MINNEAPOLIS - Tanner Morgan won the starting quarterback job in fall camp last year for the University of Minnesota after Zack Annexstad went down with a season-ending foot injury.
He went onto have one of the best seasons in Gophers history, and led the program to its best season in 115 years. Morgan set single-season school records with 3,253 passing yards, 30 touchdowns, completing 66 percent of his passes and throwing for more than 250 yards per game.
Morgan got the nation’s attention when the Gophers won their Big Ten opener at Purdue. He went 21-of-22 for 396 yards and four touchdowns. He set an NCAA record for passing efficiency with at least 12 completions. His numbers were right there with Joe Burrow, Jalen Hurts and Justin Fields.
Maybe most importantly, he enters Saturday night’s season-opener against Michigan 15-4 as a starting quarterback. So what’s next? To quote a P.J. Fleck trademark, he’s got to change his best. Build off 2019.
“He’s just got to continue to evolve, and most of that is making every single person around him better by elevating his play. How Tanner plays based on who’s on that field at that particular time, I think that’s what’s going to elevate his game,” Fleck said.
Morgan will go about his business this season potentially not knowing who his receivers will be in every game. If a player tests positive for COVID-19, they’re out for a minimum of 21 days. In an eight-game regular season, that’s nearly half the year.
His work this off-season has been mostly off the field. He’s grown as a leader, holding countless offensive meetings on Zoom after Fleck hosts team meetings. He talked with Co-offensive coordinators Mike Sanford Jr. and Matt Simon “as much as the NCAA would let me.”
He’s gotten everyone involved in the offense when they can practice.
“He really took control of this whole team,” running back Mo Ibrahim said.
"Tanner is my guy, I’ve known him since high school. To see him grow daily from when he first got here, it’s awesome. Tanner gets better daily, he’s like a floor general, he’s like a point guard for the team. His leadership has jumped way up from what it was last year. He’s one of those captains that you really need on a team," wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell said.
It also can’t be forgotten that Morgan took on that leadership role earlier this summer while his father battled a brain tumor.
The Gophers’ offense will look different in 2020. Tyler Johnson is now in the NFL. Rashod Bateman is back after initially opting out, but he’ll get plenty of attention from Big Ten defenses throughout the season. That leaves Chris Autman-Bell, Seth Green, Breyn Spann-Ford, Jake Paulson, Bryce Witham and Ko Kieft as other targets in the passing game. Morgan also has freshmen Daniel Jackson and Douglas Emilien, but it’s tough to rely in first-year players.
Morgan says that trust is built through repetitions in practice.
“It’s 2020, you never know what could happen. You could go from being on the scout team to being a starter. That’s a critical message to echo is that everybody has to be ready,” Morgan said.
Morgan will take the field Saturday night with a chance to lead the Gophers to a 1-0 start, win the Michigan championship season and keep the Little Brown Jug in Minneapolis. It’s as much a chance to beat a rival as it is an opportunity to set a tone for the eight-game season. Not that long ago, they didn’t know they’d even get that chance.
“There was uncertainty if we were even going to play, we were all at home for months. To be able to play football is something that we’re very grateful for, and to be able to play an extremely talented team Week 1 is definitely something we’re looking forward to. It’s the opportunity and that’s all that we’re focused on,” Morgan said.