Minnesota QB Tanner Morgan capitalizes on golden opportunity


On Jan. 6, 2017, the Minnesota Golden Gophers hired P.J. Fleck to be their new head coach. That same day, Tanner Morgan decommited from Western Michigan and committed to Minnesota. It’s safe to say that Fleck and Morgan were a package deal for the Golden Gophers.

Wherever Fleck goes, he brings energy and excitement. During the end of every quarter, he’s running up and down the sidelines. After every win, he crowd surfs in the locker room. It’s different. But as the Gophers move to 9-0 for the first time since 1904, it’s clearly effective.

Beyond just winning football games, Fleck is developing a quarterback before our own eyes. Like I mentioned, Morgan was going to follow Fleck wherever he decided to coach in the winter of 2017. That place happened to be Minnesota. The same place that Morgan is becoming a pretty good quarterback and none of us are talking about it. Even though he had to earn his starting spot as the quarterback for the Gophers, Morgan has capitalized on a golden opportunity.

Ball placement on vertical routes 

During the Penn State and Minnesota game on Saturday, the first thing that caught my eye was the ball placement. Not every throw was where it needed to be and, sometimes, his receivers just made good adjustments to the ball. However, there were plenty of passes that caught my eye with good ball placement and zip. There’s a reason to why Morgan finished the game 18-for-20 with 339 passing yards and three touchdowns.

On the play above, Morgan gets the snap out of shotgun and looks at Tyler Johnson (WR, No. 6) the entire way. It’s a vertical route from Johnson and Morgan places the ball perfectly over his shoulder for a completion. Johnson does make a terrific one-handed catch with the defensive back draped over his back and then scores after the catch. And this all works because of the ball placement from the quarterback. Had this pass been under thrown or even slightly overthrown, Johnson would have had to adjust to the pass and, more than likely, would have had to slow down for a smaller gain.

Much like the previous play, we get another vertical route from the receiver. This time, it’s from Rashod Bateman (WR, No. 13) and he makes the safety — who was late in his rotation over the top — miss the tackle near the sideline. Bateman then outruns the rest of the defense for the touchdown. As for the alignment, the Gophers are aligned in twins right out of a shotgun formation. Once the ball is snapped, Morgan takes a two-step drop and simply flicks his wrist and the ball is perfectly placed into the hands of Bateman along the sideline.

Working through progressions 

If you ever watch a quarterback, you always want to see how he does when working through progressions downfield. There’s plenty of instances where a quarterback gets tunnel vision and can’t find his way out of a paper bag. Other times, they’re like David Blaine. For Morgan, he’s no magician but he’s certainly not some schmuck. In fact, it’s one of the areas that he’s improved on most from last season.

The Gophers come out in a trips left formation and, quickly after the sna,p Morgan looks to his left. Once he begins to step up in the pocket, he gives a slight fake to his left with his hips and shoulders. This leads the defense to freeze before committing to the direction of the ball. Once he knows he has an opening down the sideline to his right, he flips his hips in that direction and launches the pass downfield. Against Penn State, every throw was on the money with plenty of velocity and control. With the way he worked through his progressions, it was also clear that he was confident from the first snap to the last one.

Play-action is his best friend 

Some quarterbacks prefer play-action over the quick passing game. Other quarterbacks would much rather just “grip it and rip it.” It really just depends on the player. Morgan seems like a player that likes to grip it and rip it but it’s hard to believe that running play-action isn’t his best friend. Out of his 193 pass attempts this season, 75 of those attempts have been play-action passes according to Sports Info Solutions. Of those passes, he’s completed 53 for 1,062 yards. Keep in mind, he’s passed for exactly 2,000 yards this season, so more than half of his passing yards is coming from play-action.

On the play above, it’s second-and-12 and the Gophers only have a five point lead on Penn State. It looks like a clear passing down — and it is — but they go with a play-action look out of shotgun and look at how bad the defense bites on the fake. It’s executed so well that Morgan has eight players in the box and once he pulls the ball, four players retreat back into coverage. Unfortunately, for the defense, they’re too late. Morgan has Bateman wide open along the sideline because of a post-corner route that freezes the cornerback toward the hashes.

Pocket progression and standing tall 

When plays breakdown, quarterbacks have a tendency to get flustered. They’ll rush through progressions or breakout of the pocket too quickly. This leads to them scrambling for a minimal gain or just making a bad throw on the run. Other times, it works out. Then, there are times that it’s best for the quarterback to progress through the pocket and stand tall.

Once again, the Gophers have a twins formation out of shotgun but this time it’s to the left rather than the right. It’s first down and they’re on their own 13-yard line. Sprinkle in some play-action and you have Morgan operating out of shotgun and looking to throw the ball downfield again. He looks to the middle of the field and fires a pass into the hands of Bateman, again.

As the ball is snapped and the fake exchange happens, notice how Morgan progresses in the pocket. He drops three steps and then begins to climb in the pocket. He moves forward and steps into his throw and breaks toward the middle of the field. Meanwhile, Morgan stands tall and takes a shot to the chest from a defensive lineman that breaks free at the last second. Rather than crumbling at the thought of pressure, Morgan shows that he can still grip it and rip it.

Final thoughts 

Did I know about  Morgan going into this season? Absolutely. Did I think he’d have the Golden Gophers with their best start in over 100 years? Absolutely not. I had my doubts on this program and even on Fleck but they continue to prove me wrong. The biggest reason to why is their quarterback.

His performance against Penn State was lights out. He was damn-near perfect in that game and outside of two missed throws, he would have been. Regardless, each one of his throws were impressive and the redshirt sophomore really turned some heads — including mine. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll be talking about Morgan until next season. It would be very surprising to see him declare for the 2020 NFL Draft. However, right now, he’s got a very good stat line going 131-for-193 (67.9%) with 2,100 passing yards, 21 touchdowns and four interceptions. He’s also 12-2 as the starting quarterback.

This draft season — and already — we’ll be talking plenty about Gopher senior wide receiver Johnson. He was ranked in my preseason top-25 players for the 2020 NFL Draft and he’s playing at a very high level. Next season, we’ll be talking about the Gophers’ sophomore wide receiver Bateman. Both receivers are incredibly talented with good size, strong hands and the ability to gain yards after the catch.

Even with that said, our focus needs to be tilted toward Morgan. He’s not as good as Joe Burrow or Tua Tagovailoa, but he’s playing at an extremely high level and is showing that he has the traits that are needed to be an NFL-caliber quarterback. Against Penn State, Morgan made a statement and proved what he’s capable of doing. He can continue to play at a high level and get better but he can’t go backwards and get worse. He has to continue to capitalize on every golden opportunity that stands before him.


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