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The Harbaugh Effect: No Matter What, Quarterbacks Succeed

Jim Harbaugh has a history of developing talent and Wilton Speight is no different.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Michigan State Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

When Michigan lost in Iowa City late in the 2016 season, my friend looked looked at me and said, “Don’t worry man, your team will find a quarterback next year.”

My team already has a quarterback.

Wilton Speight finished the 2016 season ranked fifth in yards per game (211.5) in the Big 10 and was the third most efficient passer in the conference (139.8 rating, only .6 away from second). Speight completed 61.6% of his passes for 2,538 yards and threw 18 touchdowns to 7 interceptions in his first season as the starting quarterback for the Wolverines.

Those are above average numbers and although he struggled down the stretch, how much of the injury sustained against Iowa was to blame for this late-season regression?

As a head coach, Jim Harbaugh has had four collegiate quarterbacks (including Speight) return as the incumbent starter for the next season.

University of San Diego quarterback Josh Johnson completed 70.1% of his passes for 3,256 yards and threw 36 touchdowns to only 8 interceptions in the 2005 season. Following this 11-1 season, Johnson returned and although his completion percentage regressed (66.3%), his yards increased (3,320), and his touchdown/ interception ratio slightly improved (34/5).

The most staggering improvement for Johnson came on the ground. Johnson rushed for 828 yards in his second season, as opposed to only 379 in his first year as the starter. Once again the University of San Diego finished 11-1, but Harbaugh found a way to get the most out of his versatile quarterback.

In his first season at Stanford, Harbaugh was forced to switch quarterbacks after four games due to veteran starter T.C. Ostrander suffering a seizure. Inexperienced sophomore Tavita Pritchard took over the starting job and promptly upset USC despite being a 41 point underdog.

The Stanford Cardinal finished the 2007 season 4-8, which was a better than the disappointing 1-11 record the year before Harbaugh arrived. Pritchard completed 50.0% of his passes for 1,114 yards and threw 5 touchdowns to 9 interceptions. Below average numbers, but his competitiveness and potential were evident and Pritchard was named the starter for the next season.

2008 marked a small improvement from the previous year as the Cardinal went 5-7. The improvement was small for the team and Pritchard that season. Pritchard completed 57.9% of his passes for 1,633 yards, but still had a negative touchdowns to interceptions ratio of 10 to 13.

However, Stanford’s luck was about to change.

During the 2008 season, a four-star recruit (ranked as an 82 overall according to ESPN) had redshirted his freshman season to develop while preserving eligibility. As Pritchard failed to improve at an acceptable rate for collegiate success, Andrew Luck won the starting prior to the beginning of the 2009 season.

Stanford finished the season with a record of 8-5, largely due to Heisman Trophy runner-up Toby Gerhart rushing for 1,871 yards and scoring 28 touchdowns; however, Luck, although often overshadowed by his teammate’s success, completed 56.3% of his passes for 2,575 yards, and threw 13 touchdowns compared to only 4 interceptions in his first year as the starter.

Harbaugh had found his quarterback.

Stanford v USC Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The 2010 season for Stanford was the complete culmination of ‘The Harbaugh Effect’ (a season in which Michigan fans are hoping to quickly emulate in Ann Arbor). The Cardinal finished 12-1 and Andrew Luck completed 70.7% of his passes for 3,328 yards, and threw 32 touchdowns and only 8 interceptions. Luck finished second in the Heisman voting and rapidly became a “generational type talent” in the eyes of NFL scouts.

Although Luck would return for a spectacular senior year, Harbaugh followed his own calling to the San Francisco 49ers of the NFL (where it should be noted that he took arguably the most socially tone deaf person in the world to unprecedented success including a Super Bowl appearance. I digress).

Jim Harbaugh returned to Ann Arbor for the 2015 season in which he led Jake Ruddock and the Wolverines to a surprising 10-3 mark. Ruddock completed 64.0% of his passes for 3,017 yards with 20 touchdowns and 9 interceptions and quickly went from transfer student with M.D. aspirations, to Detroit Lions draftee.

During this season, a redshirt freshman quarterback, observed and waited for his opportunity to shine. Wilton Speight saw some action during the season especially some crucial moments in the nailbiter game against Minnesota. However, 2016 was going to be his year.

Speight, a former four-star recruit (ranked as an 82 overall according to ESPN, sound familiar?) won a closely contested quarterback battle over John O’Korn in the offseason and team was officially his.

The team finished a disappointing 10-3, losing 3 of their last 4 games including a loss to Ohio State (even though J.T. was shorter than Lou Bega’s relevance).

So, as questions begin to swirl surrounding the quarterback position, I implore us all to be patient and to look no further than Andrew Luck for a comparison of potential. I’m not saying “Speight is the next Andrew Luck,” but I am saying, substantial improvements are inevitably on the horizon.

Hawaii v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Do not let the Spring Game lead you to outrageous overreactions. Maybe Brandon Peters is the answer; maybe Dylan McCaffrey leads a complete youth revolution. Michigan is in good hands with any quarterback because of Harbaugh’s perceptive eye for greatness and Speight is historically poised for the next step.

In Harbaugh We Trust.


Which quarterback should start the 2017 season?

This poll is closed

  • 46%
    Wilton Speight
    (367 votes)
  • 1%
    Dylan McCaffrey
    (10 votes)
  • 18%
    Brandon Peters
    (148 votes)
  • 34%
    I don’t care, whoever Harbaugh decides
    (271 votes)
796 votes total Vote Now