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Michigan’s quarterback situation is getting tricky

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There are no clear answers as Michigan’s staff tries to adjust on the fly

Michigan v Ohio State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

If you’re of the mind that Michigan should play for Big Ten and national championships, then there is not a lot left for the 2017 Michigan Wolverines to play for this season. Sure, Michigan could turn everything around immediately and somehow miraculously reach those goals, but that’s not likely going to happen.

Of course, wins against Wisconsin and Ohio State would look great heading into 2018 regardless of where it leads to in January, but after Saturday’s 42-13 defeat at the hands of James Franklin’s Nittany Lions, it’s hard to imagine this current team pulling that off. Granted, there’s a reason why they play the games on the field, but Michigan will surely be the underdog.

However, it appears that Jim Harbaugh is not throwing in the towel just yet. Harbaugh told reporters this week that he was planning to start the veteran John O’Korn on Saturday against Rutgers, despite many fans clamoring for a chance to see what redshirt freshman Brandon Peters can do. For some, this is a case of playing the best player - at least, the best player according to the coaches - and for others, this is a missed opportunity to roll the dice on a young talent who, it’s been argued, can’t be any worse than John O’Korn’s limited production.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Penn State
John O’Korn will be saying farewell after this season.
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

This creates an interesting conundrum for Michigan fans: what should we expect from the rest of 2017? If the season is indeed a rebuilding year, what makes it a successful rebuild? Giving some game-time reps to Brandon Peters, rather than to a fifth-year senior, at least gives the sense that the team is tangibly building toward something.

Plus, it’s hard to argue with that direction when looking at O’Korn’s resume this season. O’Korn is 1-2 as a starter with victories against Indiana and Purdue (that one coming in relief) and losses to Michigan State and Penn State. O’Korn has thrown one touchdown pass in 110 throws, he has four interceptions, two fumbles, and 15 sacks, and when adjusting for sacks is only throwing for 5.0 yards per attempt. Over his four starts at Michigan - taking away Purdue and including Indiana last year - he has yet to throw for or run for a touchdown. Michigan has averaged 15.8 points in regulation in those games.

In almost four times as many starts, Wilton Speight only failed to reach 15.8 points twice: a 14-7 victory against Wisconsin and a 13-14 loss to Iowa, both last year. For all the cries to bench Speight earlier in the campaign, it has become abundantly clear that his grip on the offense and ability to read defenses put him above the rest of the quarterbacks on the roster.

While O’Korn was certainly not the only reason the Wolverines fell in Happy Valley, it has become abundantly clear that he is not the longterm answer. Interestingly, one could argue that his start against the Nittany Lions was the best of his four starts in a Michigan uniform, with only the Purdue game being a better performance. But that still resulted in just 16/28 for 166 yards and no touchdowns. Therein lies the problem. If O’Korn is at or close to his ceiling - and he is a redshirt senior by now - he is more of a liability than any other part of the team. It’s understandable to want the coaches to fiddle with that, and putting in Peters would be a dramatic shake-up.

It is clear that the coaching staff does not have the faith to open things up with O’Korn at the helm, and it doesn’t matter how many different variations of a two tight end I-formation you have in your play book - when first and second down are dives to the 1-gap, the defense isn’t going to be fooled. The question now is, would Peters at this point in time be any better?

NCAA Football: Hawaii at Michigan
Brandon Peters playing catch with Harbaugh.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Peters is certainly a tantalizing and dynamic young quarterback. He was the star of the 2017 spring game, going 9/17 for 160 yards, a score, and an interception. He also ran one in. While admittedly not playing against the full set of Michigan starters, the kid’s arm talent stood out, and he showed mobility and a high ceiling. I went back and re-watched the tape and found a handful of notable aspects to his game.

  1. Aggression: Peters takes chances down the field often, and clearly has a ton of confidence in his arm strength. On his touchdown strike (0:20), he zipped in a perfect ball to Zach Genrtry down the seam to take advantage of a coverage bust. That aggression can also get him into trouble as it does at the 2:55 mark where Josh Metellus drops a sure interception on a ball Peters had no business throwing.
  2. Arm Talent: Seriously, this is bananas. At 2:01, he makes a throw that I had to watch multiple times to really appreciate. At first it looked like a balloon ball that allowed the corner to catch up to a receiver that had him beat. Look closer! There’s a safety shading over the top and Peters puts this ball perfectly on the outside shoulder of the receiver where only he can get it. He drops it, but goodness what a toss. That’s an NFL throw. At 7:14, he does it again, this time on a bit flatter of an arc and the receiver hauls it in.
  3. Not many complex reads: I want to hedge some enthusiasm here with this. On almost every throw in spring game, Peters is faced with a vanilla defense, and he doesn’t come off of his first or second receiver. Watching John O’Korn this year, his biggest struggles have come with reading defenses and keeping his eyes downfield against a rush. There’s not a lot in this limited footage that shows Peters would improve those areas.

The Michigan fan base has been hurt, I think, by a lack of information from the coaches about what they see in Peters and why the coaches put the depth chart the way it is.

Still, it is certainly possible that the same problems we see with O’Korn would also exist with Peters: getting stuck on one or two reads, having to scramble early and often, and throwing more interceptions than touchdowns. The only question then is a matter of degree, but again, this is all speculation because the coaches haven’t opened up about what they see in practice. So Peters remains the ultimate wild card, and as I’ve said before, it’s understandable to want to use it when looking at the most under-performing position on Michigan’s roster.

And then, of course, there remains Wilton Speight, who could theoretically (somehow?) be available this year and is also available for 2018. Coming into 2017, I was firmly on Team Speight because of a few factors - first being his own under-appreciated talent, and second being John O’Korn’s start against Indiana in 2016 and how his Houston career ended.

For all the cries to bench Speight earlier in the campaign, it has become abundantly clear that his grip on the offense and ability to read defenses put him above the rest of the quarterbacks on the roster. As one of Speight’s most adamant supporters over the last year, I would even argue that his ability to read defenses from pro-style sets is unmatched by almost anyone currently at the collegiate level. Truly, he’s incredibly gifted at it.

So while fans understandably want some fresh blood, they are also potentially looking at two more months - or a whole nother year - of familiar faces. Personally, I’m at the point where I want to see if Peters can spark this offense in 2017, and then go into the off-season with some clarity about the team going forward. I think a lot of fans want that; O’Korn supporters are probably just trusting Jim Harbaugh’s process. Still, a word of caution - Peters has yet to show the ability to make complex reads or perform against a blitzing, stunting defense. There’s no guarantee he’d be able to produce 16/28 for 166 yards against a Penn State defense, for example, so he could, in fact, be a step back.

Add this all up, and you have a mess - a position that has failed to consistently succeed under Harbaugh and has gotten worse since Pep Hamilton came to town. Now the staff is adjusting on the fly, and we’ll see if that means an appearance for Brandon Peters in the midst of a simpler offense and more emphasis on the running game. Until then, we can just hope that someone, anyone, salvages Michigan’s quarterback situation.

Mr. Peters, come on down?