How Long (or Short) is Tanner Morgan’s Leash in 2021

Photo: Jesse Johnson - USA TODAY Sports

Every year that goes by (they speed up as you age) I become more convinced that American football was created to help ease the northern hemisphere out of its long beautiful summer days and into the brutally cold and constantly dark winters. How else would you explain a human society that happily counts down to the end of summer and turning of fall?

That’s what the football side of this world has been doing since February. And for Minnesota Gopher fans, the countdown to 2021 kickoff will hit “0” in 57 days. Then, on September 2, football will slap us in the face harder than the impending -30 windchill a couple months down the road. This year, the Gophers open their season at home and in primetime (FOX), to welcome the Ohio State Buckeyes to TCF Huntington Bank Stadium.

No QB Controversy… yet.

We know who will start the Ohio State game behind center, void of any unforeseen circumstances over the next two months. As Max pointed out in his depth chart projection from Monday, Tanner Morgan established himself as the starting quarterback for the Gophers back in 2019, when he posted an incredible 13 G, 3253 YDS, 30 TD, 7 INT statline and led them to an Outback Bowl victory over Auburn.

But what Tanner’s done for us lately (7 GMS, 1,374 YDS, 7 TD, 5 INT in 2020) isn’t much. And last I checked, recency bias matters in sports. So that begs one to question: With so much on the line for PJ Fleck and the Minnesota Gophers in 2021, how patient can the head coach be if Morgan stumbles out of the gate? If Tanner looks more like his 2020 version, than his 2019, how quickly does Fleck make a change?

Zack Annexstad

Well, that question begins with a dude you might remember, Zack Annexstad. Before Morgan’s breakout 2019, Annexstad was the betting favorite to win the starting quarterback job in Minnesota. That was before a preseason knee injury wiped those dreams away and anointed Tanner the unquestioned starter for that program-changing season.

Annexstad regained his health and backed Morgan up for all of 2020, while the QB1 struggled mightily. Fleck stayed the course and never waivered behind Morgan, even through the 2020 storm. But if Tanner Morgan doesn’t take a step forward in a big way, I can’t imagine Fleck waits long to make a change.

This is a topic that took up much of our time on yesterday’s S.S. Minnesota (watch OR listen) episode and it’s certainly something worth debate.

Zack Annexstad has always looked bigger, thrown farther and ran faster than Tanner Morgan. That’s something I’ve written about going back to the spring game in 2018. But when push has come to shove, he hasn’t been able to cement himself like Tanner did in 2019, partly due to his inability to stay healthy.

When Annexstad was healthy and starting at quarterback for the Minnesota Gophers during the 2018 season, he was young and it showed. His stats (7 GMS, 1277 YDS, 9 TD, 7 INT) were sub-par but so were Morgan’s (9 GMS, 1401 YDS, 9 TD, 6 INT). We really have no idea what Zack is capable of, at this point. It’s just been too long since we’ve seen him take meaningful snaps. That could easily change in 2021.

Experience, Talent and Dues Paid

If Tanner Morgan loses his starting quarterback job this season, he’ll have nobody to blame but himself. Still, his leash will be shorter because Zack Annexstad is backing him up. As Stephen points out in the clip above, there’s nothing keeping Annexstad here beyond promises from, and trust in, PJ Fleck.

Annexstad has to know that an opportunity to lead a power-5 football team is just around the corner. Either, (a) Morgan leads the Minnesota Gophers on another 2019-style run this season and moves onto the NFL Draft in April OR (b) Morgan struggles in 2021 and Annexstad gets his chance sooner, rather than later.

Either way, Annexstad wins.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan

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