We at Maize n Brew continue our series where Anthony Broome and Drew Hallett address what they believe are the 10 biggest questions and storylines surrounding Michigan football and whether the Wolverines will find success in 2015. Today, we introduce the third edition, in which Anthony and Drew discuss everything you want to know about Michigan’s quarterback battle.
Drew: Unsurprisingly, no position battle at Michigan’s fall camp -- or during its entire offseason -- has drawn more attention than the quarterbacks. Quarterback is the most important position, and Michigan learned that the hard way in 2014. One season after Devin Gardner totaled 3,443 yards and 32 touchdowns as a junior, he managed only 2,154 total yards and 14 total touchdowns, while throwing 15 interceptions, in his final season. Gardner still was a fighter and gave it all he had, but it seemed like, after being on the receiving end of vicious hit and vicious hit in 2013, he had fallen victim to a football form of PTSD. As a result, Michigan’s offense imploded, finishing tied for 111th in the nation in scoring offense and 115th in total offense, and Michigan limped to a 5-7 record. Accordingly, Michigan needs competent quarterback play in 2015 in order to rebound.
Enter: Jake Rudock and Shane Morris. Rudock is a graduate transfer from Iowa, where he started 25 games for the Hawkeyes the past two seasons, while Morris is a former blue-chip, in-state recruit with two starts to his name. Though it took only one offseason with Jim Harbaugh for Michigan to transition from lacking depth at quarterback to overflowing with options, Rudock and Morris are the two vying to be the starter when the Wolverines take the field against Utah on September 3rd. Before we start discussing predictions as to who will be that starter, I want to ask you, Anthony: whom do you think Michigan's staff wants to win the competition and be the starter?
Anthony: I don’t know exactly the guy that the staff "wants" to be the starter, but I do know what they are looking for based on what they told us at media day. Michigan is looking for the guy who can protect the football, move the chains and get the team into the end zone through the air.
By that criteria, I would say that Jake Rudock fits the bill there the best based on what we already know, but it definitely is a battle between him and Morris. Morris has come into camp with a great attitude, but the early reports are that Rudock is still ahead.
The Iowa transfer is a known commodity and has 25 Big Ten starts under his belt, which cannot be overstated enough. Experience plays a role here, and Michigan would not have brought him into the fold had they not thought he had a chance to be their starting quarterback this fall.
Drew: See, I disagree. Yes, Harbaugh and the staff have made it clear that they want a quarterback that can take care of the football, limit turnovers, and move the chains. That is a bottom-line requirement. However, I think the staff also wants a quarterback that can take chances down the field and stretch the defense vertically without making too many mistakes. This not only will open up the playbook, but it also will open up space for the running game, which will be the predominant focus of Michigan’s offense. This is why I think the staff wants Morris to start.
Morris was heralded as a high-school prospect because he has the raw physical tools. He has the height at 6-foot-3 to see over the offensive line without problems. He has an absolute cannon for a left arm, which allows him to make all the throws. Need a quarterback that can rifle a pass through a tight window in the middle of the field? Morris can do it. Need a quarterback to put enough oomph on the ball to complete a pass to a receiving running a corner or out route on the far sideline? Morris can do it. Plus, Morris is no Denard Robinson, but he has enough athleticism to keep defenses honest out of the pistol or shotgun formation if Harbaugh calls a read-option. If he can tap into these physical tools and live up to his potential, Michigan’s offense can be potent.
But that’s the question, though: can Morris finally live up to his potential? Morris always had the physical tools, but the biggest concern was that he was too much of a gunslinger. He didn’t always understand how to read his coverages, go through his progressions, and make the right throw. Instead, he too often tried to force passes into windows that weren’t there, and the result was an interception. Lots of interceptions. In fact, in limited snaps during his first two seasons at Michigan, Morris has recorded an astronomical interception rate of 5.75 percent (5 INT/ 87 attempts). That will not cut it. However, if Morris can cut down on the turnovers, things become very interesting.
Plus, if Morris wins the job, Michigan could have a returning starter at quarterback in 2016 rather than go through this entire exercise again next summer.
So do you think Morris can make these improvements and become the quarterback that scouts thought, fans hoped, and the current staff wants him to be? Or do you think it’s too late for him?
Anthony: I will say this about Morris: if he is able to win the job, that to me is the best-case scenario for Michigan because it means the hype surrounding this off-season is legitimate. He has far more upside than Rudock and has the huge arm that you alluded to. I’m of the opinion that Morris’ sample size at Michigan is not even close to being large enough to making a concrete conclusion about what he is as a player.
Michigan’s passing game will not have a breakout year if Rudock is the quarterback. It’s just not who he is. They will be in good shape if Morris is the guy because he can actually take shots downfield, granted they can find a target who can get behind the secondary and make big plays.
Morris has the tools, he just has to put it all together. I’m not sure if a few weeks is enough time, but the Wolverines should feel encouraged if he is able to win the job. It’s not like this staff does not know how to find quarterback talent.
Drew: You somewhat swerved my question, so I’ll go ahead and give my answer, which will then lead to whom I predict will start against Utah. No, I do not think that Morris will make the necessary improvements and adjustments in his game to fulfill his potential this season. You’re correct that Morris’ sample size at Michigan -- two starts and 87 pass attempts in two years -- is insufficient from which to draw concrete conclusions, and there are many quarterbacks who did not quite find their comfort zone or rhythm until the later stages of their career. This is one of the reasons why I wish Brady Hoke had taken a quarterback in the 2012 class, so he could have redshirted Morris as a true freshman. Morris always was more of a project than fans wanted to admit given his hype and that Michigan was betting its entire offensive future on his development. An additional year to learn the offense in practice and to be eligible could have done wonders.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, Morris now is a junior, and, from the few practice reports that have leaked from the submarine during this fall camp, Morris has had the right attitude, but he still has been too inconsistent. For example, Sam Webb of The Michigan Insider posted a brief update on Sunday that Morris did not have a good week of practice ($). Though that does not detail precisely why Morris did not have a good week, it would not be farfetched to assume that he is making the same mistakes as he has in the past: too many fastballs, risks, and interceptions.
This is why I predict Rudock will start in the opener against Utah. As you mentioned earlier, Rudock fits the archetype of a game manager. Last season, Rudock completed 61.7 percent of his passes for 2,436 yards (7.1 YPA), 16 touchdowns, and only five interceptions. His YPA is a bit low, which is no surprise because he has been stuck in Kirk Ferentz’s check-down offense, but so are his interceptions (1.45 INT%). Rudock didn’t take many chances. Rather, he made sure to find the open guy underneath -- maybe too much -- and moved the chains. Michigan should have one of the best defenses in the Big Ten, so Michigan can win with a game manager, though it will shoot itself in the foot and have a disastrous year with a turnover-prone quarterback -- as 2014 proved.
Plus, there is a part of me that wonders if Harbaugh, who is a quarterback guru, can take the restrictor plate off of Rudock’s ability and turn him into a threat down the field as a quarterback. Though Rudock doesn’t have Morris’ arm strength, it’s not like Rudock can’t toss a ball more than 15 yards past the line of scrimmage. Rudock has the tools. The question is whether Ferentz forced Rudock was to check down as much as he did or that was Rudock’s own inclination.
Nonetheless, the outcome will be the same: Rudock will be the starter. Agree or disagree?
Anthony: I agree, Drew. As much as I’d like to see Morris step up, the buzz at media day and early on in camp is that Rudock will be the guy. Who’s to say his best football has been played already? Harbaugh has the quarterback midas touch, so a leap forward in his game could help him shed the stop-gap label and possibly be Michigan’s best starter under center since Chad Henne.
The offensive line and run game will play a huge part in whoever is back there. I don’t think this is an offense that is going to really air it out, but if you can make defenses respect the run, it will be extremely beneficial to whoever is back there. Rudock is a known for being a check down guy, and that could actually help him more than at Iowa. The tight ends will be a huge part of the offense, led by Jake Butt and I like what Ty Isaac brings catching the ball out of the backfield. So while Rudock may known for being a bit vanilla, he could be poised for a breakout if he wins the job like both of us expect him to.
Drew: So both of us think Rudock will start in 2015. If that comes to fruition, that means Michigan will have another quarterback battle in 2016, and we get to do this again next offseason (woo-hoo!). If you had to give a quick prediction now as to who will win that, who is your pick?
Anthony: I’d put my money on John O’Korn and even Zach Gentry possibly being in the mix. O’Korn would absolutely be in contention for the job if he was eligible to play this season and a year sitting out, learning the offense and sharpening up his game under Harbaugh could make him the front-runner for the position next year with two years of eligibility remaining.
Drew: I’ll give you my pick next summer. [winks]
Tomorrow, Anthony and Drew will continue this series by addressing the players to whom Michigan's starting quarterback will be throwing the football and whether Michigan has a receiver who will become a playmaker in the passing game.
Previous Installments of Michigan Football's Biggest Storylines in 2015
August 17th: The Impact of Jim Harbaugh's Return
August 18th: Did Brady Hoke Leave the Cupboard Bare?