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From Kentucky to Minnesota: Gophers’ QB Tanner Morgan’s first love was football

A 9-year-old quarterback rolled out of the pocket and surveyed his options. With less than a minute remaining in the semifinal game, his team needed a score to win. It was finally time to overcome all of the pressure and punch a ticket to the “Super Bowl.” Tanner Morgan escaped the pocket and fired a pass downfield. The defensive back pulled forward and Morgan’s throw whizzed into the arms of his wide receiver for a game-winning touchdown.

Even at a young age, the fiery Kentucky quarterback was not afraid of big moments. After getting in the car, Tanner’s father, Ted Morgan, was ready for their annual postgame drive. This time, Ted had to find out what Tanner saw when he rolled out of the pocket.

“On the way home, I just said, ‘that was a really nice pass.’ And he looked at me, and he said, ‘I knew if I rolled out, the defender had to make a decision. If he stayed with the receiver, I would run it in. If he came to me, I had my guy open, so I hit him,’” Ted Morgan said. “That’s kind of when I knew that he was a little different than most 9-year-old kids.”

When Tanner was six years old, he walked into a huddle for the first time. Almost fifteen years later, the ultra-competitive quarterback has never left the position.

Ted Morgan helped coach his son’s teams from sixth grade, until Tanner’s junior year in high school. While in middle school, Tanner Morgan spent time studying coverages to better understand defensive schemes. Ted said Tanner’s ability to diagnose and discover tendencies started at a young age. He remembered a sixth grade game where Tanner helped invent his own play. A simple vertical “go route” suddenly turned into an ultra-skinny post. When Morgan went off script, the “slice route” was accidentally born.

“I’m like, ‘that was a great throw, but what was that?’ He goes, ‘the guy had outside leverage on him and I just threw him open. I knew that there was nobody in the middle and I knew if I threw it right there close enough, that my guy was going to grab it,’” Morgan’s father said. “We didn’t even have that play. You can’t teach that, he just got that.”

The duo’s postgame drive always turned into a conversation about the game. However, every time, Ted mentioned any aspect of his son’s performance, Tanner always highlighted the contributions of a teammate. Even if Morgan made a tremendous throw that night, another player received credit.

“He never wanted to talk about himself, it was always other people,” Ted Morgan said. “Once a week, he would take candy bars and Gatorades to his offensive linemen and hand them out.”

It was a small gesture to thank the players who protected him every week. Now, in college, Morgan continues this tradition at the University of Minnesota. When his teammates least expect it, the doorbell rings and warm cookies arrive at their doorstep.

“Today, he’s carried it on and every now and then he’ll get his offensive linemen Insomnia Cookies,” Morgan’s father said. “Tanner will go out and pay for those guys’ cookies and have them delivered.”

Morgan’s leadership skills and work ethic have helped him bring teams to uncharted territory.  Prior to his junior season, Tanner transferred to Ryle High School in Kentucky. He flipped the script of a struggling football program and led the Raiders to 9-3 and 12-1 records. Morgan became one of ten players in Kentucky football history to throw for more than 10,000 yards and 100 touchdowns. He accomplished this while playing within a high school offense featuring a 50-50 run-pass ratio.

Morgan’s football intelligence played a big role in his development, but mechanical improvements changed everything.  At 15 years old, Morgan was trained by former East Carolina quarterback Paul Troth. Despite living eight hours apart, Morgan recorded videos and sent them to Troth through an online “eCoach” platform. After reviewing the clips, Troth would send breakdowns and feedback to Morgan and his father. Shortly after working with Troth, Tanner earned his first offer from Wake Forest.

“That’s what really propelled Tanner to get his first offer. [It was] really because of working with Paul on eCoach,” Ted Morgan said. “Tanner’s work ethic is a tremendous example of that. You can give a kid a resource, but if they don’t put time into it and use it, it’s not doing them any good.”

The Recruiting “Process”

The development of Tanner’s fundamentals helped him gain more interest from college programs. Morgan didn’t take many college visits, but after speaking with P.J. Fleck and his staff, he decided to make a midweek trip to Western Michigan. When Tanner and Ted pulled into the football facility in Kalamazoo, Michigan, they never expected to have any interest in the school.

“I remember when we got out of the car that morning, I looked at [Tanner], and I was like, ‘hey, we’re just up here for a visit. Nothing is going to happen out of this today.’ He goes, ‘oh, I know,’” Ted Morgan said.

Before the college visits, the Morgan family defined a list of key characteristics they were looking for in a football program. They called this “the process.”

Ted always remembered advice he received from former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer’s assistant, Joey Roberts. Roberts told him, “define what you’re looking for and when the school matches that, and Tanner wants to be in that culture, that’s when it’s over.”

After Tanner and Ted Morgan walked into P.J. Fleck’s office, they immediately connected with the staff’s vision. A routine trip suddenly turned into an unexpected event.

“They answered every question we had out of our process. I could see Tanner jumping out of his chair. We committed,” Tanner’s father said. “My wife wasn’t with me. She got aggravated and wouldn’t talk to us for two days — that’s a true story. So we had to go up the next weekend and P.J. reenacted the commitment to take more pictures with my wife, Pat.”

Morgan’s Relentless Work Ethic

Before enrolling in school early, Morgan continued to work with his quarterback coaches and attended an Elite 11 event in Atlanta. Tanner wanted to see how he stacked up against the nation’s top quarterbacks. Out of 150 quarterbacks in attendance, Morgan was selected to participate in the “Pressure Chamber” competition. He squared off with quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), Chase Brice (Clemson), Jake Bentley (South Carolina) and Jake Fromm (Georgia).

Morgan finished 3-for-5 and only held the ball for three seconds. None of the other top quarterbacks completed more than three passes in the drill.

“There were kids with 30 offers that didn’t get to go to that. Tanner knew that he belonged and that’s all he needed to see,” Morgan’s father said.

An Unexpected Twist

Nine months later, the recruiting process took another turn. P.J. Fleck was hired as the new head coach at Minnesota. The next morning, Tanner’s phone lit up. Fleck was calling to give Morgan the news. Despite leaving for a new school, Fleck wanted Morgan to join him in Minneapolis. 

“When you have somebody who you call within 24 hours and tell him you’re reporting here in like 18 hours and I just took a different job. I’m going to offer you to come to that place, and if you’d like to, great. If you don’t, that’s fine too. Never see it. Never visit here. And then without hesitation, said, ‘I’m in.’ I even said, you want to check with your parents? Do you want to tell them where you’re going? You want to know anything about Minnesota?,” Gophers’ head coach P.J. Fleck said. “I said, if you do, I can’t help you because I don’t know anything either. That’s faith. That’s belief.”

Later that day, Tanner was set to host his graduation party, but managed to quickly modify all of the desserts.

“We still had a Western Michigan cake and cookies, but we just turned the ‘W’ around to an ‘M’,” Ted Morgan said. “And then, the next weekend, we drove into Minnesota. Me, my wife, or Tanner, had never been to the state — that’s how all in we were.”

Tanner Morgan again had the chance to help take a football program to new heights. A few years later, Morgan is now the leader of an offense that is shattering school records. Minnesota has started the season with an 8-0 record for the first time since 1941. After becoming a starter last year, the Gophers’ quarterback has a 12-2 record and is thriving in offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca’s offense.

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The Coaches Behind Morgan’s Mechanics

Prior to the 2019 season, Minnesota’s quarterback continued improving his mechanics. This spring, Morgan worked with quarterback coach Trenton Kirklin in Nashville.

During a pair of two-day sessions with Kirklin, the quarterback coach decided to video call one of the top kinesiologists in the country, Rob Williams. The founder of SportCore, Williams specializes in optimizing the movement skills of football players. Over the past six years, he has started to narrow his focus to quarterback mechanics. Williams has worked with many Power 5 and NFL players to optimize their performance. He has also consulted with many teams, including the New Orleans Saints. In March, Kirklin called Williams and conducted a video session with Morgan.

“Right away, like the first words, you could tell, this is even when I’m doing a video call and we’re in a big indoor turf facility. Right away, [Tanner was] engaged,” kinesiologist Rob Williams said. “You could pick up fairly quickly that this is a good kid that’s very responsive, receptive and coachable.”

While developing his SportCore system, Williams noticed many young quarterbacks weren’t engaging 80 percent of their body, including the hips and core. He has found the biggest challenge is teaching quarterbacks how to make their throwing motions compact and rotary.

“There’s been a lot of teaching from what I call a distal perspective, meaning the ends of the body. So they’ve been coached — put your foot here, point your toe here, this hand goes here,  this hand goes there, fingertips on the ball, your elbow has to be here,” Williams said.

When Williams received his first set of photos from Morgan, he knew the quarterback’s throwing motion needed to be more compact and efficient.

“In a couple of the images, you could see his front foot had reached way out in front of him and his ball hand and the ball had dropped dramatically. And he slid his body forward, yet nothing has happened at his hips and core yet,” Williams said.

When the kinesiologist evaluated video of Morgan’s mechanics, he noticed a variety of “accessory movements” that didn’t benefit the throw.

“It’s a long, distal, sort of reach-and-slide, and the back leg swings around and swings through. From a kinesiology perspective, none of those things actually help with what it is that he’s trying to do, which is throw the football,” Williams said. “That’s mostly what I spend my time doing with quarterbacks, is taking away all of the extra movement that is inhibiting their performance.”

Williams provided feedback and Morgan spent the next few months learning his techniques. Tanner would send progress videos to keep him updated.

“There have only been a few guys I’ve worked with remotely that have done this. He went away and took the tips,” Williams said. “[It’s great] when you have an athlete who says, ok, I get it, this makes sense to me. It’s not something that I’ve ever been taught or learned before, but I can feel the difference, I’m going to run with it. I handed him the tools and he ran with it.”

Two months after giving Morgan a list of techniques and training methods, Williams started to see a big difference. When he received a set of videos in May, he noticed Morgan’s motion becoming compact and efficient.

“With Tanner, through the process, it was probably around May where he was throwing some balls in their indoor facility. It was just, ok, now things are changing,” Williams said. “Now you’re starting to be what I call a rotary athlete, rather than a linear athlete.”

The Gophers’ quarterback quickly applied all of the new movement skills in Minnesota’s offense. Through eight games, Morgan is 113-for-173 with 1,761 yards, 18 touchdowns and four interceptions. He has completed 65.3 percent of his passes, while orchestrating the seventh-most efficient passing offense in the country, according to College Football Data. When Williams has fired up Morgan’s film, he notices the benefits of Tanner becoming a “rotary athlete.”

“Now, when he’s moving around in the pocket and it’s time to release the ball or launch the ball, he now moves like he’s loaded and ready to launch. When he launches, the release time is dramatically reduced from first forward motion in the initiation of a launch sequence,” Williams said. “He’s basically going through his reads and progressions, and when he decides it’s time to release the ball, it’s a rotary snap, and the ball is out. The arm action is way smaller and tighter. There’s no big long reach of his front foot, which was very, very prominent with him. His hips are sort of the driver of throw. So what ends up happening, is you see the quarterback snap, the ball is out, and the quarterback almost looks like they didn’t move in the pocket.”

Williams doesn’t call himself a quarterback coach. He isn’t studying any of Tanner’s reads or progressions. His goal is to optimize Morgan’s movements and diagnose why a certain throw wasn’t mechanically effective. After watching several of Tanner’s game highlights and videos, Williams has noticed Morgan’s tremendous improvement.

“I’ll jump on and look for the highlights from the previous game. [I’ll say] these four throws were compact, rotary and clean. These two throws, he came apart, he fell off axis. There’s a bunch of things that show up and with the system I’ve developed, but there’s always an answer. There’s always a reason why he overthrew on this one, or he fell out on this one, or there was a big leg swing here, or his arm slashed there, or he missed high here,” Williams said.

“Most of the time it comes down to the initiation strategy — what he did at the start of the movement. Whether or not he was in his hips and fired his hips, versus it came from his arm or his foot, that type of thing.”

Although they’ve never met in-person, Rob Williams has helped shape Tanner Morgan’s movement skills and performance. The combination of Minnesota’s offensive system and Rob Williams’ insight, have helped Morgan quietly become one of college football’s most efficient passers.

“Tanner is a kid I’ve never even seen face-to-face. He’s had a significant change in his throwing mechanics and his performance. I’m not saying that’s all me, it’s all him — he’s done the work,” Williams said. “It’s an example of what’s possible if you start to feed guys the right tools.”

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