Semaj Morgan might have played just three snaps in the No. 2 Michigan football team’s win over Rutgers on Saturday, but he made them count. The true freshman receiver made two receptions for 26 yards, including an 18-yard touchdown grab that he snagged through defensive interference. His other reception — a catch-and-run in the first quarter — impressed Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, too.
A freshman making such an impact in sparse snaps might seem surprising. But it’s not a shock to those who have seen Morgan work since spring ball. It’s a culmination of the work he has put in since joining the Wolverines as an early enrollee.
“When he lined up in the slot — us on the sideline knew what was coming,” graduate cornerback Mike Sainristil said Tuesday. “And we were like, ‘Oh yeah, Semaj is about to score.’ ”
Sainristil has seen such a play happen before, because the two have been working out since the elder statesmen was a freshman himself four years ago. Undersized but gritty, Morgan flexed some of the skills that show his potential: The explosive first step; the box out with a cornerback’s arm slung across his chest; the way he clutched the ball to his chest with the security of a Brinks truck.
His touchdown showed a flash of the potential, but the next step is making such a play with consistency. Morgan said he is working on lining up before the snap, incorporating dips into his routes and diagnosing coverages. He did all three on his touchdown — and it paid off.
“(In man coverage) it’s coming to me,” Morgan said. “He was pressing me. And it was man, so I ran the route, J.J. threw a great ball. You know I had to make him look good.”
One touchdown doesn’t make Morgan an All-American, so it’s important to pump the brakes. Morgan has taken the field in a limited role with just 20 snaps on the season. His usage per game has also fallen since the beginning of the season. In other words, his coaches see his potential, but they don’t trust him as much as other receivers in the room. Still, Morgan has serviceable skills that the Wolverines can utilize right now like they did on his touchdown.
“Let’s keep going. … (I) like to say keep doing you. It’s working,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said of Morgan’s work ethic. “If you want to be a little bit better at something, just work a little bit harder at it. And whatever you do, don’t get a big head. That’s a trap. A deep dark lonely trap.”
From the outside, Morgan doesn’t have much of a “big head” to worry about. He spent a good portion of Tuesday’s press conference speaking about how much he struggled adjusting to spring ball.
The 6 a.m. workouts, the unrelenting grind of camp, even the 25 push-ups he and his teammates had to do because he yawned at a workout — all of it served as a culture shock for Morgan coming out of West Bloomfield High School. It took time for Morgan to acclimate to college ball, something aided by his relationship with receivers coach Ron Bellamy, who coached Morgan in high school before Michigan hired him.
For Morgan, such an adjustment period is perfectly normal for a freshman to experience. That’s why he is thankful for being an early enrollee. Starting in spring camp helped him iron out the kinks as a springboard for his success now. The process humbled him, so to speak, allowing him to buy into the process.
Nonetheless, Morgan’s candid view of his spring ball struggles surprised his teammates. Sainristil seemed amazed when told Morgan had recounted his growing pains.
“I thought Semaj came in and looked pretty good,” Sainristil said.
Whether Sainristil was hyping up his teammate, or Morgan is extra hard on himself, Morgan has already turned heads on the field. He’s not a consistent weapon yet, but his efficient game against Rutgers shows what he can become in the future.
Saturday’s flashes are Morgan’s way of saying he wants more playing time, exhibiting why he should touch the field more and be an asset to his team. But flashes on the field mean nothing if there isn’t consistency off it. Morgan is making progress there, too.
“I just feel like hard work — cream always gonna rise to the top,” Morgan said. “And I feel like for me just working how I work … if I’m working hard and do what I’m supposed to do, it’s all gonna play out.”