In a city where college football quarterbacks garner more attention for their explicit Snapchat videos or accolades they gained in high school, you can find the best signal-caller in Miami drenched in sweat over by the Southwest corner of Riccardo Silva Stadium. He’s walking towards the tunnel, hauling a water stanchion left behind from the morning’s workout session.
Starting QB, Captain @Jmoneyyy12 caring the water off the field after a workout. LESSON: NEVER BE TOO BIG TO DO THE SMALL THINGS THAT NEED TO BE DONE! #ATD #GSD #PrideOfPerformanceHumilityOfTask pic.twitter.com/LldIXOADyS— James P. Vollono (@CoachVollono) June 6, 2019
James Morgan has all of the reasons in the world to say I told you so.
After four seasons at Green Bay’s Ashwaubenon High School that saw him throw for 7,000 yards, 70 touchdown passes, and being rated as the top quarterback prospect in Wisconsin, Morgan committed to play for Dino Babers at Bowling Green.
However, Babers would take the Syracuse head coach position in 2015, which began Morgan’s enigmatic tenure as a Falcon.
Then-BGSU Athletic Director Chris Kingston Googled which FBS team had the best offense during the season prior and his search led him to Texas Tech assistant Mike Jinks to fill the vacancy.
What ensued was Morgan being placed in an Air Raid offense that he wasn’t recruited to play in.
Two seasons later, after a seesaw career at BGSU, he was benched for Jarret Doege, a player recruited by Jinks, who better fit the Air Raid.
In the 2018 off-season, Morgan would look for a new home.
Unlike many transfers that see a less than amicable split between player and program, Jinks supported his former starting quarterback, to the point where he let Morgan use the Falcon facilities to train while looking for a new home.
“I had zero issues letting him use the facilities because he handled it the right way,” said Jinks, who’s now the running backs’ coach at Southern California. “James is an unbelievable young man and it’s not a pretend act. He’s a down-to-earth Midwest kid.”
Those who know him best echo Jinks’ sentiment. He’s always been as humble as they come.
“Every teacher at Ashwaubenon High School would tell you exactly what I’m going to tell you, that James was one of the classiest students that we have ever had go through this school,” said Morgan’s high school coach, Mark Jonas.
His former backup quarterback at BGSU feels just as strongly about him.
“James comes from a great family and he’s a great guy,” said James Knapke, who played with Morgan at BGSU in 2015 and 2016. “The two years that he and I were together, we had a close quarterback room and I still check the box scores to see how he’s doing.”
In the 13 months that he’s been with FIU, what’s most apparent about Morgan is his relentless drive to improve as a player and willingness to do whatever it takes to win.
However, those same qualities that have helped him succeed were the same that caused the most frustration during his time at Bowling Green.
“It was tough because that was the first time in James’ life where just putting his head down and working hard didn’t necessarily work,” said Morgan’s mother, Jackie.
She rode the same seesaw wave as her son during his stint with the Falcons.
“Yeah, there were times that it was hard. You know, you’re sitting in the stands as a parent and you’re hearing some of the things about your son that fans sitting next to you are saying,” said Morgan.
She added, “His struggles on the field were hard on us as a family. We were so excited to play for Coach Babers and then Coach Jinks came in and it was a different offense. But we had great experiences at Bowling Green and his teammates and coaches were awesome there.”
Morgan arrived at FIU after summer workouts last year, which only gave him 17 practices to prove himself in a quarterback competition with Christian Alexander.
Despite the time constraints, he was announced as the Panthers’ starting quarterback over the public address system at Riccardo Silva Stadium 45 minutes before the 2018 season-opener against Indiana.
He promptly went 11-20 passing, including a pick-six in a 38-28 loss to the visiting Hoosiers.
What followed was Morgan continuing to study and prepare as hard as ever, which has been a constant for him throughout his life.
“He’s always been serious about football, but also his studies. Anything that he’s done in life, he’s put his mind to it and he’s worked super hard,” said Jackie Morgan.
His former Bowling Green head coach concurs.
“James for lack of a better term is a gym rat. I literally would have to kick him out of the facility,” said Jinks. “I know this is commonly said, but I really mean this about him, he really wants it, there’s something internally that drives people to be great and he has that about him.”
What followed over the next 11 games were 25 touchdown passes (equaling the amount he had in his BGSU career), breaking the FIU single-season passing TD mark in a year and raking in the top-15 in passing efficiency among FBS quarterbacks.
“James is a really special kid and he has a chance to be the best I’ve ever coached at quarterback,” said FIU head coach Butch Davis. “Having the program led by him, it helps me sleep at night, because not only is he going to do his job, he’s going to be trying to help lead the other guys.”
Morgan’s attention to detail and penchant for preparing has been noticed across the board at FIU.
“I’ve been doing this 33 years and I don’t think I’ve come across a player who’s put as much effort into preparation and going about his business the right way as James Morgan,” said FIU offensive coordinator Rich Skrosky.
Morgan comes off of a year where he won Conference USA’s Newcomer of the Year award and has been named to multiple preseason award lists, including the Wuerffel Award which is given to the player who best combines exemplary community service with athletic and academic achievement.
Yet, you won’t see the slightest hint of complacency or boastfulness from the 6-5, 225-pound signal-caller.
I’ve asked him multiple times if his 2018 success in any way feels vindicating for him. The following is par for the course.
“I haven’t looked at it that way. I’m trying to find the ways that I can get better, we have a lot of goals to accomplish. Maybe when I’m done playing, I’ll get to step back and evaluate it,” said Morgan after the first practice of the Fall.
For Jackie and his father Brian, they’re just grateful that James has had the opportunity to show what they always believed he had.
“Not to sound trite, but I never doubted. We all knew what this kid was capable of. We’re just so thankful for Coach Davis seeing what we saw in him and we’re excited for the entire team this upcoming season,” said the Morgans.
When I’m asked to describe what made Morgan successful last season, I point back to a singular play during the Indiana game.
Down 35-14 with just under one minute left in the third quarter, Shawndarrius Phillips scored from one yard out to bring FIU within two touchdowns.
As Phillips crossed the goal-line, Morgan let out a demonstrative fist pump and excitedly raced towards the FIU sideline.
At that point in the game, he had below 70 yards passing and the aforementioned pick-six, but anyone seeing his demeanor in that moment saw a player looking for a chance to bring the team to victory.
“Seeing him cheer on our success, it just makes us want to go that much harder. Because you know you got a guy at quarterback who cares,” said FIU running back Anthony Jones.
Many quarterbacks espouse the concept of being team-first, but few are as genuine as Morgan. Back in Green Bay, Jonas isn’t surprised.
“I can’t tell you that James was perfect, no kid is. But he always has a smile on his face, was high-fiving kids in the hallways and preached to our team about leadership and teamwork. That’s who he is,” said Jonas.