Tanner Morgan stepped on the Minnesota campus in mid-January 2017 as an 18-year-old who joined the football program after graduating early from Ryle High School in Union, Ky. Conor Rhoda, then a fifth-year senior quarterback, saw a raw youngster with a confident drive.
“As soon as he got on campus, he had a lot of work to do,” Rhoda said, “but you could tell that he had a belief in himself and that there was something about him where he was going to be successful.”
Twenty-two months later, Morgan has backed up Rhoda’s assessment. After losing the starting quarterback job to true freshman Zack Annexstad in training camp, Morgan has taken over, with Annexstad out because of injuries. Morgan, a redshirt freshman, led three touchdown drives in the second half of a loss at Nebraska, then passed for 302 yards and three TDs — the winner a 67-yard connection to Rashod Bateman with 1:34 left in the fourth quarter — in his first start in a 38-31 victory over Indiana last Friday.
Morgan will start again Saturday at Illinois — “He’s earned that,” coach P.J. Fleck said — as the Gophers (4-4, 1-4 Big Ten) try to inch closer to bowl eligibility against the Fighting Illini (3-5, 1-4). He is embracing his opportunity.
“Really, the only thing that’s different [as the starter] is you know the whole week that no question you’re going to play the first snap of the game,” Morgan said. “Throughout the year, no matter what, at every position you’ve got to prepare to play, whether you’re the starter or there’s zero percent chance you’ll get in the game.”
That approach served Morgan well after receiving the news that he wouldn’t start the opener.
“One thing we talk about is ‘control the controllables,’ ” said Kirk Ciarrocca, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. “Whether he did or didn’t agree with the decision really didn’t matter, because it wasn’t his decision. That’s not something he can control. What he could control is to continue to work hard and prepare as if he’s the starter. He’s the one who deserves the credit for that.”
Rhoda, who remains tight with Morgan and talks with him weekly, understands that situation well. He spent most of his career as a backup before starting the first six games last year, then returning to a reserve role.
“As a backup in that system, you have to be extremely mentally locked in, and it can be very difficult,” he said. “You don’t have an option whether or not to mentally be locked in and understand every facet of the game plan, because if you’re not, you’re going to be exposed, whether it’s on the field or in meetings.”
Strong first start
Morgan certainly wasn’t exposed against Indiana last week. He completed nine of his first 10 passes and threw two TD passes in the final 6:19 of the first half as the Gophers took a 21-9 lead. He led two third-quarter scoring drives, making it 31-9 before Indiana stormed back. Though Morgan threw a fourth-quarter interception, Ciarrocca saw a poised quarterback.
“He stayed relaxed, composed and within himself, which is always the key for a quarterback,” he said. “If you’re not relaxed, you can’t think clearly. And it’s hard to react to things when you’re not thinking clearly.”
That clear mind has developed in large part because Morgan has been in Minnesota’s system for nearly two years. Spending the 2017 season as a redshirt enabled him to adjust, with Rhoda getting an assist.
“I was able to sit back and learn and grow every day, and Conor Rhoda had a huge impact on me,” Morgan said. “… He helped me out a lot, from the moment I stepped on campus to when he left.”
Rhoda saw Morgan’s development take off on Sundays last year, when the coaching staff had younger players scrimmage.
“They let a lot of the guys who are redshirting get some live reps and some game feel,” Rhoda said. “It’s very competitive, and I think that’s where Tanner grew the most. He treated it like a game.”
Morgan also takes motivation from distant cousin Tim Couch, who was a high school and college legend before becoming a No. 1 overall NFL draft pick.
“He’s been an incredibly huge impact in my life because he’s an incredible talent that made it from such a small town. He came from the sticks of Kentucky, really,” said Morgan, who wears No. 2 because of Couch.
In training camp, Annexstad got the nod narrowly over Morgan. “I think he wanted to be the starter so bad that he pressed a little and was a little jumpy in a lot of areas,” Fleck said of Morgan. “He’s really settled down in that department.”
Morgan has the job now, but it isn’t set in stone. Fleck calls it a competition, not a controversy, and said that when Annexstad returns to health from internal midsection and ankle injuries, both QBs could play. Fleck plans to use Annexstad as the backup at Illinois.
Morgan brings the added dimension of running, and he carried for 35 yards and a touchdown against Nebraska. It’s his arm and his mind, however, that have impressed in his short time with the reins to the offense.
“His decisionmaking is better; he’s more confident and decisive,” Ciarrocca said. “... I told him after the Nebraska game that I am not surprised. I told him again after the Indiana game, ‘Great job. I’m not surprised.’ ”
Neither is Rhoda, who offers this advice:
“I’m just telling him to have fun and enjoy the moment, because it sure goes by fast.’’