MONTGOMERY – Florida International quarterback James Morgan had a link to the Camellia Bowl before the Panthers ever set foot in Montgomery.
Morgan started his career at Bowling Green and as a redshirt freshman in 2016, he took over as the starter midway through the season in place of James Knapke, who won the Bart Starr MVP Award in the inaugural Camellia Bowl in 2014.
“That’s pretty crazy,” Morgan said. “When we got the invitation, I put the connection together.”
“Pretty crazy” might be the way to describe Morgan’s career, which has had its share of ups and downs. A native of Green Bay – which means he obviously grew up loving football as a huge fan of the Packers – he was recruited to Bowling Green by Dino Babers and after a redshirt season in 2015, Morgan started his playing career under Mike Jinks after Babers went to Syracuse.
Morgan started 18 games over a two-year career and his 16 touchdown passes were the most by a freshman in school history in 2016, but by the end of 2017 he worked to complete his undergraduate degree so he could take advantage of the new rule permitting graduates to transfer without sitting out a year.
“There was just some coaching differences and things that went on that I wanted to get out,” Morgan said. “It was a bad situation for me but it ended up working really good coming here.”
He searched for a place to transfer and found the right fit at Florida International.
“A couple of things I look for,” he said. “One was a coach that was experienced and cared about the players and Coach (Butch) Davis really had that to the max. And then a family atmosphere. Coming there, I got a really good feel for the culture of the program and how much guys cared for each other. That was a big thing that played into it.”
The feeling was mutual. Morgan’s official visit worked out perfectly for both Morgan and FIU.
“In 2017, we had a young man named Alex McGough and he was a senior, awesome, a great kid,” Davis said. “We had one backup behind him that was a senior. It was the first year they were talking about grad transfers and portals, so we evaluated probably 10-15 quarterbacks across the country and we brought James in for an official visit knowing he wasn’t going to graduate until the summer. He wanted to get accepted into law school, which he did.
“As soon as he came on his official visit, the players just connected. When players come back to your office about a recruit and say, ‘Coach, we need to get that guy on our team,’ you know you’re headed in the right direction.”
By the end of 2018, Morgan had led FIU to a school-record in wins despite missing the Bahamas Bowl with a sore throwing shoulder. He was selected as the Conference USA Newcomer of the Year and broke school records for passing touchdowns (26), pass efficiency (157.6) and total offense per play (7.67 yards).
This season, as he completed work on his master’s degree in public administration, he was named a semifinalist for the Campbell Award presented to college football’s top scholar-athlete, but missed parts of three games with injuries and his numbers were down, as were the Panthers’ wins.
FIU earned bowl eligibility with a win over Miami but then suffered a season-ending loss to Marshall to finish 6-6 and put their bowl hopes in jeopardy.
“It’s been ups and downs,” Morgan said. “We’ve had to fight through adversity for sure, didn’t go how we wanted it to, but our whole mentality is on Arkansas State and trying to play one game at a time and trying to win that game.”
The Panthers could set a school record with their third consecutive winning season – and only their fifth overall – with a win in the Camellia Bowl. Beating Arkansas State, Morgan knows, is a challenge.
“They’re extremely athletic,” he said. “I know they’ve had some injuries but they don’t show any signs of slowing down.
They’ve got some great guys on defense and they do a couple of different things in terms of their front and their secondary, so it should be a great challenge for us.”
Morgan’s career might have had some bumps in the road at Bowling Green and again this season, but he’s thankful for the decision to finish his career in Miami under Davis.
“It’s fantastic,” Morgan said. “He’s a real players’ coach. You can tell he cares about you. The cool thing about him is he’s been in it so long, he’s got basically an experience to reflect every week, what you should be thinking. Whether it’s his Miami teams or his Browns teams or his Cowboys teams, he’s been there before. He can give you, ‘this is how you should feeling, this is how you should be thinking.’ And he’s a great motivator of men.”
Davis feels the same way about his starting quarterback.
“We won nine games his first year and a lot of it was due to his ability,” Davis said. “He’s a terrific athlete, he’s a very good passer, has a passion, has been a two-year captain. The team votes on captains and when you come as an outsider into a program, that’s a little bit unusual. He’s really unique and special.”