The jump that Arkansas’ defensive line made from the 2021 to 2022 season was something that not many expected early on. Departures of John Ridgeway to the NFL Draft and Tre Williams meant many players would need to rise to the occasion. Throw in the experience of Markell Utsey becoming vacant and it became a huge question mark. That mystery even extended into the coaching tree.
Coaching turnover led to the hiring of Deke Adams as the defensive line coach which turned some heads. It was for good reason. Diving into the portal before the season as done the year prior, it was clear that building depth was a focal point. That SEC-made philosophy paid off. In his first year as the DL coach, his defensive line helped break the school record for sacks in a season with 42. On top of that, any casual observer could tell there was a shift.
Between the 2022 defensive line and ones of Arkansas’ past, something was just clicking. The season did wind up ending on a sour note. Losing three linemen after the 2022 season, one came as a gut punch.
The leader in sacks along the front – Jordan Domineck – decided to hit the portal. With 7.5 sacks, coach Pittman and co. couldn’t reel him back from joining coach Prime at Colorado. Factor in the graduation of Terry Hampton inside and Arkansas lost nearly ten total sacks and 60 tackles of production (not to mention Drew Sander’s production). Moving forward to this coming season and the priority still stood. Instead of relying on the youth and shaky depth at hand, the coaching staff took to the transfer portal and had even greater success than before.
With plenty of confidence in the edge rushers returning, the interior defensive line is where they attacked the hardest. Bringing in Trejan Jeffcoat from an SEC rival, big Tank Booker, and silent riser Kevie Rose, the room not only gained depth, but great multiplicity. There was however, one edge guy that the staff couldn’t pass up on out of the ACC. With a need for a dynamic pass rusher, John Morgan III got the call to be the guy. Spending all five seasons in a Pitt uniform, he comes into Fayetteville a pure pass rusher. Possibly even more importantly, a consistent contributor who has great expectations from the staff.
As a member of the 2018 recruiting class, John was noted as one of the top defensive ends out of the state of Maryland. While going undefeated with a title his junior year, DeMatha Catholic football took a step back the following year. Chase Young heading to Ohio State played a huge role in the drop off. Compiling eight sacks his senior year, Morgan proved his worth as a pass rusher amongst the five loss season. He also played tight end and was even recruited to play the position by a handful of universities.
Excelling more as a defensive end, 247 Sports had him as a top 60 strong side defensive end while Rivals held him much higher at the position. Playing out on the east coast, that was where most of his offers came from. With tons of ACC flavor alongside Penn State and his home state, it was coach Pat Narduzzi that won him over.
Heading into his freshman year at Pitt, it was worth noting that he was still a super raw project. Only playing at the varsity level for two seasons, it was clear the potential he had off the edge if he could add weight. Morgan wound up doing just that.
Time at Pitt
Year one brought an inkling of playing time at the end of season, but great experience nonetheless. Getting thrown into the fire against Virginia Tech and then the ACC Championship versus Clemson, Morgan’s redshirt was preserved. Beginning in 2019, there would not be another game for Pitt that John Morgan was not a part of.
Between his redshirt freshman season and his senior year, he appeared in 50 total games, starting eight games between his last two seasons. Playing as a reserve end during the COVID season, it was the year that Morgan began to separate himself. While tackle numbers weren’t incredible, seven TFLs and four sacks boosted his morale heading into 2021.
Starting three games that season, Morgan totaled 27 tackles alongside 6.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. 2022 came around as his redshirt senior year and a make or break season. While Morgan showcased the same skillset, the numbers didn’t improve. Starting five games, his TFL number dropped to 5.5 and his sack number to 2.5. Two forced fumbles and six QB hurries improved his resume for 2022 that would’ve been iffy otherwise.
Looking at his overall career numbers as a Pitt Panther, it’s clear that there wasn’t one season that ultimately stood out. With a well balanced performance overall, discounting his one tackle freshman season, consistency kept him dangerous. In his last four years Morgan totalled 73 tackles along with 23 TFLs, 14 sacks, and three forced fumbles. Mr. Consistent decided to hit the portal for his final year of eligibility and wound up choosing Fayetteville. Bringing in great experience, Morgan comes in as a player that was used a number of ways during his time at Pitt.
How Morgan was Utilized at Pitt
With a defensive line as robust as Pitt’s was last season, there were plenty of unique sets to go around. For Morgan, he was often used off the left side of the line as a five technique. When searching for film on John Morgan, the game that appears most prominently is the opening game versus West Virginia in 2022. Gathering four tackles, three TFLs, and a sack, Morgan started that game at left end.
After time was spent on one side, he was swapped over to the same position on the right side. As the game progressed, Morgan stuck his hand in the ground less and less. The decision to give him more distance off the line wound up paying dividends. Giving a natural pass rusher more ground to gain speed off the edge is exactly what was needed. Matter of fact, the one sack from that game was because of Morgan speeding off the right edge.
There were also occasions last year where Pitt had Morgan lean between the defensive tackles. Having Calijah Kancey inside was a problem enough, but adding Morgan a time or two was an interesting prospect. It made complete sense despite its failure to produce on the stat sheet. With the majority of attention on Kancey, it was thought maybe Morgan could take advantage of the lacking attention. Alternatively, many teams were ready to defend the formation as there was mutual respect for Morgan’s get off.
Speaking on his get off, it allowed him to play an even larger role than a casual defensive end. While on very few occasions, Morgan was dropped into coverage when on the short side of the field. The action of covering in zone might need some work, but it creates even more variability for coach William’s defensive scheme.
Great Play Recognition Leads to Plays Made
All this discussion of a player that is a pure pass rusher is likely leading one to wonder where he stacks up as a run stopper. There is some good and some bad in that department. As a 6-2 defensive lineman who fails to get super low often, Morgan is frequently overmatched in the run game. Facing off against bigger, bendy offensive tackles finalizes many plays as just an eaten block. This isn’t to say that Morgan doesn’t pack his lunch and bring it. As a matter of fact, Morgan does have a great success rate at stunning some offensive linemen.
What he lacks in creating leverage he makes up for in creating space, therefore making time. As a player that has proven great football knowledge, Morgan uses that punch to become a cheetah in the tall grass per se. Featuring great patience, Morgan is able to contribute on rushing downs. While the success rate is still low, he holds enough ability to be a feature defensive end.
With the mention of his football IQ, Morgan is a player that loves the film room. During his time at Pitt, he was featured on many podcasts breaking down his tape to the point a five year old might understand.
That time spent in the film room pays off in the run game, sure, but he’s a screen receiver’s worst nightmare. There are multiple occasions looking back at the WVU game where Morgan canceled their swing pass game. That’s where the majority of his TFLs seemed to come from. If he can continue to build on his leverage to play alongside his play recognition, look out.
Pure Speed Rusher
It’s what Morgan was brought in to do: get after the quarterback. There’s zero doubt that Morgan will be on the field on obvious passing downs. When breaking down his paper stats from earlier, the drop from 2021 to 2022 isn’t the most appealing thing. What was lost in the weeds was his 36 total QB pressures opposed to 29 the year before. Looking at the edge rusher with the most on Arkansas last season, Zach Williams totaled 23.
Playing for Pitt, Morgan racked up roughly 1300 downs played which included 450 in 2022. Combining everything he put on the table, Morgan pieced together a Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade of 77.5. That number now sits as his career mark.
For Arkansas, losing the best pass rusher on the team in Drew Sanders opens his role up for the taking. The interesting prospect of Morgan is that the staff has been quoted saying that they see him stepping into that role. Woah. A defensive end from an ACC school with only eight starts in two seasons taking the place of an Alabama five-star alien? The aspect of Morgan’s strength fits the mold seamlessly, so don’t get defensive yet. Not to mention he’s built like a brick.
Most of Morgan’s career snaps have featured his hand in the dirt, so maybe a shift to full-time standing edge could allow for a major jump. As it stands, his speed is enough to feast on tight ends and flat footed tackles. That’s where his best ability lies. Morgan does utilize a swim move at times that is moderately effective when he stays low.
His biggest downfall in the run game bleeds over into the pass game as well. Morgan has been caught vertical many times and becomes locked up by offensive linemen. Blame can be tossed as his size, attempting to match up with the likes of a 6-7 mammoth. Many of these cases have come when playing with his hand down rather than standing up. If the plan of allowing Morgan more free roam as a fill in for Drew Sanders, then his weaknesses will be featured less.
With run stoppers already featured along the line, that’s even less pressure on Morgan to become something he’s not. While he could certainly try his hardest to improve on physicality in the run game, there just isn’t the time. With one season remaining, it’s in the best interest of everyone to become a pass rush missile.
Already having gone through spring is a huge step. Alongside players like Landon Jackson and Trajan Jeffcoat showing out, maybe his ability has been overshadowed. The last thing I would want to do as an opposing squad is forget how capable John Morgan is at getting your quarterback happy feet. With his great speed, football IQ, and commitment to the film room, there’s no question Morgan will be a factor. Recent memory has had Pittsburgh create many stellar defensive linemen, so let’s hope Morgan can channel that energy in Fayetteville for coach Pitt.