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2016 Michigan Football Position Preview: Quarterback

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Quarterback is one of Michigan’s few question marks in 2016. Will Michigan find a suitable replacement for Jake Rudock? A breakdown of the candidates who may be his successor.

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NCAA Football: Michigan Spring Game Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

2016 Michigan Football Preview: Breakout Players - Offense | Breakout Players - Defense

For the second straight year, Michigan has a question mark at quarterback, the most important position on the football field, during training camp. Unlike last August however, this is not one of several question marks hanging over an offense that crumbled into a thousand pieces under Brady Hoke. Rather, this may be the only question mark preventing some pundits from penciling Michigan into the College Football Playoff.

The Wolverines check off almost all of the other boxes. They return what Pro Football Focus (PFF) believes could be the nation’s best defense. They return arguably the best receiving corps in the Big Ten with Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh, and Jake Butt. They return their top three ball carriers from last season. And they return four starters on the offensive line that have combined for a whopping 102 starts.

Whom they do not return, though, is Jake Rudock.

The irony is that Rudock was not supposed to be missed much by Michigan after the 2015 season. At Iowa, he had been a boring, prototypical game manager, and, for Michigan, he was supposed to only be a stopgap — one that could limit turnovers and stabilize the offense — until Jim Harbaugh developed the younger quarterbacks and brought in fresh blood. And, through the first two-thirds of last season, Rudock was not very special. He resembled a game manager in many ways (61.8 cmp%, 6.6 YPA) but had been bitten by the turnover bug (6:7 TD:INT ratio). As a result, he began to distrust his reads, and his accuracy wavered not only down the field but even underneath. He simply looked like he had lost his confidence.

But then, one of the most extreme in-season transformations occurred. In his final five games, Rudock connected on 115-of-172 throws (66.9%) for 1,574 yards (9.2 YPA), 14 touchdowns, and just two interceptions. Not only did he eviscerate two putrid pass defenses from Rutgers (128th per S&P+) and Indiana (93rd), he picked apart three top-10 pass defenses in a row from Penn State (8th), Ohio State (4th), and Florida (7th). Rudock finally hit receivers on 30-plus-yard tosses and even threaded spirals through NFL-sized windows. He was a completely different quarterback beaming with confidence. Suddenly, no longer did people call Rudock a “game manager.” They called him an “NFL Draft pick,” which the Detroit Lions made a reality when they selected him in the sixth round.

PFF did the best job of contextualizing Rudock’s transformation with this nugget:

From Weeks 1 through 9, Rudock ranked No. 98 among 101 qualifying QBs in PFF grades; from Week 10 on, he ranked second.

That is remarkable, and it is important for two key reasons.

First, Rudock’s transformation is yet another data point in a mountain of evidence which suggests that Harbaugh is one of the best quarterback coaches. Harbaugh had just a few months to work with Rudock, who didn’t join the program until the summer and was a known commodity as a game manager. Yet, once Rudock became acclimated to Harbaugh’s offense and playbook, he flourished and put together one of the best stretches by a Michigan quarterback ever. Now imagine how much a quarterback that has spent the past 18-plus months under Harbaugh’s guidance may develop. Suddenly, the idea of replacing Rudock doesn’t seem as daunting as it should.

Second, the idea of replacing Rudock also doesn’t seem as daunting as it should because Michigan constantly performed as a top-10 or -15 team despite Rudock’s in-season transformation. When Rudock had his struggles earlier in the season, Michigan’s defense played lights out and carried the Wolverines. However, when injuries on the defensive line took their toll and run-first spread offenses wore them down, Rudock’s sudden aerial assault kept Michigan propped up. With Michigan expected to return one of the top defenses in 2016, Michigan likely does not need its next quarterback to perform like Rudock did at the end of last season to contend for a national championship. That would be a luxury, not a necessity. All the Wolverines need is steady quarterback play from someone who can move the chains and limit turnovers.

If Michigan can find that, it will find the answer to one of its few glaring question marks.

Here are the candidates that could become that answer for Michigan:

John O’Korn

#8 | RS Junior | 6-4 | 215 | Houston
NCAA Football: Michigan Spring Game Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

2013 (Fr.): 259-446 (58.1%) | 3,117 yards (7.0 YPA) | 28 TD | 10 INT | 133.02 QB Rtg
2014 (So.): 90-173 (52.0%) | 951 yards (5.5 YPA) | 6 TD | 8 INT | 100.38 QB Rtg
2015 (RS So.): Transfer to Michigan; Redshirt

Last season, the Wolverines relied on a former three-star quarterback recruit from St. Thomas Aquinas High School that transferred to Michigan to run their offense. This season, they may rely on another former three-star quarterback recruit from St. Thomas Aquinas High School that transferred to Michigan to run their offense.

John O’Korn signed with Houston rather than Iowa, but his path to Michigan is eerily similar to Jake Rudock’s even if their playing styles are not. Like Rudock, O’Korn experienced early success as a starting quarterback. He was unexpectedly handed the job in Week 3 of his true freshman season after Houston’s junior quarterback, David Piland, suffered career-ending concussions, and he came out blazing. In his first six starts, he completed 127-of-201 passes (63.2%) for 1,781 yards (8.9 YPA), 19 touchdowns, and four interceptions — performances which propelled him to being named the AAC’s Rookie of the Year. However, O’Korn benefited from the competition because none of those six opponents were in a Power 5 conference. In his final five starts of that 2013 season, four of which were against ranked teams or a nine-win Cincinnati outfit, he completed only 49.2 percent of his throws, averaged 5.0 YPA, and delivered the same number of touchdowns as picks (6). O’Korn’s struggles didn’t stop there either. He opened 2014 with four interceptions against UTSA, and, through the first five games, he had barely completed half of his passes (51.7%), posted only 5.5 YPA, and tossed eight picks to six touchdowns. Just like Rudock, O’Korn lost his starting job, decided it would be best to transfer elsewhere, and chose to continue his career at Michigan.

Unlike Rudock, O’Korn was not a graduate transfer and, thus, was ineligible to compete in 2015. However, that doesn’t mean O’Korn was ineligible to practice. Reports surfaced in September and October as Rudock had his ups and downs that O’Korn was the best Wolverine quarterback and would start if permitted to play. This likely no longer was the case when Rudock began to perform like an NFL quarterback by season’s end, but it generated enough hype that O’Korn would be Rudock’s successor in 2016.

However, O’Korn hasn’t secured the starting job like many thought he would. There is little question that O’Korn would provide Michigan’s offense with the most upside. Whereas Rudock was known as a game manager, O’Korn is more of a gunslinger. He has great arm strength and does not hesitate in trying to squeeze in a tight throw. With weapons like Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh, and Jake Butt at his disposal, O’Korn would test defenses deep frequently, which could lead to lots of fireworks for Michigan’s offense. Plus, he has enough mobility to extend plays in the pocket (or out of it) if necessary. The downsides, though, are that O’Korn can be too loose with his decision-making, taking too many risky shots down the field and fleeing the pocket too quickly once he starts feeling pressure. And these mistakes cost him dearly when he faced better defenses at Houston. Has O’Korn learned from this? It remains to be seen. However, Michigan doesn’t need a quarterback that shoulders much of the burden of the offense. It just needs a quarterback that can move the chains and limit mistakes. If O’Korn wins the competition, it likely means that he has learned to be more in control and make better decisions.

Or, in other words, be more like another former St. Thomas Aquinas quarterback.

Wilton Speight

#3 | RS Sophomore | 6-6 | 243 | Richmond, Va.
Ohio State v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

2014 (Fr.): Redshirt
2015 (RS Fr.): 9-25 (36.0%) | 73 yards (2.9 YPA) | 1 TD | 1 INT | 65.73 QB Rtg

One reason that John O’Korn hasn’t secured the starting spot yet is Wilton Speight, a former three-star propsect who isn’t supposed to be truly competing for the job this season. Speight was signed just one year after Michigan landed Shane Morris, who in 2013 was one of the most prized quarterback recruits, so it was presumed that Speight would hold the clipboard for at least three years while Morris led the Wolverines.

However, last season, Speight jumped past Morris to No. 2 on the depth chart. This was confirmed when Jake Rudock was knocked out on the road against Minnesota in the third quarter with Michigan trailing, 23-21. Jim Harbaugh had to choose between burning Morris’ redshirt and an extra year for Morris to develop or to turn to Speight. With Michigan’s Big Ten title hopes still at stake, Harbaugh put the game in Speight’s hands, which had yet to complete a collegiate pass. The initial returns were discouraging as Speight missed his first three throws and created Russell Bellomy flashbacks. But, with 8:36 remaining and the Wolverines down by five points, Speight demonstrated some real moxie in a hostile environment, leading Michigan to a 40-yard touchdown drive that was capped by this 12-yard strike to Jehu Chesson on 3rd and 10:

Michigan escaped with a 29-26 win over the Gophers and reclaimed its right to the Little Brown Jug. Some proclaimed that this would be remembered as the “Wilton Speight Game,” implying that Speight would not have many other opportunities in his Michigan career to put his stamp on a game like that one. The reasoning for such a thought was that many believed that John O’Korn would not be challenged as the starter in 2016.

However, yet again, Speight proved his doubters wrong. After 2015, Speight built off his Minnesota moment and prepared to battle to be Michigan’s next starting quarterback. His hard work and preparation paid off because he, not O’Korn, was the first overall pick of Michigan’s spring game draft. Then, in the spring game, Speight had the best statistical performance, completing 5-of-6 passes for 46 yards, throwing for one score and running for another. It became clear to anyone who may have believed that the coaches were just using Speight to motivate O’Korn that Speight truly was in this quarterback competition.

Now it becomes a matter of whether Speight can prove his doubters wrong again and be Michigan’s starter in 2016. He and O’Korn were neck and neck entering training camp this fall. Whereas O’Korn has the upside, Speight is more of the mold of the game manager that fits what Michigan needs this season. Speight has improved his accuracy and has no issue taking what the defense gives him underneath. However, The Michigan Insider’s Sam Webb reported ($) that the Michigan staff would like Speight to be more aggressive and take more chances. Plus, at 6-foot-6 and 243 pounds, Speight can be a statue in the pocket and not escape pressure like O’Korn.

It seems that the Michigan staff is looking for a balance between what each of Speight and O’Korn provide. They want O’Korn to be a bit more conservative and Speight to be a bit more of a playmaker. Whichever quarterback can find that balance the best will be Michigan’s starter come September 3rd. However, if neither of them can find it, do not be surprised if Harbaugh and Michigan go with Speight and choose control over upside.

Shane Morris

#7 | RS Junior | 6-3 | 213 | Hazel Park, Mich.
NCAA Football: Minnesota at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

2013 (Fr.): 29-47 (61.7%) | 261 yards (5.6 YPA) | 0 TD | 2 INT | 99.84 QB Rtg
2014 (So.): 14-40 (35.0%) | 128 yards (3.2 YPA) | 0 TD | 3 INT | 46.88 QB Rtg
2015 (RS So.): Redshirt

Shane Morris had all the tools to become an excellent collegiate quarterback: rocket arm, quick release, good stature, elusiveness. There are many reasons why he was considered one of the best quarterback recruits of the 2013 class. So many, in fact, that Brady Hoke and Al Borges, in a decision that will be criticized for some time, opted to forego signing a quarterback in 2012 and put all of their chips in the Morris basket.

However, Morris never put it all together.

Entering his fourth season in the program, Morris has yet to complete a touchdown pass at the college level and finds himself squarely in the third spot on the depth chart. The negatives in his high school scouting report have continued to plague him in Ann Arbor. The two big ones were that Morris too often used his arm strength to force missiles into windows that weren’t there and that he had difficulty reading defenses after his first progression. Accordingly, he has thrown five interceptions in 87 career pass attempts. Morris has had time to fix these issues and improve his game, even redshirting in 2015 after losing the quarterback competition to Jake Rudock, in the hopes that an additional year of development would be the difference. Instead, Wilton Speight jumped him on the depth chart, and Morris spent most of his time during the spring game playing at wide receiver, not quarterback.

Big Ten Network visited Michigan’s fall practice yesterday and reported that Morris took snaps under center with the first-team offense. However, that likely was a ploy by Jim Harbaugh not to give anything away. The leaks that have risen from Harbaugh’s submarine all indicate that this quarterback competition is clearly a two-man battle between John O’Korn and Speight with Morris not even being in the discussion.

It’s hard to believe this given how promising Morris’ football career seemed to be just three years ago, but, at this point, Morris may be remembered most at Michigan not for a touchdown he scored or a pass he threw but for a concussion he suffered. And that’s extremely unfortunate.

Alex Malzone

#12 | RS Freshman | 6-2 | 224 | Farmington Hills, Mich.
NCAA Football: Michigan State at Michigan Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

2015 (Fr.): Redshirt

Alex Malzone had a very successful high school career at Brother Rice, winning three state championships before recording 2,998 passing yards (64.9 cmp%), 38 touchdowns, and only five interceptions as a senior, and he had the opportunity to parlay that into a very successful freshman season at Michigan. The former four-star prospect enrolled early in 2015, learning Jim Harbaugh’s playbook at the same time that Shane Morris and Wilton Speight did. Further, in the spring, neither Jake Rudock nor John O’Korn had enrolled yet, and Speight was not an active participant due to injury. Therefore, in the 2015 spring game, Malzone was just one of two quarterbacks to take the field. This was his chance to shine and show that he could be Michigan’s starting quarterback from Day 1.

However, Malzone had a day he would like to forget. He completed 15-of-27 passes (55.6%) for just 95 yards (3.5 YPA) and two interceptions as his team was shut out. Any excitement that had been built for Malzone’s candidacy to start as a true freshman dissipated quickly. When August rolled around, only Rudock and Morris were mentioned as the possibilities to start, and, with Speight returning from his injury, it all but guaranteed that Malzone would redshirt and get another crack at it in 2016.

But, if anything, Malzone has fallen further off the pack. He threw the fewest number of passes in the 2016 spring game of the five scholarship quarterbacks (4) and is at best the fourth-string quarterback on the depth chart. And, to make matters worse, Malzone got into some trouble off the field in April, receiving a ticket for having an altered driver’s license and taking responsibility for a charge of disorderly conduct.

The good news for Malzone is that he still is only a redshirt freshman and has time to make his move in the race to be Michigan’s starting quarterback in the next few years. The bad news, though, is that he may not be able to hold off the true freshman that just arrived in town.

Brandon Peters

#18 | Freshman | 6-5 | 216 | Avon, Ind.
Dustin Johnston-Maize n Brew

2015 (HS Sr.): 218-363 (60.1%) | 3,103 yards (8.5 YPA) | 37 TD | 5 INT | 162.74 QB Rtg

He will not be seen on the football field for the next two seasons unless the Injury Gods strike Ann Arbor hard, but know this: Brandon Peters is going to be special. When Peters committed to Michigan in April of 2015, he was a mid- to low-caliber four-star prospect. However, Peters shot up the 2016 class rankings as he put together a spectacular senior season at Avon High School, throwing for over 3,100 yards and tallying 37 touchdowns to five picks. He finished as the 61st-best prospect in his class according to the 247Sports Composite and was named a finalist for the U.S. Army National Player of the Year award.

Peters seems to have the entire package. He has a classic frame at 6-foot-5, above-average arm strength that allows him to throw beautiful bombs, an ability to adjust his ball velocity and trajectories to lead his receivers into open spaces, sufficient mobility and strength to shed sacks and scramble for yards, and a cool demeanor. Plus, he seems to have a great football IQ that will continue to improve under the tutelage of Jim Harbaugh. Though Peters, an early enrollee, didn’t ball out during the spring game, completing 3-of-6 passes for 36 yards, glimpses of what he can be definitely were present.

And, when one is asked to think what a quarterback will be under Harbaugh, the easy, yet in many cases uninformed, answer is the next Andrew Luck. But, based off Peters’ high school film, scouting evaluations, and spring game glimpses, it is an apt comparison for him.