The 2019 Minnesota Golden Gophers finished the Big Ten with a 7-2 conference record and an overall record of 11-2. They were an NCAA football favorites, with receivers Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman on offense, and Antoine Winfield Jr. on defense, carrying the load and bringing excitement to the great white North. However, they beat North Dakota State, Fresno State, Georgia Southern, and Purdue by less than one score each to start the season. And at least some of the blame falls on the shoulders of Tanner Morgan, Minnesota’s starting quarterback.
Morgan had issues protecting the football
In the first three games, he threw a whopping eight interceptable passes, which is more than Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, and Trey Lance threw in all their games charted. That number would end up totaling 14 by the end of the session, a nine-game sample. That number, along with his shotty security when he’s on the hoof (eight fumbles), doesn’t bode well for a quarterback lauded for his efficiency and ability to be a game manager.
His interceptable pass issues stem from a few things. First, his arm simply doesn’t have the juice necessary to really force far hash throws into tighter windows on out-breaking routes. When that’s supplemented by his inconsistent trust for spot throws, you get throws on out routes that come late, allowing cornerbacks to click and close on them. Other times, he simply doesn’t hold the safety in center field long enough to find that sweet spot along the sideline, an issue also magnified by the lack of top-end arm strength. And then there are the issues locating defenders playing in match zone concepts.
This is a very particular issue, but one that reared its head a few times in his film. In a 3×1 offensive set, when the inside receiver immediately flashed to the flat, the interior defender passes him off to the outside cornerback and immediately gets his eyes on number two. There were vertical, stop routes, and in-breaking routes thwarted by that most interior defender flashing from out of Morgan’s peripheral, only missing out on an interception because of the bricks they use for hands.
Morgan thrives over the middle and in the intermediate
This is where the hypocrisy in Morgan’s game rears its head. Despite not having the strongest arm in the apple orchard, he possesses a good feel for leveraging passes away from defenders in man coverage and can find space against spot zone concepts. He was strong in his attempts from 10-20 yards, particularly over the middle and to his left.
10-20 yards: 44/63, 69.84%
10-20 left: 8/10, 80%
10-20 middle: 29/39, 71.79%
10-20 right: 8/14, 57.14%
He was strongest throwing to his left, but the sample size is quite small. His ability to the middle of the field is admirable, but there are times against pressure, which happened a lot behind Minnesota’s offensive line, where he’d pull the string on a ball and put it in the dirt. A lot of these intermediate throws are clean looks off RPOs, throwing skinny slants against off corners. If he can pitch and catch, the ball gets where it needs to be with consistency.
His downfield numbers were surprisingly good as well despite not having a strong arm. Although there are quite a few throws that come quickly just past the 20-yard mark or off-script passes moving horizontally just past the mark, his true deep ball is a pleasant surprise. Overall, he was 21/31 on passes thrown past 20 air yards, which is the same amount of throws to that area as Lance, who properly paced 20 of them. That efficiency number dwarfs that of Lawrence and Fields, who both struggled in that area.
Overall placement and passes in the pocket vs. on the move
Morgan’s overall placement numbers on their own are fine. He properly placed 130 of 181 passes based on the criteria laid out in the initial piece on Lawrence. That leads to a 71.82% overall placement, which is better overall than both Fields and Lawrence and trailing the surprisingly high numbers from Lance. But as someone who is going to get the game manager tagline, he’ll have to vastly improve his placement to really gain an edge over other more toolsy prospects. His accuracy will be his calling card, and he has one more year to prove he can get there.
Morgan in the pocket
The Golden Gophers QB had many of the same issues with placement as Fields, struggling to properly place passes to the short right grid. He simply doesn’t always get his lower half to target cleanly enough to consistently drive passes to the outside. It’s a particular issue on out-breaking routes and far hash throws closer to the 10-yard mark, where he really has to torque his midsection to generate velocity, which forced a few sailing passes. But outside that area, his numbers were strong.
Morgan on the move
Despite not being the most gifted athlete out there, he was a pleasant surprise on designed rollouts and when he broke the pocket off-script. He didn’t miss a deep ball in his four attempts, and of his 26 attempts on the move overall, he properly placed 20 of them.
Third/fourth down and red zone performance
Third and fourth down
He was outstanding in his 19 attempts on third and fourth down, but it wasn’t made very hard on him. Of the 19 attempts, only seven were thrown past the sticks, and five attempts were on tunnel screens thrown behind the line-of-scrimmage. However, he never showed any sort of gunshy attitude toward ripping it when he was given the option.
Red zone performance
In 18 attempts inside the 20-yard-line, he went 14/18. Minnesota liked running the red zone fade, and his placement on those passes went from decent to absolutely sublime. Only once did he miss a spot, and that throw ended in a defensive pass interference and no harm done.
Mental side and overall outlook
Morgan is a QB who gets the game manager moniker that doesn’t necessarily manage games in a safe or efficient manner at the moment. His processor goes from flashy and efficient to devastatingly slow and dangerous, depending on the situation. If he can flesh out some of those consistency issues, calm his feet down to get into good platforms to throw to the right, and continue to show flashes avoiding pressure, he could be a nice candidate as a mid-level starter or a high-end backup at the next level.
He very well could improve drastically and end up having a Drew Brees type impact, picking apart the middle of the field and getting away with a less than desirable arm, but those players are few and very far between. What we can expect is another efficient season from a numbers perspective, in a low volume passing attack with receivers in Bateman, who could be a possible first-round pick, and Chris Autman-Bell, who is a sleeper in this potential 2021 Draft class. Without a meteoric rise in the mental side and placement consistency, his absolute ceiling is probably as a day two developmental starter behind an aging quarterback. Morgan has said he is a fan of Kirk Cousins, and if we’re looking for a high-end comp for him, there’s no better one than that.