That was the focus for Stanley Morgan Jr. heading into the 2017 season. Pulling down the tough catches is the difference between being a rotation player and being a go-to receiver, and on Saturday, Morgan did just that.
Morgan caught five of the nine passes thrown his way (tying his career high) and racked up a career-high 102 yards with a touchdown.
He went to work all over the field catching passes of 5, 44, 17, 26 and 10 yards throughout the game.
Two of his incomplete targets were throws into double coverage that he didn’t have much of a shot on and one was a throw out of bounds. The last one was a quick pass to the flat where he was hit immediately and had the ball knocked out.
Three of Morgan’s catches can be classified in the 50-50 variety as he had a defender draped all over him yet snatched the ball out of the air and held on through contact.
The 44-yard touchdown was a thing of beauty, and apparently before the play, new quarterback Tanner Lee called his shot.
Morgan beat his man off the line and got a step on him, but he wasn’t necessarily running free. It required a perfect pass, and that’s what Lee provided, dropping it in a bucket from 50 yards away. The pass was great, but Morgan still had to hold on as the defender jumped on his back and slammed him into the ground, and he did.
If this is the Stanley Morgan Nebraska is going to get all year, Lee is probably going to live up to the immense hype he received during the offseason, and Morgan, who came out of New Orleans just like Lee, isn’t bashful about saying so.
“Tanner Lee always wanted to play with me, on my team in New Orleans,” Morgan joked. “That’s just what it is. He just wanted to be with me. That’s all.”
“I am extremely confident in Stanley in any situation,” Lee said. “He’s got a great feel for getting open, his football IQ, knowing where and how to get open. I’m really confident in having him out there, he’s there, and he’s going to make the catches.”
Morgan isn’t the only one who pulled down some 50-50 balls on Saturday, however. Tyler Hoppes looked every bit of that big-time target he was hyped up as prior to the season. Hopes caught three of his five targets for 40 yards, including one of the more impressive plays of the day.
Hoppes came into the season with out a singe catch in his Nebraska career but was still the unquestioned top option at tight end. Saturday was a very different experience for the former Division II transfer.
“It’s kind of crazy to look up in the stands and see 90,000 people rooting you on so I was a little nervous, little jitters, at first but I got used to it,” Hoppes said. “Very different [than Wayne State].”
The nerves showed themselves on Hoppes’ first target, as Lee hit him in the end zone for a touchdown and he just dropped it. However, he got past that and caught his next three targets, moving the chains every time.
His best play was a 19-yard catch that showed off his speed, athleticism and ability to adjust to balls in the year. He set the Huskers up at the 1-yard line and running back Tre Bryant punched it in a couple of plays later.
“Tanner just threw a nice ball back shoulder and I had to go grab it,” Hoppes said. “I had to make up for that one in the end zone.”
Hoppes said he wants to be a go-to target for Lee.
“I hope I have that much trust with him, that’s always the goal,” Hoppes said. “If he’s going to throw it to me I’m going to try and come down with it. Make each other look good.”
Nebraska has a lot of other options — particularly young ones — at receiver and tight end, but those players are still finding their way and likely aren’t going to be consistent.
If Nebraska is going to be successful on offense this season, it starts with Lee, Morgan and Hoppes. Those three together with new feature running back Tre Bryant form the core of an offense that looks a heck of a lot like what Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf have wanted to run ever since they arrived in Lincoln.