The Gophers football program has been searching either for quarterback stability, excellence or both since long before P.J. Fleck arrived in 2017.
Last season, Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft split playing time nearly down the middle. The same was true this year with Zack Annexstad (early) and Tanner Morgan (late).
Morgan, a redshirt freshman, had the best numbers of any of the four this year. So the question is this: Do the Gophers finally have a long-term solution at quarterback?
First take: Michael Rand
Well, let’s start with the basic numbers while also trying not to let team success obscure our analysis.
The Gophers were 3-2 in Morgan’s five Big Ten starts, including a 37-15 victory over Wisconsin. He was great in the victory over Indiana and played more of a supporting role in wins over Purdue and the Badgers.
Morgan also benefited from an improved defense in those final two wins. I’d say he has done enough that he should absolutely be the starter going into next season.
Beat writer Randy Johnson: Certainly, Morgan has made a great case for being the Gophers’ starting quarterback next year — beating Wisconsin for the first time since 2003 will do that — and I expect him to be under center for the opening snap.
But I’ll differ with you on Morgan “absolutely’’ being the starter. My reasoning: There will be a competition. Morgan must convince Fleck that he’s still ahead of Annexstad, who beat out Morgan during training camp. The difference between the two isn’t huge.
Don’t forget one of Fleck’s philosophies, too. He reminds us that it is his job to outrecruit the players he already has, and it’s their duty to keep their jobs.
Fleck has two commitments from QBs in his 2019 recruiting class — Jacob Clark of Rockwall, Texas, and Cole Kramer of Eden Prairie. Clark threw for 447 yards in a 52-40 playoff loss to top-seeded Allen in the highest class of Texas football. Fleck will at least kick the tires on his new QBs.
Rand: I’m all for competition, but I’m also going to dust off a couple of fancy stats, both via Pro Football Focus, that suggest Morgan was even better than we thought this year.
One: Morgan has the fifth-best passer rating in the nation on third and fourth down (120.1). That suggests he has made big throws when defenses were ready. Two: Morgan averaged 9.1 yards per pass attempt this year, ninth in the nation.
I’m not P.J. Fleck, but those are pretty elite numbers.
Johnson: Those are great stats from PFF, Mike, and that’s why I retweeted them earlier this week.
Tanner Morgan’s calm, cool play was essential in the Gophers’ three Big Ten victories, and how he responded after difficult games, such as going from three turnovers vs. Northwestern to none the following week at Wisconsin, was impressive.
He will start the bowl game, as he’s earned, and definitely has pole position to keep the job next year. I see no harm in having a competition for the job next season, and I believe Morgan’s attitude would be “Bring it on.’’
Rand: Hey, it’s either Morgan or possible starting QB number 5 (and/or 6 … maybe 7?) of the Fleck era next year.
Final word: Johnson
Fleck always has wanted one QB to seize the job, and it’s Morgan’s chance to do so. If he’s pushed by Annexstad or the freshmen in a competition, all the better because they’re all improving.
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