There's a stifling humidity in southern Louisiana, and Stanley Morgan Jr. is staring down a monster. His foe is just a year older than himself, but with a closely shorn head and the broadness of a boxcar, looks twice his age. A year earlier, he'd become the first high school freshman to ever earn a football offer from Louisiana State University. This beast's name was Leonard Fournette.
The whistle shrilled, and Morgan explodes toward Fournette. The two clash, with Morgan absorbing the brunt of it. He churns his legs like pistons, refusing to give ground to his larger, stronger opponent. The whistle cried again, and the combatants disengaged. Just another day at St. Augustine High School circa 2012. The all-boys parochial school in New Orleans has produced NFL talents like Fournette, Trai Turner and Tyrann Mathieu. Morgan says the team's coaches expected receivers to block their butts off, and when it wasn't happening, they'd use Fournette as a trial by fire.
"He looked the same, like he looks now in the NFL. (I remember) going against him and showing my heart. I wasn't scared of Leonard," Morgan says. The two built a mutual respect, and Fournette would later call Morgan the best player he's ever played alongside. After a record-shattering career at the University of Nebraska, Morgan is now considered a top wide receiver prospect for the 2019 NFL Draft.
Growing up in a single-parent household in inner-city New Orleans, Morgan's been fighting for this dream for as long as he can remember. His mother, Monique Jason, drove school buses to provide for her son. Though they never had much, mom always found a way to make it work. Morgan's biological father, Stanley Morgan Sr., has been incarcerated since Stanley was 9. While many fatherless boys from Morgan's hometown gravitate toward street gangs and crime, Stanley poured himself into football. He grew up playing quarterback, as the most athletic players often do. By the time he was in eighth grade, St. Augustine had caught wind of his skills. They wanted him. Just one problem—tuition was $8,000 a year. Wanting the best for her son, Jason—buoyed by donations from her own mother along with several cousins—found a way to make it work. Morgan believed going anything less than 100 percent at "St. Aug" would be akin to wasting mom's money.
"Those workouts we used to do in the summertime in New Orleans, running those 100s in the humidity down there. It was tough. It made me a tough player. Made me fight through anything," Morgan says. "(In New Orleans), you get it out the mud. You get it for yourself. You gotta grind for it."
Morgan quickly made an impact, tallying 806 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns as a sophomore. He went on to be named Class 5A All-State as both a junior and senior. Even though he spent much of his high school career overshadowed by the absurdly hyped Fournette, it was Morgan who the St. Augustine coaches often relied upon when in need of a big play.
Offers poured in from Ohio State, Georgia, Florida, Clemson. But Morgan's first, and as fate would have it, only, official visit was to the University of Nebraska. He and his mom rolled into Lincoln expecting cornfields, but were blown away by the beautiful campus and the sparkling football facilities. When they walked out of the tunnel at Memorial Stadium and stood awestruck by the modern coliseum around them, Morgan's future was virtually sealed. "On the way home, my mom said, 'This is the place, and I think this is right.' And mom never steers you wrong," Morgan says.
Though he came in a highly ranked recruit, Morgan still remembers how his lungs burned during his first practices as a Cornhusker. "My first fall practice felt like a high school game. I was like, 'I don't know how I'm going to get through this.' But I just kept fighting," Morgan says.
Exhausted or not, Morgan was undeniably talented. As a true freshman, he hauled in 25 receptions for 304 yards and three touchdowns. He followed that up with 33 receptions for 453 yards and two touchdowns his sophomore season.
It was the following offseason where Morgan says he made his biggest leap. Reading coverages finally became second nature, and he found himself eager to uncover more nuance so he could play even faster. "(It was about) waking up every morning telling myself 'Be the best Stanley you can be.' If you don't wake up every morning and be the best you, you're not even giving yourself a chance," Morgan says.
Whenever he didn't feel like rolling out of bed, he thought of the alternative. All the people back in New Orleans who didn't make it out and were scraping just to survive. It was something Keith Williams, Morgan's receivers coach for his first three years at Nebraska, made sure to remind him. "My coach, Keith Williams, he told me one thing that will stick with me forever. He told me, 'This is not worse than what you come from.' Just waking up and being here is the best days of your life. That helps me grind every day," Morgan says. "Being afraid to go back to what I came from."
His junior season, Morgan exploded for 61 receptions, 986 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns, setting a new single-season school record for receiving yardage in the process. He could've bolted for the NFL right then and there. The Huskers had just endured a 4-8 season—their worst record since 1961. On top of that, Mike Riley and his staff were fired and replaced by Scott Frost and his guys. Frost, a Nebraska alum, won 2017 AP Coach of the Year after guiding UCF to an undefeated season, but he ran an entirely different offense than the pro-style system Riley favored. But ultimately, Morgan loved Nebraska too much to pass up another season in scarlet and cream.
"We were a new staff and he'd done so many great things his first three years. For him to come back to a staff he didn't really know, to an offense he wasn't really sure about, just showed his love for the University of Nebraska," says Troy Walters, the offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach who came in with Frost. "We're really different than the offense they ran before, going from a pro-style to a spread, uptempo, no-huddle. He wanted to master (our system). He wanted to get better with his football IQ and understanding coverages and why we run certain routes and why certain routes are associated with other routes. He wanted to become a student of the game, which he did a great job of."
In addition to Morgan's voracious appetite for Xs and Os, Walters quickly noticed how unselfish the star receiver was. Boxscore-stuffing wideouts have long been associated with a "diva" attitude, but Morgan is the polar opposite of that stereotype. He set the bar for energy and focus in every workout, meeting and practice. "I told him at the beginning, I gotta coach you harder than I coach anybody else. And if the young guys see that, they see you take coaching, that will help them out and go a long way," Walters says. "The kid is an ultimate competitor. Practices just like a game. He's gonna go 100 miles per hour, full speed."
Nothing's more indicative of Morgan's team-first attitude than his obsession with blocking. Dubbed a "nasty" blocker by his coaches, Morgan says he enjoys throwing a key block more than scoring a touchdown. "I just love to see my teammates (succeed). That excites me more, to block and see them run past me and get extra yards, that feels great," Morgan says. You won't find highlight reels dedicated entirely to blocking on every wideout's Instagram:
Deceptive route running paired with steel-trap hands and an unflinching willingness to go across the middle proved to be a fruitful formula in Frost's offense. Morgan's senior season was arguably the greatest year by any receiver in Nebraska history. As a team captain, he totaled 1,0004 receiving yards, breaking the record he set the previous year, to go along with 70 receptions. He is now the school's all-time leader in career receiving yards (2,747) and career receptions (189). But team success wasn't so tangible. The Huskers started the season 0-6, the worst start in the program's 129-year history. Yet coaches say Morgan practiced harder when the team was 0-6 than 0-0.
"(Stanley) sets the example daily for how you're supposed to do things and how you're supposed to practice and his enthusiasm is infectious," Frost told reporters in November.
Even when the team was winless, Morgan remained invested in helping younger receivers get better. "He was always there for his teammates," Walters says. "He never wavered, he never jumped ship."
That never-say-die attitude helped the Huskers win four of their final six games, with the two losses coming by a combined eight points. Walters says that when Nebraska wins championships in the near future, it will be because of the example set by Morgan and the rest of his senior class. "I didn't come back for anything but to make the program better. If having a losing season but teaching the guys how to work and work in practice was the foundation of what Nebraska wants to be or where they're going, I can live with that for the rest of my life," Morgan says.
Ahead of the NFL Combine, Morgan looked to Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, California to help him prepare for the biggest workout of his life. He did not disappoint. His agility and explosive numbers were elite, as he recorded a 6.78 3-Cone Drill, a 4.1 20-Yard Shuttle, a 38.5-inch Vertical Jump, and a 10-foot-5 Broad Jump.
In terms of pure skills, Morgan has an abundance of NFL traits—some analysts have called him the best route runner in this draft class, and others have dubbed him the best blocking receiver. It's a similar skillset to that of Cleveland Browns star Jarvis Landry, a fellow Louisiana native whom Morgan grew up idolizing. "I watched him growing up, I been to a lot of LSU games. His passion for the game, his attention to detail, his hands," Morgan says. "That's one guy I will say I idolize."
Wherever Morgan lands, you can bet his mom will be in the stands next season, sporting a bedazzled version of his jersey with the words "Stan the Man" emblazoned on the back. It's a ritual she's had since her son's very first season of youth football. What started as a way to keep him off the streets and instill structure in his life has blossomed into this. And as he has his entire football life, Stan will be hungry to make the most of his opportunity.
Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty images, Icon Sportswire/Getty Images