Morgan evolves from 2-star walk-on to Butkus Award semifinalist
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FAYETTEVILLE — One of Arkansas’ biggest question marks entering the 2020 season was at linebacker, but by now, fans, coaches and media should have known better than to doubt a Morgan.
Finally given an opportunity to start, Grant Morgan - much like his older brother, Drew, a few years earlier - has proven the skeptics wrong.
A former two-star recruit who turned down offers from Air Force and a handful of DII programs to walk-on at Arkansas, the Greenwood native has since earned a scholarship and emerged as one of the Razorbacks’ best players.
Now a fifth-year senior and team captain, he leads the country with 104 tackles and is one of 16 semifinalists for the Butkus Award, which is presented annually to the top linebacker in college football. The accolades may be surprising to some, but not too Morgan.
“People are going to be like, ‘Oh, he’s too confident,’ but yes, I’m 100 percent — you can ask my dad, you can ask my wife now,” Morgan said. “You can ask probably Brooks Ellis when I was a little redshirt freshman and he was named to the award watch list for the Butkus.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to end up winning that one day,’ or ‘I’m going to end up being on that thing.’ I hate that it was five years later instead of two, but I definitely could see this.”
It’s cliche to say about an under-recruited football player who doesn’t necessarily fit the mold at a given position, but Morgan - who is quick to point out that he’s almost the same size as projected first-round pick Nick Bolton at Missouri - has truly gotten to this point through sheer hard work and determination.
Teammate and fellow linebacker Bumper Pool has witnessed it first hand. On his official visit to Fayetteville as a four-star recruit, he was hosted by Morgan, who had just finished up his redshirt freshman season and was still a walk-on, and the pair have been close ever since.
Over the last three years, Pool and Morgan have worked out, watched film and eaten together. They were even roommates until Morgan got married earlier this year.
“If you're in the weight room, he's going to challenge you to do more weight,” Pool said. “I think even today we were squatting and he looked over at Jonathan Marshall, who is a freak in the weight room, and he's trying to tell me that he's squatting faster than him, trying to keep the same weight.
“He just has a chip on his shoulder with everything that he does. And it's just cool to see it paying off because it's made me a better player, it's made me a better person just striving to always push yourself.”
Following a redshirt year in 2016, Morgan was a backup linebacker the last three seasons. He made 101 total tackles and played well in brief stints of playing time while also playing a major role on special teams.
With the departure of All-SEC linebacker De’Jon Harris, he moved into the starting spot and held off graduate transfer Levi Draper during the preseason. Through eight games of a conference-only schedule, all Morgan has done is put together one of the most productive seasons in school history despite playing most of it with his left arm in a brace because of an elbow injury.
In addition to his FBS-leading 104 tackles, he is also tied for the FBS lead at 13 tackles per game among those who’ve played multiple games this season. Included in Morgan’s total are 6.5 tackles for loss and two sacks, plus he’s broken up five passes and returned an interception for a touchdown.
Head coach Sam Pittman described him as “slippery,” which helps him slip blocks and make plays, as does the work he puts in throughout the week.
“He's very prepared when he goes into a game,” Pittman said. “He spends a lot of time in the film room and a lot of time with his coach getting prepared for the game. He tries to play the game before it happens. He tries to see tendencies and things of that nature before it happens. He's just a very intelligent guy who loves to play.”
Those are the characteristics Morgan pointed to when asked how he’s been so productive this year, as well, as the 2019 graduate prides himself on being the smartest player on the field.
“I like to play the game before it’s played already,” Morgan said. “I like to be on their side of the ball knowing what they’re going to do. I like to use my instincts. I’m real instinctual.”
At his current pace, Morgan will finish the year - including a bowl game - with 143 tackles. That would rank sixth on the UA’s single-season list, behind four seasons in the 1960s and Ken Hamlin’s 159-tackle season in 2002.
If it was a normal 12-game season that included non-conference matchups to pad stats, Morgan might have been able to make a run at Wayne Harris' single-season record of 174 tackles, which he racked up over 10 games in 1960.
A big reason he has made so many tackles this year is because he always seems to be in on plays, as evidenced by about two-thirds of his tackles - an FBS-high 69, to be exact - being assisted. That is something his teammates view as arguably his best attribute.
“I know just from watching him and competing against him, it's a guy that, one, is not going to quit on a play, ever,” quarterback Feleipe Franks said. “That's why you see him always surrounding the ball.
“He’s just one of those guys that good things are going to happen when you go full speed until the play is over. He's always around the ball, the type of guy that's going to wrap you up, hit you square on and he's not afraid of anybody.”
Morgan’s old-school style of play and hustle hasn’t gone unnoticed amongst opposing coaches, either.
Missouri head coach Eliah Drinkwitz, an Alma native, said during this week’s SEC coaches teleconference that he got to know Morgan while recruiting his older brother as an assistant coach at Arkansas from 2012-13.
“I think the most impressive thing about Grant (is) when he makes a tackle, he runs back to get lined up on defense,” Drinkwitz said. “It's very rare to see that. Always impressed with his hustle and work ethic. He's going to be a tough one to go against.”
In a normal year, Saturday’s showdown with Missouri would be Morgan’s final regular-season game in an Arkansas uniform. However, the Razorbacks are also expected to play Alabama next week and the NCAA has granted eligibility relief to all players because of the coronavirus pandemic.
That means Morgan, despite being a fifth-year senior, could return for a sixth season. He wouldn’t commit to anything while speaking to the media Tuesday night, but said all options are on the table.
He did seem to indicate that he’s looking forward to the idea of being recruited back for the extra year, though.
“I have a lot of options, which is good for me, but I wish someone would tell me, ‘This is exactly what you’re supposed to do,’ and make it easy for me,” Morgan said. “It’s definitely going to be something that, Coach Pittman is a great recruiter.
“Y’all know me, I’ve never really been recruited. I was kind of the guy who always said, ‘I want to go here and prove you wrong.’”
It’s taken five years, but Morgan has proven his doubters wrong and that he is worthy of asking back in 2021.
Biding his time behind eventual NFL linebackers Dre Greenlaw and Harris, he admitted it was tough watching from the sidelines and believing he could also be out there making plays, but he’s not complaining about his journey to this point.
“It definitely was hard to see that my opportunity was just getting longer and longer away, but I wouldn’t ask for it any other way,” Morgan said. “I said that like, ‘Aw, I wish it was two years,’ but at the end of the day I can’t change anything and I’m glad it’s here now. Hopefully we make some more of it this weekend.”