6 last season to 66.1 this season, good enough for top 20 nationally in accuracy and top 10 in quarterback rating. He became only the second quarterback in the past two decades of college football to complete 90% of his passes twice in a season (joining Florida State’s Jameis Winston, 2003).
The Gophers could hold a clinic on how to execute run-pass option slant passes. It’s assembly line productivity the way Morgan hits Tyler Johnson or Rashod Bateman in stride, on the money. Rinse, repeat.
“It’s pretty easy when you have two first-team All-Big Ten receivers,” Morgan said. “Just put it in the ZIP code and they’re going to make a play.”
That’s Morgan’s stock reply to praise. He always deflects to teammates or coaches. They, in turn, gush about him in reverent tones.
“Maybe one of the best teammates I’ve ever seen,” Fleck said.
“He’s probably the best leader I’ve been around,” Bateman said.
Morgan exudes a calming presence. His demeanor is serious but upbeat. Always positive, encouraging. Consistent in everything is how Fleck describes him, exactly what every team should want from their quarterback.
Strong in his faith, Morgan describes his leadership style thusly: “To be a leader you have to be a servant leader. You can’t be the first to be served. Anything I can do to help my guys out, that’s what I want to do.”
He will have a new coordinator and position coach next season with Ciarrocca’s departure to Penn State. That will require an adjustment. Ciarrocca’s influence on Morgan’s development cannot be minimized.
This isn’t a case of starting from scratch, though. Morgan returns as a two-year starter. He owns single-season team passing records. He’s performed well in big games. And he has two seasons of eligibility left.
Sounds nice, doesn’t it?