Tanner Morgan describes himself as just one spoke in a wheel. His coach refers to him as a point guard. Both depictions work, but there’s a more direct way to portray Morgan.
He’s become one of college football’s best quarterbacks.
On this point, I have a confession: Morgan is better than I initially believed. Exponentially better.
Like others, I trained my eyes on Morgan’s perceived shortcomings — too short, lack of a cannon arm, not super-duper athletic, blah, blah, blah — and viewed him as a game manager whose success was a product of a system and being surrounded by high-end talent at receiver and running back.
Boy, was I wrong.
Morgan’s historic sophomore season belongs on any list of best or most surprising developments in college football this season. Not just in the Big Ten, but nationally.
Many assumed that Morgan would begin the season as Zack Annexstad’s backup at the conclusion of their camp competition. Instead, Annexstad got hurt and Morgan has delivered one of the finest performances by a quarterback in program history with a chance Saturday to put the finishing touches on a magical regular season.
Morgan’s 26 touchdown passes are a program record. He leads the Big Ten in passing yards per game (243.5) and is second in touchdown passes and passing efficiency. He ranks sixth nationally in quarterback rating.
Morgan owns a 14-3 record as a starter, dating to last season, but it’s his production this month that makes his impact feel different. In three November games, he has completed 73% of his passes for 918 yards with eight touchdowns and only one interception while facing two of the nation’s top 10 defenses. He has played his best as the stakes and pressure have multiplied.
Nothing game manager about that.
Morgan manages the game efficiently but not in the insulting manner that the label suggests. He’s a conductor who makes a balanced offense hum by maximizing its star power.
His intangibles define him more than his lack of ideal measurables. Qualities such as his maturity, his mental toughness in responding to mistakes, his accuracy in delivering passes on target, and his sharp decision-making in executing run-pass options reads. He carries himself like a veteran.
“There’s not a guy that comes in more energetic, passionate, excited about the opportunity to grow,” coach P.J. Fleck said. “When that’s your leader, that’s the quarterback, it goes back to when your best players are your hardest workers. That’s infectious, that spreads to everybody. That’s what Tanner has been able to provide for our team.”
That type of praise makes Morgan cringe. He seems genuinely uncomfortable with being singled out or the recipient of flattery. It’s not false humility, either. Without fail, he credits offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca and teammates whenever asked about his success.
“It’s pretty easy as a quarterback when you have two 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000-yard back,” he said. “It makes your job a lot easier. I just have to give those guys opportunities to make plays. … It’s not just me. It’s way bigger than that. Way bigger.”
True, a quarterback surrounded by marquee talent should perform better than a quarterback trying to prop up an overmatched cast. Morgan has the benefit of throwing to two future NFL players in Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman, a massive offensive line and a stable of running backs led by 1,000-yard rusher Rodney Smith.
But to minimize Morgan’s impact in that equation is to miss the point. He’s allowing those players to thrive by throwing accurate passes and fooling defenses with his play fakes and RPO ball-handling and reads. Highlight catches often require perfectly thrown passes.
“He makes everybody else better,” Fleck said. “I tell him all the time, I think he’s a tremendous point guard. He’s a distributor of culture, a distributor of the football, of the calls. He’s the distributor of the response. He’s the distributor.”
Distributor, point guard or wheel spoke, they all fit in characterizing Morgan’s influence on the offense and overall team. Winner works, too.