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2020 East-West Shrine Bowl: James Morgan chasing heroes

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  • By Andy Fenelon NFL.com
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The 2020 East-West Shrine Bowl will be broadcast exclusively on NFL Network as well as the NFL and NFL Network apps at 3 p.m. ET on Saturday, Jan. 18.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- There's a story, it seems, behind every player's uniform number, but the one former Florida International quarterback James Morgan tells is a little more complicated than most.

"Up until eighth grade I was No. 4, then I was No. 12 in high school," Morgan said after finishing his third straight stellar practice at the East-West Shrine Bowl on Wednesday. "You can probably connect the dots with that one."

You can if you know more about where Morgan was raised. Born in Green Bay, Wisconsin, just 33 days after the local team beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI, Morgan was baptized by fire into Packers fandom. For the next decade, no one was bigger in the state than Brett Favre. Babies and streets were named after him, mayors gave him keys to their cities and jorts became fashionable again.

And every quarterback, from Pop Warner to high school, battled to wear No. 4.

Then came The Breakup in 2008, when Aaron Rodgers was handed the quarterback keys and Favre was sent packing. It was a split that divided the state, and even today, when Packers fans are asked to choose sides, the smart ones remain politically correct.

Morgan, who changed his number from 4 to 12 upon entering Ashwaubenon High School -- a school whose colors are green and gold and which lies less than two miles from Lambeau Field -- two years after Favre exited for the New York Jets, is no different.

"That's such a tough question," he replied when asked where his loyalties lie today. "I've loved watching both of them. Favre was my hero growing up. Just watching him being able to do his thing, the gunslinger mentality, I really tried to embrace that as a young quarterback.

"And everything Aaron has been doing is just phenomenal. There's so much to take away from his game when you watch his tape -- how he reads defenses, his technique, his quick release. Both of those guys were hugely inspirational to me."

Morgan has kept No. 12 since the jersey swap more than eight years ago. It's the same number he has been wearing in St. Pete's this week at practice and will sport in Saturday's game. It's the same number NFL scouts have been consistently using to identify the best quarterback here through the first three practice days.

"No. 12," one scout said. "And it's not even close."

Morgan's path, from Ashwaubenon to here in St. Pete's, is anything but a straight line. As a quarterback in high school, where he threw for 7,000 yards (fifth in the state) and 70 touchdowns (tied for seventh), he was a three-star recruit, but a top-20 pro-style quarterback prospect nationally and No. 1 in the state. However, he never got the call from his preferred school, Wisconsin, which at the time had Gary Andersen as its head coach and a run-first mentality as its offensive style.

So off he went to Bowling Green State to play the Air Raid for Dino Babers, whose work with Jimmy Garoppolo at Eastern Illinois and Robert Griffin III at Baylor was appealing to Morgan. But after Morgan redshirted his freshman year, Babers took off for Syracuse, with just two years under his belt at Bowling Green.

A new coach (Mike Jinks), a new system and new players recruited by Jinks all led to dissatisfaction for both sides, and the two amicably decided to go different ways. Morgan, who got his degree in pre-law before leaving Bowling Green, transferred to Florida International, where he played the last two seasons for former Dallas Cowboys assistant and Cleveland Browns head coach Butch Davis.

He had already endured one breakup (Favre and the Packers) that allowed him to gain perspective on this one: It doesn't always work out, even for the very best.

But it did finally work out for Morgan at FIU. After just 17 practices, he won the starting job, led the Panthers to a second-place Conference USA finish in his first year and helped beat Miami -- Davis' old school -- in 2019. In his two years combined, he threw for 5,312 yards, 40 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, with a completion percentage of 61.5.

All the time borrowing from the games of his hometown heroes, Favre and Rodgers.

"I try to get the best of both worlds," he said. "You want the fearless mentality of Favre. He never was scared to make a throw. He knew he could make every throw on the field. That's the way I feel. Rodgers, on the other hand, has been very safe with the ball; he doesn't turn the ball over a lot. He makes good decisions. Never be afraid but take what they give me. That's very important for me."

Day 3 practice notes

CATCH OF THE DAY: At his first practice since arriving from Monday night's National Championship Game, Clemson WR Diondre Overton made up for lost time. His catch at the East's morning practice brought big applause. It was over FIU CB Stantley Thomas-Oliver III, who was providing tight coverage on the play. But Overton high-pointed the ball thrown by Morgan and caught it over Thomas-Oliver's head in the corner of the end zone. Overton didn't pile up the stats at Clemson (52 career catches, 7 touchdowns), but he looked the part on Wednesday. A physical possession receiver, he's got good size (6-foot-4, 210 pounds), with long arms and big hands, and he's run a verified 4.50-second 40-yard dash.

NFL FATHERS: Offensive linemen Jon Runyan of Michigan and Charlie Heck of North Carolina physically resemble their NFL fathers, Jon Runyan (1996 fourth-round pick of Houston) and Andy Heck (1989 first-rounder by the Seahawks), who together combined to play 26 years in the league. Charlie Heck, like his father, is considered the better OL prospect, but it's been Runyan who has been consistently solid this week, while Heck has been beaten a few times in the drills. Runyan said he was prepped by his dad before heading to St. Pete's on what to expect. Those two aren't the only players here with NFL dads. Torin Dorn, the father of North Carolina safety Myles Dorn, played seven years in the NFL.

D.J.'S DAY 3 WINNERS NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah is here this week, prepping for Saturday's broadcast of the game. He'll be highlighting standout players in this notebook each day of practice. Here are his Day 3 winners:

�� Mississippi State OL Darryl Williams: "In terms of the offensive linemen, Williams had the best day. On Tuesday, nobody could block Arkansas DT McTelvin Agim, but Williams did a really good job against him on three or four occasions. Real stout, strong player."

�� Western Michigan OL Luke Juriga: "He's stacked together two really good days, and the reports I got from scouts from when I wasn't here on Monday were very positive. He's got excellent hands. A really solid player."

�� Red-zone WR standouts: "Clemson's Diondre Overton had a sweet, big-time red-zone catch in the corner of the end zone. Temple's Isaiah Wright had a real athletic, show-off catch. And Jordan McCray from Oklahoma State had an excellent grab."

�� Ohio State WR Binjimen Victor: "He's had back-to-back good showings the last two days. He's a real smooth, good-looking athlete. Very impressive."

�� Michigan DE Michael Danna: "He was really good in the one-on-ones, really good with his hands. He's got a tremendous push-pull move."

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