PJ Fleck: Gophers QB Tanner Morgan ‘knows the expectations’ for 2022 season

Tanner Morgan hit Chris Autman-Bell on a slant. Then, it was Michael Brown-Stephens on the same pattern. He found Dylan Wright for a contested catch over the middle, then hit him on a deep out just in time for Wright to get one foot inbounds.

Morgan hit tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford over the middle for a first down. It was just one fall practice Saturday and it was the first day in pads, but Morgan looked a lot like his 2019 self.

Morgan is one of at least four Gophers’ players to use his sixth year of eligibility this fall, and the goal, as it is every year, is to compete for a Big Ten West title. In the first practice open to the public and media, the mistakes were minimal and Morgan was on point.

"I love how hard our guys are playing, that’s first and foremost. We’ve got to continue to work on our details. We’ve still got a long way to go before our first game, but it’s exciting to see guys make plays and how hard the guys are working collaboratively across the board," Morgan said.

One of his fellow "Encore 4" Chris Autman-Bell, Minnesota’s top returning receiver. He says the work that’s been put in since the end of the 2021 season is starting to pay off.

"No. 2 has been getting better each day since the spring started, since we got back from the winter. He’s been working with us each day, getting in extra work. I’m proud of him," Autman-Bell said. "He’s gotten way better, he’s the best player by far since he’s been here at the University of Minnesota."

Morgan is 27-12 as a starting quarterback for the Gophers, a program record for wins. He’s completed 554 career passes entering his final season, which is third in program history. His 8,072 yards is second in program history, as are his 56 career touchdown passes.

He set every individual record there is to set for a quarterback in the 2019 season, Minnesota’s best in 115 years. The Gophers went 11-2, beating Auburn in the Outback Bowl. The only thing that stood in their way of playing in the Big Ten title game? Wisconsin in the regular season finale. The hope is as a sixth year senior and captain, this year is as good as any for Morgan and the Gophers to take that next step.

"I know he knows the expectation he has upon himself, nobody is going to put more pressure on himself than Tanner and this football team. He knows what he has to be able to accomplish," Gophers’ coach PJ Fleck said. "Tanner knows the expectations, I think he’s handling all that very well. I think he’s better than he’s ever been."

Entering his sixth season, Morgan’s career has featured highs and lows. He’s led Minnesota to program-changing wins. He’s also had struggles in frustrating losses. Like Fleck, Morgan has never beaten Iowa.

Under Mike Sanford Jr. the last two seasons, Morgan has 17 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in a run-heavy offense. Morgan also dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic, and losing his father to a battle with brain cancer. He also got married this summer, not long before heading to fall camp. Kirk Ciarrocca, the coordinator who helped lead Morgan to greatness in 2019, is back. Is it as simple as changing coordinators to get that form back?

Morgan is taking one last ride with his head coach, his teammates and players who will be friends the rest of his life. It’s his last chance to compete for a Big Ten title. He was asked Saturday if it’s hit him that 2022 is his final season with Minnesota.

"My approach is just taking it one day at a time. I’m not looking forward to the next day or what may come, but just taking it one day at a time and enjoying every bit of the process. The learning, the failing, the growing. Being in the locker room and just give ourselves the best chance to be successful this season," Morgan said. "I’ve been here a long time and I’ve been very thankful that this is kind of the cards I’ve been dealt. Sometimes I pinch myself that I’m in this situation. I wake up in the morning praying and thanking God that I’m a member of the University of Minnesota football team. If I was 8 years old, I think I’d be really happy about that. It’s a joy to be here every day."

Regardless of what the results are in 2022, Morgan has handled himself with class and been the consummate teammate since he stepped foot on campus. He’s an easy player to root for, but ultimately college football comes down to results. If he can help lead Minnesota to a Big Ten West title, he’ll go down as one of the greatest quarterbacks in program history.