In part one of this series, I wrote about the starting quarterbacks under Jim Harbaugh beginning with his tenure at Division II San Diego through his final year at San Francisco. It was a run of quarterback tutelage that rivals the box office dominance of a mid-90’s Tom Hanks in its success and renown.
In this submission I will look at Harbaugh’s early Michigan years and the quarterbacks who led his attack.
When Harbaugh took over the Michigan program in 2015, they were coming out of the Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner era. Both had wildly entertaining highlight reels and statistical performances that will be remembered, but unfortunately were not the orchestrators of high level winning. Elevating the play of the quarterback (along with a complete rebuild of the offensive line and running back room) needed to happen in order to get Michigan back to the level of competition it is expected to be.
Establishing an identity and some type of competence for a position that had been shaky over the previous years and was losing its top contributor in Devin Gardner was perhaps the largest task looming for Jim Harbaugh when he took over for the 5-7 Wolverines.
For a quarterback room that lacked structure and identity, there was no better possible addition than Jake “Dad” Rudock, the Iowa grad-transfer with a penchant for New Balance shoes and the calm demeanor of a circuit court judge.
Rudock had two productive years at Iowa under Kirk Ferentz, where he put up the kind of numbers you might expect from a quarterback playing for the University of Iowa.
2013 Record: 8-5
59% completion - 2383 yards - 18 TD - 13 INT
2014 Record: 7-6
61.7% completion - 2,436 yards - 16 TD - 5 INT
Even though Rudock improved substantially from his junior to senior year, Iowa decided to go with noted “not-game-changing” quarterback CJ Beathard in 2015, allowing the newly hired Harbaugh to swoop in and sign the grad transfer.
Rudock made his debut on the road against a stout Kyle Whittingham coached Utah team. In a game where Michigan could get absolutely nothing going on the ground, he had a predictably shaky start going 27-of-43 for 279 yards with 2 touchdowns and three interceptions. Things would start to turn around almost immediately after that contest, and Rudock began developing chemistry with wide receivers Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh as well as all-world tight end Jake Butt.
In a performance that feels like a fever dream upon review, he threw for 440 yards and six touchdowns against Indiana. He performed well in a loss to rival Michigan State that was a successful punt away from being a win; a game we do not discuss in Ann Arbor or anywhere. Against Minnesota, he took a particularly nasty hit that knocked him out of the game, but came back the following week and began hunting defenses for sport. In the final five games, Rudock connected on 115-of-172 throws (66.9 percent) for 1,574 yards (9.2 YPA), 14 touchdowns to only two interceptions.
He was surgical in the Citrus Bowl win over Florida, throwing for 278 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions against the seventh-ranked pass defense. The strong finish was enough to see Rudock drafted in the sixth round by the Detroit Lions — an outcome that seemed ludicrous just a year prior.
64% completion- 3,017 yards- 20 TD - 9 INT- 141.5 Rating- 4 Rush TD
Every team should have a Jake Rudock. It would be difficult to come up with a more idyllic quarterback to bridge the gap between Michigan’s quarterback aptitude pre-Harbaugh and his desired end state. The first thing that needed to happen was getting an adult in the room that could keep the offense on schedule, move the ball down the field and limit costly turnovers. Rudock could do all that, but was also much more than just a game manager.
The son of a baseball coach, Rudock was a multi-sport athlete in high school much like many other Harbaugh disciples. He had the right height to play the position at 6-foot-3, but lacked the physical frame of a young Harbaugh or even a Shea Patterson. What stands out about Rudock was a lot of stuff that was happening between the ears. He was the first quarterback in years to be able to make it to his second or third read and could do things like look off a safety or bait a defender into moving one way or another.
The throwing motion was..odd. His arm seemed to pivot like a lever rather than the fluid motion you see on picture-perfect passers like Justin Herbert or Matthew Stafford. It was almost as though he was mustering every last ounce of his strength with each pass in order to get the bare minimum velocity needed to complete the pass safely. When throwing across the middle and within 10-20 yards, there was enough steam on the ball to find tighter windows, but the deep ball did not carry, so you would get nervous about safeties coming over to feast.
The numbers ticked up for Rudock under Harbaugh, but it also feels like some meat was left on the bone with the time it took to get him comfortable with his receivers and within the offense.
Harbaugh gets high marks both for identifying Rudock as a guy who could help Michigan immediately, and also for winning double-digit games while establishing an offense essentially from scratch. All of Rudock’s statistics improved under Harbaugh and highly underrated quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch. This is a feather in the cap for the Harbaugh quarterback development resume, without a doubt.
Athleticism: 6 Decision Making/Football IQ: 9 Arm Talent: 6 Leadership: 9 Improvisation: 7 Hit Quality: Barbenheimer, (2023). -Competence from competent people when both Hollywood and Michigan most needed it, Jake Rudock under the tutelage of Jim Harbaugh taking over taking control of the quarterback situation at that time can only be compared to the type of shot-in-the-arm that is coming from Great Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer this summer.
Perhaps the biggest outlier in the history of Harbaugh starting quarterbacks, Speight would have fit right in on any Big Ten roster from 1969-1991, but represents a style of football that no longer dominates the sport at the highest levels. The former three-star Virginia prospect committed to play for Brady Hoke in 2014, but stuck around through the coaching change to try his hand in Harbaugh’s offense.
We first saw Speight in action in 2015 filling in for an injured Rudock against Minnesota, where he was asked to come in and lead a comeback against a feisty Minnesota team on the road at night. In that moment, he probably grabbed the early lead for the 2016 competition, going 3-for-6 for 29 yards and throwing the critical touchdown pass to Chesson for the go-ahead score, following it up with a clever two-point conversion to Amara Darboh moments later. Michigan held on by the skin of its teeth to win, 29-26, and improved to 6-2.
There was a god-honest quarterback competition in 2016 with Speight going up against John O’ Korn, Shane Morris, and Alex Malzone. If that list of names does not inspire you to great deeds, you are not alone. That competition was so tight, nobody on the planet knew who would be starting for Michigan when it trotted out against overmatched Hawaii on Sept. 3.
Speight was not asked to do much coming out of the gate, as Michigan preferred sticking to its winning formula of running the ball, and playing sound defense and special teams. In early tests against Colorado, Penn State and Wisconsin, Speight averaged 212 yards per game while throwing three touchdowns and one interception. It was the definition of “good enough” to get it done most of the time, but was rarely inspiring.
His best statistical performance was the last game Michigan would win of the 2016 season, against Maryland, where he threw for 362 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
In one of the more infuriating games in recent memory, Speight broke his collarbone the following week in a one-point loss to Iowa at Kinnick, essentially dooming Michigan’s playoff chances.
Speight entered 2017 as the presumed starter with much more fanfare and optimism attached to his candidacy. After a typical Speight type of start statistically, including a win over Florida, he suffered three fractured vertebrae against Purdue and missed the remainder of the season, ceding way to Brandon Peters and O’Korn. Speight transferred to UCLA in 2018 with the arrival of Shea Patterson.
While never truly a Harbaugh guy, Speight was a very useful player to have on the roster at the time. Without him, we are starting O’Korn in 2016, and I don’t think that anyone would have enjoyed that particular product.
2016 Record: 10-3
61.6% completion- 2,538 yards- 18 TD- 7 INT- 139.8 rating
2017 Record: 3-0
54.3% completion- 581 yards- 3 TD- 2 INT- 121.9 rating
His name sounds like a brand of luxury boat shoes, he looked like a corporate accountant and had the mobility of the statue of David, but Speight was solid enough when on the field.
Easily the most interesting thing about watching Speight tape back was this half-cooked idea of him being a Ben Roethlisberger type presence in the pocket that could add extra half-seconds or even seconds onto the play by simply standing erect while smaller defenders clung to his torso like Bran clinging to the back of a reluctant Hodor. At 6-foot-6, 240, Speight was by far the biggest quarterback to start for Harbaugh, and he was able to use that size effectively, even if the Roethlisberger stuff was never on this plane of reality.
All these guys can throw, but there is nothing about Speight’s ball to suggest he ever had NFL arm talent. While he did an okay job of keeping the ball out of danger (nine total interceptions), you did not trust him putting the ball into tight windows or even airing it deep downfield. If Michigan had to throw the ball 40-plus times to win every game, that interception number would have likely been much, much higher.
Intelligent, tough, strong, and affable — Speight had a lot of qualities you like in a quarterback, but none of those qualities served him nearly as well as just being a huge dude that was hard to take to the ground. While not recruited by Harbaugh, his run as the starting quarterback for Michigan is more of an indictment of Harbaugh’s misevaluation of O’Korn and lack of a true quarterback recruit in the 2015 class to fall back on.
I think Harbaugh did a great job of putting the safest option for the team on the field in a year where there were expectations to win, but Speight is very clearly not what Habraugh has in mind for his ideal starting quarterback. This was the same coach that benched Alex Smith in favor of Colin Kaepernick — and Alex Smith would stuff Wilton Speight into a locker in a three-cone drill.
Athleticism: 6 Decision Making/Football IQ: 6 Arm Talent: 6 Leadership: 7 Improvisation: 7 Hit Quality: Iron Man 2 (2010). $312 million box office. - A lot of people saw it and it certainly plays into a very interesting narrative that comes later, but how good was it really and how often are we talking about it?
Not since Michael Bay tried to turn the story of the attack on Pearl Harbor into a love triangle has there been a bigger miss than the O’Korn transfer. A player who fit like a glove on the amputated hand of Buster Bluth, O’Korn should never have been put in a position to where he would need to be talked about on this list but was in fact a starting quarterback for Michigan in the modern era.
O’Korn transferred from Houston in 2015, where he threw for 3,117 yards, 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in his lone season as a starter. It certainly appeared the succession plan involved two years of back-to-back transfer quarterbacks to allow Harbaugh time to recruit and develop his guy that would take the reins as this the program picked up steam.
He came in for an injured Speight against Purdue and saved his best performance for first, completing 69 percent of his passes for a touchdown and an interception. The next week he threw an inexplicable 35 pass attempts in a monsoon against Michigan State, which predictably led to three interceptions, no touchdowns and a loss.
O’Korn was replaced by Brandon Peters after throwing an egregious interception against Rutgers, and would only play again out of dire necessity when injuries forced him into spot duty the rest of his career.
53.5% completion- 973 yards- 2 TD- 6 INT- -54 rush yards
What makes this miss so pronounced was O’Korn was clearly thought of as a viable starting option or perhaps the preferred starting option for 2016. You can only learn so much from tape and word of mouth, though, and with the eligibility rules as they were in in 2015, both Michigan and O’Korn had to wait around for an extra year to see if they were even a match.
There is no getting around the fact O’Korn was woefully overmatched against even middle-of-the-road Big Ten defenses, and lacked any trait you could point to as elite or exciting.
Athleticism: 5 Decision Making/Football IQ: 4 Arm Talent: 5 Leadership: 3 Improvisation: 4 Hit Quality: The Flash (2023). $268 million box office. -A lot was expected of both the player and the movie but nobody really knows why those expectations existed, and shaky decision making from the central character of each situation is likely a contributing factor to their failures.
As the first real quarterback recruit for Harbaugh at Michigan, no single quarterback held the hopes and dreams of Michigan fans more than Brandon Peters. The 6-foot-4, 185-pounder from Illinois was a consensus four-star recruit in the 2016 class, but was beat out by Wilton Speight and John O’Korn his freshman season, to the dismay of much of the fanbase.
Peters replaced an ineffective O’ Korn against Rutgers in 2017 and rattled off three-straight wins before getting knocked out of the game in a loss to Wisconsin, and for a brief moment, the Peters future was laid out plainly in front of us all. Injuries and the transfer of Shea Patterson impeded his ascent, but there was a lot to like about Peters’ game.
Had he stayed healthy for the rest of the 2017 season, we could be living in a dramatically different world than we are today, as he showed in a spirited 2019 campaign at Illinois. Peters was very clearly the best quarterback option in a disjointed, mismanaged and frankly bizarre 2017 season, but his inability to develop into a long-term starter went beyond just injuries.
It feels disingenuous to say Harbaugh and his staff missed on Peters; this one only looks like a miss when you compound it with some later whiffs on the recruiting trail around this time.
52.8% completion - 672 yards - 4 TD- 2 INT - 113.6 rating
2019 (Illinois) Record: 6-7
55.3% completion - 1,884 yards - 18 TD - 8 INT - 128.6 rating
His size works at any level, and his athleticism was more than good enough to work in the Big Ten. Peters was a really tough player that showed patience in letting routes develop, and could put the ball into a general “spot”, but putting it into a tight window was dicey.
He really had that extra gear to be a game changer, but clearly showed enough to be considered a Big Ten caliber starting quarterback and was probably the best option on the roster in 2017 before getting injured.
The Harbaugh grade is mostly incomplete here, but it does not feel like an outright miss.
Athleticism: 6 Decision Making/Football IQ: 6 Arm Talent: 6 Leadership: 7 Improvisation: 7 Hit Quality: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010). $49.3 million box office. -Did not really do much when it first came out, but got its legs on DVD (Illinois).
Stay tuned for the third and final article in this series where I cover the final four quarterbacks of the Harbaugh era.