It's hard to imagine how surreal Arkansas' rise has been through the eyes of Grant Morgan
Ask Sam Pittman about Grant Morgan and he’ll tell you that “he is Arkansas.”
That’s not just because Morgan is in Year 6 in Fayetteville, nor is it because he went from a walk-on out of Greenwood, Ark., to being the unquestioned leader of a top-10 team. Morgan’s journey is well-documented. He’s just your standard 23-year-old guy (he’ll be 24 at season’s end in January) who isn’t in any hurry to leave college.
Of course, he’s not Van Wilder. He’s married. He has multiple degrees in hand, too.
Morgan is Arkansas because his 6-year journey defines all of those blue-collar clichés that have become synonymous with the state — grit, perseverance, accountability, etc.
This was never the plan for that wide-eyed walk-on back in 2016.
“I wouldn’t have ever believed you if you told me that I’d still be playing football here in 2021,” Morgan told SDS. “It’s been a wild journey. It’s a long time, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. Say I got drafted in the first round last year … if I don’t ever have another snap of football, I’m gonna be happy with the things I’ve done so far this year, and to see Arkansas and to see how happy we are, and to be able to play the way we are playing, it’s meant so much to me to be able to say I came back and helped Arkansas get to this place. … I could be happy for the rest of my life if we never achieve anything else.”
Regardless of what happens on Saturday against No. 2 Georgia — College GameDay will be in the house for the top-10 matchup — Morgan’s legacy is safe. He could very well be to Arkansas what JJ Watt was to Wisconsin. Morgan will be an Arkansas recruiting pitch for the next 20 years, and understandably so.
Think about it. Morgan finished Year 4 at Arkansas as part of a program that finished its 2nd consecutive season without an SEC win. Most guys are long gone before a rebuild of that enormity comes to fruition. Then again, most new coaching staffs don’t get guys like Morgan who want to stick it out to learn yet another new defensive scheme. Those guys are supposed to be grad transfers, or perhaps they stick around for a Year 5.
But Year 6? That’s reserved for the oft-injured players who get medical redshirts, not the All-SEC linebackers. That’s what Morgan was in 2020, and when he announced on Christmas 2020 that he’d take advantage of the free year of eligibility granted because of COVID-19 in 2020, it set the wheels in motion for something that Arkansas hadn’t had since his redshirt freshman season — expectations.
Merry Christmas! I’m not done being a Hog. My work here is unfinished. The best is yet to come. 31 is back! pic.twitter.com/lc3LmO1fil
— Grant Morgan (@grantmorgan15) December 25, 2020
Granted, those expectations weren’t supposed to include beating both Texas AND Texas A&M as a touchdown underdog. Think about it from Morgan’s perspective. Beating Texas was one thing — the Longhorns lost a nonconference game in 8 of the last 9 seasons — but he watched his team lose to the Aggies 5 times while he was there. Shoot, his older brother Drew’s Arkansas teams from 2013-16 never beat A&M, either.
“It didn’t hit me until we were taking a knee and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the first win I’ve ever gotten in (AT&T Stadium),” Morgan said. “When we were hugging, it hit that we did something nobody thought we could do. They were a top-10 team. It did mean a lot seeing all of our fans so happy. It was like a weight was taken off our shoulder … it’s really a big win for all the guys who have been here throughout this time, too.”
(In case you were wondering, Morgan didn’t necessarily agree with Isaiah Spiller’s comments that Arkansas didn’t stop A&M, and that it was the Aggies’ own mistakes that plagued them. “I don’t know where he was looking at, I guess,” Morgan said in response to that.)
And as Morgan said, there are plenty of guys on that Arkansas roster who were Bret Bielema recruits. Key contributors like Dalton Wagner, Hayden Henry and Montaric Brown, who had the key 4th-quarter interception against A&M, also saw the end of the Bielema era and later slogged through those moments as the laughingstock of the SEC.
In all, there are 13 “super seniors” on Arkansas’ roster (players who took advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted by 2020). But even among that group, Morgan, fellow walk-on Blake Kern, TJ Hammonds and Deon Edwards are the only players who were there in 2016 when Arkansas rose to No. 16 in the AP Top 25. That was the peak of the Bielema era, which was the result of beating another Texas school, TCU.
In the 5 years between that game and the Week 2 win against Texas in 2021, Arkansas:
- A) Lost 4 games to non-Power 5 foes
- B) Lost 20 consecutive SEC games (7-35 overall vs. SEC teams)
- C) Had a 15-game losing streak vs. AP Top 25 teams (3-22 overall)
- D) Never finished in the top 80 in scoring defense
- E) All the above
It’s “E.” It’s always “E.”
Arkansas fans know that all too well. That’s why 5 years later, beating a top-15 school from Texas had a different feel to it. It certainly did for Morgan, who soaked in every moment of the postgame field rush with the Arkansas faithful.
“There was every size, shape, man, female, everybody that was out there on that field. Everyone was happy, everyone was celebrating. There were 14-year-olds that they’ve known Arkansas sucked their whole lives, pretty much,” Morgan said. “And there were people in their 50s and 60s giving me high-fives, saying, ‘Thank you so much for coming back. Thank you so much for being Arkansas, for being what we’re supposed to be.’”
It’s funny, because if you’d asked the oddsmakers, Morgan and the Arkansas defense was “supposed” to be overmatched by the offense run by 2020 Broyles Award winner and new Texas coach Steve Sarkisian. Instead, Morgan realized early that Texas wasn’t built to handle 60 minutes with the veteran Hogs.
“It was after the first series when we knew exactly what they were gonna do,” Morgan said. “At halftime, when I looked and saw everyone’s faces, and I saw how mad and pissed off they still were, and we were up however many points then, I knew exactly right then we were winning the game no matter what, because everyone wasn’t satisfied with a lead because they knew what happened the week before (against Rice). … Halftime was when I was so solidified that we were gonna win.”
Wait a minute.
Arkansas, up 16-0 at halftime against a top-15 team with a raucous crowd on hand, was … pissed off?
Oh, how things have changed since the days of “Club Dub,” which came to light after Arkansas got off to a 2-1 start with wins against FCS Portland State and Colorado State.
And to be clear, Morgan doesn’t hold onto anger from the infamous Chad Morris era. It was Morris who put Morgan on scholarship back in 2018.
— Arkansas Razorback Football (@RazorbackFB) August 27, 2018
Without Morris rewarding Morgan, who knows if he’d be doing what he’s doing now? And sure, Morgan admitted there was a time when he thought about transferring. He said he was never serious, but why wouldn’t someone in his shoes? Barry Odom was his 4th different defensive coordinator. In his 3 non-redshirt years before Pittman arrived, Arkansas’ defense never finished in the top 100 in FBS. Morgan never even started a game until Year 5 when Pittman was hired and he brought Barry Odom in.
Needless to say, few defensive players in all of college football have been as valuable as Morgan since the start of 2020.
Last year, he earned 2nd-team All-America honors after he tied for the FBS lead with 12.3 tackles per game, and Pro Football Focus graded him No. 1 in coverage among SEC inside linebackers. In essentially 3 games this year — he was (wrongfully) ejected for targeting after 5 plays in the season opener — PFF has him graded No. 2 among SEC inside linebackers in both pass rushing and coverage. That’s for an Arkansas defense that ranks No. 11 in scoring.
More important than those individual accolades is what’s at stake on Saturday against Georgia.
This weekend last year, Arkansas was just trying to win its 1st SEC game in more than 1,000 days. This year, Arkansas is trying to earn its 3rd win against a top-15 team. If that were to happen, one would think that the Hogs would be set up for their first top-3 ranking since 2011.
The oddsmakers don’t believe beating Georgia as a 3-score underdog is likely. Then again, nobody in their right mind would’ve looked into the crystal ball back in December 2019 and predicted that Arkansas would become a better team than Clemson by 2021, but here we are.
Regardless of what happens on Saturday, one thing is undeniable; This is a whole new Arkansas. If anyone could attest to that, it’s the man who has seen it all in the last 6 years.
“This is worth it,” Morgan said. “Every doubt that I had in my head — because I do have doubts — every doubt that I had has been triumphed over for what we’ve gone through, what I’ve gone through and what we’re doing now.”