Shane Morris' first start as the quarterback at the University of Michigan comes on a pretty big stage: the Wolverines' bowl game.
Well, if the fans in Ann Arbor had their way, it would've come on a much bigger stage, but the Wolverines only won seven games this season. So it's not the National Championship Game or the Rose Bowl or even on New Year's Day, but don't tell Morris that. He's thrilled regardless.
"It's been my dream since I was a little kid to start as quarterback for the University of Michigan," Morris said Thursday. "It's a huge bowl game. I'm excited. I grew up in Michigan. My family surrounded me in Michigan. I have baby pictures of me in Michigan jerseys. It's really cool."
Devin Gardner's turf toe is what has created this opportunity for Morris, a true freshman. Head coach Brady Hoke broke the news that Gardner's injury would likely keep him out of the game shortly after his team arrived in Arizona ahead of their date with Kansas State in Saturday's Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Several days later, it was a sure thing that Gardner wouldn't play, meaning Morris is the starter.
"No. 1, he's very athletic. He's a guy that can move around well in the pocket, can move up in the pocket. He's a guy who has a very strong arm. He can make all the throws," Hoke said Thursday describing Morris' strengths. "Obviously we recruited him at Michigan to be the quarterback at Michigan. This is a great opportunity. We have a lot of faith in how he goes about his business getting ready to play."
Everyone asked about this drastic departure from what the Wolverines did on the field this entire season said the offense wouldn't be much different with Morris under center. But whether Morris is physically capable of doing what Gardner does or not, there's no doubt that Michigan will look very different Saturday. Just the age makes that the case. Morris is a freshman. He's never started. He threw seven passes this season. Gardner piled up the yardage and the touchdowns while playing nearly every snap this season, not to mention the ample playing time he saw last season.
But Hoke, Morris and other Michigan players — such as wide receiver Jeremy Gallon, Gardner's favorite target — said it would be business as usual against Kansas State.
"Everything has been the same. Just because (Morris is) a younger quarterback doesn't mean he doesn't know his material," Gallon said. "I feel like he's on point with his material. He knows what he has to do. He's good at reading the defense, checking out of things if he has to. He's a smart kid. So I don't feel like anything has changed.
"He's been good. Everything has been great with him. He's been connecting with the receivers, the running backs, building a stronger chemistry with the O-line. There's nothing new about him. I feel like he's been here forever. He's built that kind of chemistry with us."
An injury to Gardner shouldn't have come as a total shock. The quarterback was beaten up by opposing defenses all season long, knocked down time and time again and even held to negative rushing totals in some games thanks to an onslaught of sacks. But the severe case of turf toe has now finally knocked him out of a game, and it turns Morris into the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl's main storyline.
One can't help but instantly wonder what would happen if the offensive line plays as it did in front of Gardner against Kansas State with the true freshman perhaps not as able to evade the pressure. How does one of those linemen tasked with protecting him think the freshman will handle it?
"It's rough. But it's part of the job. Shane, when he gets hit, man, it comes with the territory," senior offensive lineman Taylor Lewan said Thursday. "He's got to understand that. If it doesn't feel good, you have to move on. You have to understand you have the whole team counting on you. It's not just about Shane, it's about 11 guys. I know there's going to be a lot of scrutiny, a lot of pressure that the media puts on him. If he doesn't focus on that, focuses on what he needs to focus on, he'll be fine."
It's safe to say that the 2013 season will end in a very unexpected fashion for Michigan. A fan base that always expects contention for a national title certainly had its sights higher than the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. And on top of it those fans will now be watching a true freshman take the reins of the Wolverines' offense. But, as Hoke pointed out, Morris was recruited for a reason. That reason starts Saturday.
Michigan and Kansas State kick off in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl at 9:15 p.m. Saturday on ESPN.