If not for one wrong step, Jordan Morgan would have spent this past weekend at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. Instead he was sitting in a lounge underneath Arizona Stadium on Friday afternoon, talking to reporters about the path that led him to return to the Wildcats.
“Right now, I’m just working on recoveringm trying to get back as soon as I can, stay ahead of schedule,” said Morgan, who suffered a knee injury in November that not only ended his 2022 season but also caused him to put off his NFL aspirations for at least another year. “I just decided to stay another year and really just work on my rehab here, so I could be able to be around the people I’m really comfortable with.”
Morgan, Arizona’s starting left tackle for the first 10 games last season as well as the final 11 of the 2021 campaign, suffered the non-contact injury while getting out to block on a screen during the Wildcats’ upset win at UCLA. He initially didn’t think it was bad, more a tweak than anything else.
“I just tried to redirect and took a wrong step,” he said. “When it happened, because it’s happened before, I thought it was just a hyperextension. I thought it was just that. But later on, I was just trying to move around and I felt my knee buckle.”
Morgan had surgery Nov. 30, but that was just the first step, and a fairly easy one compared to all the others. He had to decide whether he still wanted to declare for the 2023 NFL Draft, knowing he might still get picked—and become Arizona’s first drafted offensive lineman since Eben Britton in 2009—but not as high as originally thought, or return to college and hope he could return to his old form.
“It was a long process,” he said. “I went through a lot of thinking, about a lot. There was a lot of decisions to make, a lot of outside sources and everybody talked to me. I had to sit down with my family and talk about it.”
UA coach Jedd Fisch and other members of the football staff, including trainers, sat down with Morgan and his parents on three occasions, breaking down the pros and cons of both staying and going.
“I would say Jordan was most likely a first-round pick from what we’ve been told, prior to his injury,” Fisch said. “Traditionally, if you have that type of injury in an offensive lineman you’ll drop about two rounds to three rounds. And what we did was we sat down with his mom and his dad. Three different times. And we had doctors involved, we had our trainer involved. We reached out to all of my contacts, which fortunately, run deep in the National Football League. What they thought would be good advice, and in the end, everybody felt that if he could come back and play at the level he was playing at, or improve and even be better than that, he would be a first round pick.
“And the finances of being a first-round pick versus a third- or fourth0round pick, really, are well worth taking that ... let’s call it a leap of faith to return. And that’s kind of what it came down to, that it was in the best interest. And I think he really wanted to come back. He was excited about the way our team was built for this coming year, and never had a winning season.”
The 6-foot-6, 320-pound Morgan was never officially invited to the combine, but Fisch said he was a “shoo-in” to get one because he (and wide receiver Jacob Cowing, who also returned to Arizona despite a strong draft resume) had been invited to play in the Senior Bowl. Had he declared, Morgan could have participated in the off-field activities at the draft showcase, but that wasn’t enough in his mind.
“I was considering going (to the Senior Bowl) and not doing anything, but I wanted to be in the bowl game and do my thing,” he said. “I wanted to do everything. So I think it was unfair to myself, just to do all this work and go and not perform, just show up.”
Arizona begins spring practice on March 13, and Morgan is not expected to participate. The hope is to have him ready for the Wildcats’ 2023 opener on Sept. 2 against NAU, if not a week or two later.
Morgan is likely to be at all 15 practices, though, doing his rehab on the side while also taking an active role in helping get Arizona’s other offensive linemen ready for the fall.
“He’s gone into kind of a mentor role, a coach role,” offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll said. “There was some time where we can’t be there in the winter, recruiting season. He started installing, started coaching the guys, started talking to the players in the meetings. So that’s just another level of his learning.”
Morgan said he’s taken early enrollee Rhino Tapaatoutai under his wing, and it stands to reason he’ll do the same when fellow freshmen Elijha Payne and Raymond Pulido arrive in the summer.
“A lot of the freshmen came in ready to play,” Morgan said. “There’s a lot of big dudes.”
Morgan was Arizona’s top-rated lineman, per Pro Football Focus, and his 83.1 overall grade was fifth-best among draft-eligible tackles. He ranked 14th in pass blocking (78.6) and 19th in pass blocking (82.0).
“There’s plenty of areas where he can improve,” Fisch said. “He can improve the way he sets in the pass game, for wide pass rushers. He can improve in finishing blocks in the zone running game. He can improve on, let’s call it a consistency of 67 plays. That comes down to conditioning, that comes down to mental toughness, that comes down to recognition of defensive fronts. And that’s where I think he’ll really grow over the course of this year.”
With Morgan out for spring ball, Fisch said Sam Langi will be the first-team left tackle. Wendell Moe, Josh Baker and Jonah Savaiinaea will be at left guard, center and right guard, respectively, while right tackle will be an open competition in which Joe Borjon, Jacob Reece and Tapaatoutai will be the main contenders at the outset.
“Spring ball is going to be a blast,” Carroll said. “We’re gonna get a bunch of guys a bunch of reps. We’re gonna have a bunch of rotating, have guards playing tackle, tackles playing guard, guards playing centers, everywhere. I want to develop some consistent depth, which will help do that, and give guys more opportunities to get on the field. And we’ll see how that plays.”