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How Tanner Morgan and P.J. Fleck Made ESPN's Top-Five QB-HC Pairings

Photo credit: Douglas DeFelice (USA TODAY Sports)

Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan is a top-five college quarterback, according to ESPN. Sort of.

A month ago, the four-letter network’s David Hale ranked the nation’s best quarterback-head coach pairings. Hale rattled off a top-five list of duos, as well as a number of other superlatives for non-top-five duos, such as “Safest Gamble” for Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley and redshirt freshman quarterback Spencer Rattler.

Morgan and head coach P.J. Fleck needed no such superlatives. After piloting the first B1G offense to ever produce two 1,000-yard receivers in the same season, Morgan and Fleck clocked in at fourth on Hale’s rankings, trailing only the duos of Clemson, Ohio State, and Texas. Not too shabby for a quarterback-coach pairing that produced just nine touchdowns to six interceptions and a sub-60% completion rate in their first season of play together in 2018.

While the top-five may be lofty for Morgan through the scope of NFL draft status or raw quarterbacking talent, that is not the point of ESPN’s list. The point was to identify the most effective and productive quarterback-coach pairings within the realm of college football — nothing more and nothing less. Through that prism, it is easy to see how Morgan (along with Fleck) could rank as high as he does, even if he may not in other quarterback-related polls.

Minnesota’s offense finished seventh in ESPN’s SP+ metric last season, while Morgan himself finished fourth in passer rating. The only returning player to rank ahead of Morgan in passer rating last season is Ohio State’s Justin Fields, with the two others being NFL draft picks Joe Burrow (LSU) and Jalen Hurts (Oklahoma). There was not a whole lot more one could ask of the Gophers offense last season.

K.I.S.S.

Keep it simple, stupid.

There are many ways to define the complexity of an offense. A variety of formations, variety of concepts, infusion of motions and shifts, pre-snap responsibilities, etc. can all play into what exactly constitutes the complexity of an offense. By any of those measures, however, Minnesota’s offense with Fleck and Morgan last season was about as simple as it gets for a highly-functioning Power 5 offense.

Reading the field is not a strenuous process for a quarterback in Fleck’s offense. Almost everything is an RPO (run-pass option) or play-action. Both categories of concepts serve to simplify the quarterback’s reads and draw players out of the middle of the field with run action. In the event Morgan is asked to execute a traditional drop back, the concepts are often limited to the most basic arrangements, such as four verticals. The burden of the passing offense is more on the receivers than it is on the quarterback.

Pointing out Minnesota’s simple offense is not necessarily a criticism of Morgan, but rather a compliment to Fleck. That the Gophers can disguise and get away with just a handful of simple concepts is a feat. Precious few college quarterbacks are asked to read the field in a way that resembles the pro game anyway, so it is not as though Morgan is out of the ordinary in not being asked to do very much. Morgan has also repeatedly proven he has the timely trigger and booming arm talent to make all of the throws Fleck makes available to him.

Beyond simplicity, a key part of Fleck’s genius is how effectively he blends concepts together. As is the case with other great play callers such as Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay, and Lincoln Riley, making core concepts look similar to one another via formation, shifts, motions, and personnel packages is paramount. The less comfortable the defense feels about what is coming, the more they have to think, the slower they play.

To the defenders in the box, these two plays look the same until it is too late. Both plays start from a 2×2 formation with the wing tight end (or H) to the boundary and the running back to the field. Through the first couple of post-snap steps, the two plays are nearly indistinguishable if just focusing on the offensive line and three offensive skill players in the box. The offensive line moves in unison on a zone blocking scheme into the boundary, while the H crosses the formation on “slice” action for (what appears to be) a kick out block. At first glance, this is classic split zone, but as the next few steps unravel, it becomes clear that the first play is a rollout to the H leaking into the flat, whereas the second play is an RPO that packages split zone with a smoke/bubble screen from the slot receiver to the field.

This play also shares themes from the previous two plays. Not only is the formation (and the field/boundary orientation of the formation) the same, but the personnel and early movement of the H player are the same. The H is once again cutting across the formation in what looks like split zone, while the offensive line takes their first step in unison in the opposite direction. Rather than an outside zone track, however, the offensive line stays tight and blocks for inside zone. The attached pass portion of this RPO — the smoke/bubble from the slot receiver — is still the same. Only the run concept, which starts almost identically to the previous concept, is different.

Now for another development. Like in the previous play, the Gophers start in the same formation as in the other clips. The H cuts across the formation and the line again blocks for inside zone. By all accounts, this looks just like the last RPO that featured split inside zone and a smoke/bubble screen from the slot. What changes this time around is the two-man route concept to the field. Minnesota ditched the screen concept for a legitimate passing concept — ‘spin’ (or ‘follow-pivot’ if you’re Urban Meyer).

The beauty in this play (and the development off the other ones) is that the nature of the RPO gives Morgan a clear green/red light for the passing concept. As Morgan is executing the potential ball exchange, he is reading the overhang defender (No. 6) near the right hash. Morgan’s job is to deduce whether No. 6 will defend the pass to defend 3-over-2 against the route combination or come down to defend the run. The overhang hops inside and shuffles down to the box during the potential ball exchange, letting Morgan know that both of his receivers to the right are now 1-on-1. Morgan then delivers a strike over the middle to Rashod Bateman to give the Gophers a fresh set of downs.

Between the simplicity of the individual concepts and the effectiveness with which they are blended together, it is no mystery as to how Fleck has ascended through the coaching ranks. Easy to execute yet difficult to distinguish, in the simplest terms, is all an offense should really strive to be.

What can be said of Morgan’s mental prowess in such an offense like this is that mistakes must be at a minimum. With so many of the plays being RPOs that require Morgan to read and react off a player very quickly, Morgan has to be on his A-game at all times to make the most of those simple reads. The trade-off for RPOs such as these tends to be that the offense is favoring efficiency and consistent gains over potential chunk gains, so the quarterback can not afford to botch a handful of those efficient gain opportunities. Morgan is generally excellent at executing these short, simple RPO reads and throws with plenty of accuracy to connect when he does choose to pull the ball for himself.

The 2020 season will press the microscope down even further on Morgan and Fleck. 2019’s leading wideouts Tyler Johnson (drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and Rashod Bateman (opting out of the 2020 season) will no longer be in the lineup. Removing two NFL talents from an offense clearly dependent on simple concepts that emphasized individual wide receiver ability is bound to hurt the Gophers to some degree.

That being said, if the Morgan and Fleck pairing is truly the top-five duo ESPN believes them to be, they should still be able to make do and churn out a threatening offense. The pressure is on both of them to turn things up another notch this season.

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Photo credit: Douglas DeFelice (USA TODAY Sports)

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