He keeps stacks of binders and spiral notebooks in his campus bedroom. They are filled with notes and specific points Tanner Morgan wants to make to himself, some underlined for emphasis.
He’s a meticulous note-taker. Every football meeting he’s attended since arriving at the University of Minnesota is cataloged in those pages. Leadership meetings, quarterback meetings, game review breakdowns. He’s got notes about what was said, defenses he saw on a certain play, his footwork on a drop-back, mistakes he made.
“I probably write too much,” he says. “If you looked at it, you probably couldn’t comprehend half of it because my handwriting is so sloppy. But it makes sense to me.”
Once, as he rewatched a bad interception on video, Morgan wrote, Come on, you’re way better than this.
He flips through his notebooks if he needs a reminder about something, or just confirmation. Look, he tells himself, you made this mistake in Week 2 but in Week 7, you got the same defensive coverage and handled it differently.
This is what drives the Gophers junior quarterback — the pursuit of progress. To be slightly better today than he was yesterday. He’s a perfectionist who understands he can never achieve perfection, but every measure of his life comes with exacting accountability.
His career has followed a supernova trajectory. A backup to start the 2018 season, he enters 2020 regarded as one of the top five quarterbacks in college football after a record-setting sophomore season and 15-4 record as a starter.
The Gophers will need Morgan’s steady hand even more with the loss of All-America receiver Rashod Bateman, who opted out of this season to prepare for the 2021 NFL draft. His departure makes Morgan’s spotlight expand, though good luck convincing him of that. He’d rather throw a pick-six than be singled out above others.
“It’s not about one guy,” he says.
This story is, with an attempt to answer one question: Who the heck is this undersized, once-overlooked, balding quarterback with an ego the size of a flea?
This is who Tanner Morgan is …
Neighborhood games often ended the same way: Young Tanner bursting through the door, hyperventilating because he was crying so hard. His brother, Tyler, is four years older and Tanner hated to lose to him at anything, even a casual game of putt-putt on family vacations.
Morgan’s first football team in northern Kentucky had old-school coaches. “You were going to get your butt chewed out,” he says.
“First through fourth grade,” he says.
They made Morgan a quarterback, partly because he had the best arm but also because he was a scrappy kid who could handle hard coaching.
He won an AAU state championship in basketball in grade school. His family thought he might play baseball in college, or perhaps professionally, because he could hit, field and had 20/13 vision on eye exams.
He craved competition from an early age. Losses stuck with him. He still remembers losing 6-0 in sixth grade to a team from Cincinnati on a hook-and-ladder play. The quarterback of the other team was Sean Clifford, current QB for Penn State.
Morgan’s team got revenge in seventh grade.
And again last season.
“If he was playing his grandmother in checkers, he’s going to find a way to win,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck says. “He’s ultracompetitive. I haven’t had many like him before. But he’s also one of the best people you’ll ever meet.”
Morgan started high school in a new town, Hazard, Ky. He was 14 years old, the new kid in school. The varsity coaches named him the starter as a freshman, two years after the team won the state title. Some of his senior teammates turned 19 during the season. He had to win their respect and trust.
“They caught on pretty quick that he was the real deal,” brother Tyler says. “He had a calming presence.”
Morgan passed for almost 2,400 yards and 25 touchdowns that season. A Division I recruiter visited that spring to watch him work out in drills. Morgan’s first pass to his receiver was on the money, a perfect spiral. The kid dropped it. Morgan said, “My bad. I’ll get you on the next one.”
The assistant principal at Ryle High School in Union, Ky., where he transferred as a junior, made a point to watch the star quarterback in the lunchroom. He would eat lunch, pick up his trash, then make his way around the room talking to different groups of people.
He didn’t just stop and talk to friends or other jocks. He’d visit with students who weren’t involved in sports. Some days, he would sit down and talk to kids with special needs.
“It wouldn’t just be a head nod or a smile,” says Elaine Brendel, assistant principal. “He would carry on a conversation. He was genuine in his relationships with people and just being nice.”
Before Fleck announced he was leaving Western Michigan to take the Gophers job, he called his quarterback recruit and invited him to join him. Morgan didn’t hesitate in saying yes, but he wanted to check with his mom first since she already was nervous about him being a six-hour car drive from home. Minnesota was double that.
Pat Morgan teaches second grade and had already heard news about Fleck’s job change when Tanner found her at school. Not now, she told him, not wanting to cry in front of her students.
“But I’ve got to have your blessing,” Tanner said.
What happened next has become family lore. Tanner had his graduation party that night. The house was decorated in Western Michigan theme, including cookies with a “W” on top. His mom turned the cookies upside down so that they looked like an “M.”
“It was an interesting talking point at the party,” he says.
Morgan enrolled at the U that January at age 17. He skipped his high school graduation ceremony because he didn’t want to miss any spring practices with the Gophers.
He graduated this May with a degree in human resource development. He didn’t walk in that graduation ceremony either because of the pandemic. When his dad congratulated him, he asked what his final GPA was. Morgan shrugged. Either he didn’t know or didn’t want to brag.
For the record, it was 3.53.
The world shut down during Morgan’s spring break. He was home in Kentucky but had left his laptop at school. Unable to retrieve it, he bought an iPad so that he could study virtually. That included football.
He borrowed a table and an old office chair from his dad and synced his iPad with a big-screen TV. He hung a dry-erase board in his bedroom so he could draw offensive formations.
He dubbed his setup “Minnesota QB Film Room East.”
He grinded through hours of game tape and practices and had many conversations with new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr.
Morgan’s little sister, Grace, a high school junior, aspires to play college softball. She got a lesson in what being a college athlete requires.
“Watching Tanner during quarantine was eye-opening for us,” his mom says. “Tanner was busy 24/7 when a lot of kids were looking for stuff to do.”
Stuck at home, the family watched rebroadcasts of Gophers games from last season. There were lots of highlights, but Morgan never said a peep about those. He only mentioned his mistakes.
Watch me miss Tyler Johnson with this touchdown pass, he’d say. Watch me step into this sack. Watch me fumble here.
Fleck cares more about what happens after mistakes. His quarterback rarely compounds one error with another.
“I’ve never been around a quarterback or a player who responds as well as Tanner does,” Fleck says.
Ask him to name his best qualities as a quarterback, Morgan lists three, in this order: mind, accuracy, creativity.
He’s always been an accurate thrower, but his 58.6 completion percentage as a freshman bugged him. Flawed mechanics caused too many passes to nose-dive.
Through his work with a personal quarterback coach, Morgan connected with a Vancouver kinesiologist who specializes in movement skills specific to quarterbacks. Rob Williams dissected Morgan’s mechanics from a biomechanics perspective and revamped his delivery to generate more power from his hips and core.
Morgan’s completion percentage jumped to 66.0 last season, 15th-best nationally. His improvement was a product of daily coaching from Fleck’s assistants, along with more experience and better understanding of defenses and his own system. But Morgan also remains a devoted pupil of Williams’ principles of body movement. He sends Williams videos regularly of him throwing to make sure every facet is in harmony.
“He’s relentless in getting it right,” Williams says. “I’ve never met the kid. I’ve never seen him face to face.”
The play card he wears on his left wrist in games also has “AO1” written on it. Translation: Audience of one.
The wristband on his right arm has a similar spiritual message: Ww. The capital W stands for worship. The lowercase w stands for win.
His life is guided by faith. Morgan comes from a family of believers, and his own faith deepened when he arrived on campus and found a community with Athletes in Action.
The peace that brings him helps him manage the pressure and scrutiny of playing quarterback on a big stage. Any outcome on the field, he says, does not define who he is as a person.
“When you’re judging yourself and being judged by others constantly, it can be hard to understand that,” he says.
Morgan’s family leaned on its faith more than ever this spring as his father endured a health crisis. Pat feared her husband had suffered a stroke when he began slurring words. Tests revealed a brain tumor. Ted underwent surgery at Mayo Clinic to remove the tumor and recently finished his last radiation treatment. He has a checkup later this month, but doctors are pleased with his progress.
Ted was inundated with well wishes, including many from Minnesota from people he’s never met. His phone rang on Father’s Day from a number with a 612 area code.
“Hello, Mr. Morgan,” the caller said. “This is Kevin Warren, commissioner of the Big Ten.”
Warren offered his support, told him how much he admires his son, and finished the call by saying a prayer with Ted.
So, who is Tanner Morgan?
A winner. A leader. A quarterback who hears slights about his height (6-2, maybe) and sees no limitations because quarterback success isn’t measured by a ruler.
“I always knew I could play at the highest level,” he says. “I just wanted the opportunity where somebody truly believed in me. That’s what I felt from Coach Fleck. Somebody who wanted me and believed in what I could do.
“He didn’t look at height or ‘he’s not that fast.’ He believed in me as a person and he believed in me as a player. All it takes is one opportunity.
“And once you get it, you’ve got to make the most of it.”