Jake Paulson walked into Tanner Morgan’s room, afraid.
He went to talk to his roommate, gauge how he was feeling after losing the starting quarterback job last August to true freshman Zack Annexstad.
Of course, Paulson wanted to make sure his friend was OK, but another part worried he’d have to say goodbye if Morgan made like other college backups and transferred.
Morgan’s response blew him away. No blind rages or pity parties. Just peace.
“He was like, ‘It’s God’s plan. It’s not on me,’ ” Paulson, a sophomore tight end, said. “He has a very strong faith. … And so that’s a huge part, which I think personally is what keeps him grounded on such a daily basis.”
Morgan doesn’t exhaust much mental energy asking himself why he didn’t win the starting job in the first place, why he seemingly remains the default choice even now, as he leads the Gophers into Thursday’s season opener against South Dakota State.
Instead, he focuses on positive thoughts like the confidence he has in his own ability, which repeatedly showed itself when he replaced an injured Annexstad and led the Gophers to a 4-2 finish last season.
And if that self-belief should ever fail, his foundation will steady him.
“Understanding that your identity is not in a sport. It’s in who you are as a person,” Morgan said. “For me, that’s my relationship with Christ. That’s my end-all be-all. Football’s not the world to me. It means the world to me, like, I love it. It’s my passion in life. But it doesn’t define who I am.”
Morgan’s height is listed generously at 6-2, but despite not having prototypical QB size, he still passed for nine touchdowns, 1,401 yards and completed 58.6% of his passes last season as a redshirt freshman.
He was under center for the entire closing stretch, when the Gophers beat Purdue, Wisconsin and Georgia Tech. Yet Morgan’s performance didn’t guarantee him the QB1 designation this year. It was another battle with Annexstad — until he injured his foot a couple of days into training camp.
In Morgan, the Gophers will have the more mobile of the two quarterbacks, though the 6-3 Annexstad has the bigger frame and stronger arm.
Annexstad was dinged up last season and went through a three-game stretch, all losses, when he tossed seven interceptions against Maryland, Iowa and Ohio State.
Morgan stabilized the team with a big performance in his first start against Indiana, completing 17 of 24 passes for 302 yards in the win, with three touchdowns and an interception. He struggled in a loss to Big Ten West champion Northwestern, turning the ball over three times, and wasn’t flashy in the season-ending wins against Wisconsin and Georgia Tech. But he was turnover-free in those two games, serving as the consummate game manager.
And something else stood out about him that the Gophers will count on this season.
“He is the leader of the team,” coach P.J. Fleck said. “He is the pulse of the team.”
Morgan was an unheralded three-star recruit, even as a finalist for Kentucky’s Mr. Football award. He committed to Fleck early while the coach was at Western Michigan and followed him to the Gophers in January 2017. He had never been to Minnesota. He just wanted to be a part of Fleck’s culture.
That can sometimes make Morgan a bit hard to decipher at first. The Union, Ky., native has learned under Fleck for almost four years, and he’s picked up the same lingo as his coach. Plus, he’s a man of simple pleasures, enjoying comedies, country music and church. Throw in a little golf and a lot of football, and that’s Morgan.
Where Annexstad was very raw ahead of training camp when talking about the injury woes that limited his 2018 performance, Morgan hardly lets any emotion show when discussing the adversity he’s faced.
“He has incredible response mechanisms. I think that’s what makes him unique,” Fleck said. “That’s part of the intangible category. He’s not a big 6-5 guy, doesn’t throw a 95 mile an hour fastball. But he’s got these intangibles that are off the charts. … That turns into the leadership role because everybody else does the same thing, and it’s infectious when the quarterback’s doing it all the time.”
Paulson called Morgan humble and determined, someone who will watch three hours of film on his off day and then help a teammate struggling with the playbook.
Luke Middendorf, Morgan’s religious mentor through Athletes in Action, said the quarterback can be fiery and competitive in the game but incredibly polite and quiet outside it. All of this suggests Morgan is very aware of his prominence on the team, the responsibility he wields and how acting the part is what gains respect.
Fleck even said it: There’s not a lot of hype around Morgan. But with the team entering a pivotal season, stacked offense and tentatively optimistic defense included, featuring a quarterback who is more reliable than sensational might be just what the Gophers need.
“You know what you’re getting every time you put Tanner on the field,” Fleck said. “… He gets the most out of everybody around him. And I think when he steps into the huddle, or he’s on the field, there is a sense of urgency with our whole team.
“And he’s earned that. That has not been given to him.”