Tanner Morgan's leadership skills often are on display on the University of Minnesota campus, at places such as the Larson Football Performance Center, the newly rebranded Huntington Bank Stadium and, for charitable endeavors, the Masonic Children's Hospital.
On Wednesday night, however, the Gophers quarterback was camped out with 11 teammates in the parking lot of a Lakeville strip mall barbecue joint, smack dab between a taqueria and a laundromat.
All the while, Morgan was quietly leading and giving, making sure his offensive linemen were getting some love.
Since July 1, when the NCAA read the shifting culture and stopped preventing student-athletes from making money off their name, image and likeness, players throughout the country have started to enter into deals. Morgan quickly hooked up with the video-sharing social network Cameo to deliver personalized messages. At Alabama, quarterback Bryce Young reportedly has agreements worth more than $800,000.
Realizing he'll have more opportunities to make NIL money than his teammates, Morgan, along with running back Mohamed Ibrahim, decided to include the offensive linemen in on the action, coming up with the idea of an autograph session at Baldy's BBQ, with all proceeds going to the big fellas.
"I reached out to Baldy and asked him if there was something we could do for our offensive line to profit off this name, image and likeness before the season starts,'' Morgan said. "He was like, 'Yeah, of course.' We got it going, and it was perfect combination. It was cool for our guys to come out here and sign some autographs.''
Baldy is Brian "Baldy'' Wheeler, a former placekicker for Joliet (Ill.) Junior College and the University of Missouri. "Broke my leg in three spots and never got to play'' at Missouri, Wheeler said. He moved to Minnesota in 2003, started Baldy's BBQ in 2009 and helped coach Lakeville South's quarterbacks and receivers when future QB Mitch Leidner was playing for the Cougars. He became a Gophers fan, is a regular at tailgates and has catered events for the team.
Wheeler also became friends with Morgan's father, Ted, who died July 12 after battling brain cancer. "[Tanner] called me the day after the funeral and said, 'Let's get this thing together. I need to get this for my linemen,' '' Wheeler said. "He said, 'I'm getting some opportunities, Mo's getting some opportunities, but my linemen, they ain't seeing the love.' ''
At Wednesday's event, fans could receive autographs from the linemen for $10 per item, and during the two-plus-hour session, an estimated 250 people showed up. Wheeler gave the Gophers group 15% of the restaurant's proceeds from 5 p.m. and on, which augmented the amount the players received from autographs. The 10 linemen split a total of roughly $2,000.
The linemen, of course, applauded the efforts of Morgan and Ibrahim.
"Thank you very much for Tanner and Mo,'' senior guard Blaise Andries said. "It's really cool that they were willing to do that for their offensive line. When you think of NIL, you think of the top three or four players on the team getting most of the deals. We're lucky enough to have great people on our team helping us out.''
Added senior guard Conner Olson, "We appreciate it. Tanner's been our guy through this.''
The players have received advice in dealing with NIL opportunities from the athletic department and coach P.J. Fleck and his staff, but the decisions are made at the player level. They've consulted the university's NCAA compliance officials for help and are mindful of tax implications of NIL money.
"I remind these guys: If your parents file your taxes or you have somebody who files your taxes, be sure to give this information, how much you're making, to them,'' said Andries, an Academic All-America selection who is working on a master's degree in applied business analytics.
Morgan's leadership on the field will be a key for the Gophers, who begin preseason camp on Wednesday in advance of their Sept. 2 season opener against Ohio State at Huntington Bank Stadium. With a deep, veteran offensive line and Ibrahim, the reigning Big Ten running back of the year, the Gophers have the ingredients for a powerful running game.
Morgan is seeking to return to the form that saw him complete 66% of his passes for 3,253 yards and 30 touchdowns with seven interceptions during the 11-2 season in 2019.
"We've just got to continue to take the next right step, and that starts with me being able to execute at a higher level,'' said Morgan, who completed 57.9% of his passes for 1,374 yards and seven TDs with five interceptions as the Gophers slumped to 3-4 in 2020. "We need to connect the dots to take the stress off [Ibrahim]. I've got to be better from where I was last year.''
In 2019 on the way to a top-10 finish in the final Associated Press poll, the Gophers had an embarrassment of riches at wide receiver with Tyler Johnson, now a Super Bowl champion for Tampa Bay, and Rashod Bateman, a first-round draft pick by Baltimore, along with Chris Autman-Bell. Now, Autman-Bell (78 career catches, six TDs) and sophomore Daniel Jackson (12 career catches) are expected to be the go-to targets.
Fleck calls Morgan "the heartbeat of this football team'' and is confident in the signal-caller who's been the starter since the eighth game of the 2018 season. Others are noticing, too. Morgan is on the watch list for the Wuerffel Trophy, college football's top award for community service.
"The way he's handled what he's gone through in the last year-and-a-half, especially the last week with his father, just shows what type of person he is,'' Fleck said from Big Ten media days. "There's a person behind that number and that arm leading the team, and I couldn't think of a better person leading our team than Tanner Morgan.''
Morgan, though, shares praise with teammates, and on Wednesday, his linemen were the recipients.
"They're the ones who make it happen,'' Morgan said. "Without them, nothing happens.''