It has been a while since the most exciting athlete in the state was the quarterback of the Gophers, but that is the case with Tanner Morgan getting ready for his junior campaign coming off an 11-2 record in 2019 and one of the best seasons for a signal caller in school history.

If the Gophers are going to find some way to top one of their best seasons in recent memory, and reach the Big Ten Championship Game for the first time in program history, Morgan will have to be their leader on offense.

At the end of last season, Pro Football Focus named Morgan the seventh-best QB in all of college football — trailing Justin Herbert (Oregon), Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones (Alabama), Jalen Hurts (Oklahoma), Justin Fields (Ohio State), Trevor Lawrence (Clemson) and Joe Burrow (Louisiana State).

Burrow was the No. 1 overall selection in the 2020 NFL draft and Lawrence figures to go No. 1 overall in 2021 assuming his stock doesn't take a big hit this season.

And that ranking might have been low for Morgan because at the end of the season he had the No. 4 passing efficiency ranking in the nation, behind only Burrow, Hurts and Fields — three of the four starting QBs in the College Football Playoff.

"It didn't matter the situation, didn't matter the throw type," Pro Football Focus wrote. "Morgan made nearly every throw look easy and took advantage of his extremely talented receivers on the outside as well as anyone else did in 2019."

Incredibly Morgan set single-season school records for passing yards (3,253), touchdown passes (30), completion percentage (66%) and efficiency (178.7).

More important than all of those numbers, though, is that Morgan is 15-4 as a starter.

Experience is huge

The Gophers quarterback will be working with new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford Jr., who joined the program from Utah State in the offseason.

One big benefit for Morgan and Sanford is that the offense returns nine of 11 starters, an unprecedented return for a club that ranked No. 4 in the Big Ten in both scoring offense and total offense.

Morgan knows having that many starters back can make a huge difference this season.

"The experience is huge, and our offensive unit and our team has played a lot of football at a high level," Morgan said. "It's very fortunate that that is something that we have and I'm blessed that I have been able to play a decent amount of football. It definitely helps. But again, there's always ways that we can get better.

"So just because we have played football for a while or have the experience doesn't mean we can get complacent. But it definitely helps, it definitely helps the developmental process. Again, we have to continue to strive for perfection knowing we're not going to get there, but ways we can get better, looking forward and not backward."

Mentally prepared

This past week, the NCAA outlined rules for having college football teams start summer activities in July and full practices in August, and almost the entire Gophers squad is back on campus with voluntary workouts getting underway.

Morgan said that one of the benefits to the offseason was that while the team couldn't be together, the coaching staff did a lot of film room work on both the current roster and the Gophers' upcoming opponents.

"I think the first part for me is just continuing to strive for mastery of our offense and mastery of defensive recognition and things like that. And Coach Sanford has done a great job of giving us the tools," Morgan said. "The next step would be to potentially get into game-plan, break down things for our opponents this upcoming fall, as the coaches are way ahead of schedule breaking down our 2020 opponents at the beginning of the season. That is just phenomenal."

Ready to lead

Morgan said he spent a lot of the offseason focused on being a team leader.

"Coach [P.J.] Fleck has done a great job of helping us as leaders be able to apply our culture to our leadership," Morgan said. "He has done a phenomenal job of sending us team meetings in the morning. Those are for optional view, and those are just phenomenal and very inspiring with what we're going through right now. It really helps instill our cultural mind-set, as well."

Despite all the difficulties of dealing with the pandemic, the Gophers football team has been brought closer together this spring after the death of George Floyd, a movement that brought a lot of strong statements and actions from players and coaches alike.

This past week, Fleck and H-back Seth Green became two of the Gophers' 13 representatives on the Big Ten Conference Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition put together by Commissioner Kevin Warren. Others include University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel, athletic director Mark Coyle and volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon.


• There is no better promoter of the game of golf than Hollis Cavner, the executive director of the 3M Open, so you have to be thrilled that the state of Minnesota and the PGA Tour came together to make sure the event will be held at TPC Twin Cities July 23-26. You can bet Cavner will put on an excellent show, even if it's only for television audiences.

• While the NBA is set to resume in July, Spain's top basketball league started this past week. Former Timberwolves forward Anthony Randolph is playing for Real Madrid and scored 11 points in his first game back. Bojan Dubljevic, a 2013 Wolves draft pick whose NBA rights were traded to Portland last year as part of the Jake Layman deal, is playing for Valencia.

• The Gophers and Richard Pitino getting a commitment from Austin's Both Gach to transfer from Utah was huge, and now the next step is getting Gach eligible to play this fall, because the Big Ten is looking like the toughest conference in the country. ESPN ran a preseason ranking that had Iowa fifth, Wisconsin sixth, Michigan State eighth, Ohio State 20th, Rutgers 22nd and Indiana and Michigan just outside of the Top 25.

• The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Peter Hedstrom, the father of Wisconsin basketball player Joe Hedstrom of Hopkins, has been recovering from a serious bicycling accident that nearly killed him. Peter, who played basketball at St. Olaf, has returned to work part-time from home.

• The Vikings have a family connection this offseason as offensive lineman Jake Lacina, who played at Cretin-Derham Hall and Augustana, signed as a rookie free agent. Jake's father is Corbin Lacina, a Vikings offensive lineman from 1999 to 2002.

• The Twins' $134 million spent on free agency this past offseason ranked seventh in the major leagues behind the Yankees, Nationals, Angels, White Sox, Reds and Phillies.

Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday and 2 p.m. Friday. •