Perhaps the biggest storyline heading into Jim Harbaugh's first season as Michigan's head football coach has to do with finding the right guy to man the position that he was once famous for playing in Ann Arbor -- the starting quarterback.
A lot of things have to go right for the Wolverines in year one of the Harbaugh era to make a huge splash, but finding their signal-caller might be the biggest priority of them all.
If it is a quarterback that Michigan is looking to groom, they absolutely have the pieces in place to get it done, both on the roster and on the coaching staff.
Michigan's biggest issue at this position is not talent. The three players that will be fighting it out -- junior Shane Morris, redshirt freshman Wilton Speight and true freshman Alex Malzone -- all have skill sets that could allow them to be successful if they can develop.
(For a closer breakdown of what each quarterback brings to the table, check out Drew Hallett's piece from yesterday.)
The biggest issue here is inexperience.
In terms of the "veteran" in the mix for the job, Morris is that player. This is the start of his third season with the program and he is all that Michigan has in terms of a quarterback that has actually seen live game action.
We are all aware of the hype surrounding Morris heading into his Michigan career, but it just has not materialized on the field yet. He has spent the last two seasons backing up Devin Gardner and has never really looked ready when he has had a shot at playing time. He has a fantastic arm, but decision making and lack of touch on his passes have really held him back.
Can Harbaugh and staff get Morris to put it all together to back up the hype that surrounded him in high school? It's possible, but we will just have to wait and see.
After Morris, which already is a steep drop off in experience from Gardner, comes an even steeper drop in Wilton Speight and Alex Malzone.
Speight is a prospect I have always liked quite a bit. He is entering his redshirt freshman season with the Wolverines. He is a bigger quarterback (6-6, 235 lbs) that moves well in the pocket and has the look of a guy that could flourish in the Harbaugh system.
He does not have the strongest arm, but word out of Ann Arbor is that he has increased his arm strength and tightened up his mechanics a bit, which should only continue to improve as spring camp goes on. Harbaugh traditionally has liked to use quarterbacks who take what the defense gives them and have the ability to move around in the pocket. Speight, and really all of the quarterbacks in the mix, have the ability to do this.
Malzone, a 2015 recruit who enrolled early in January, is the dark horse in this race.
He is a natural leader who throws an accurate ball, but most importantly, he flat out wins. He won three straight state championships at Birmingham Brother Rice HS and took the Warriors on another deep playoff run in his senior season, where he won Mr. Football for the state of Michigan.
Malzone doesn't have elite arm strength, but he does have a quick release and makes sound decisions under pressure. It will be a definite adjustment to the speed of the game from high school to college, but spring football will be extremely beneficial to his development. He worked his tail off for the scholarship offer from the University of Michigan and that work showed up in his senior film. While not the flashiest of quarterbacks, he continues to get better and should keep doing so under Harbaugh.
So who's the guy?
Generally speaking, many would throw the more experienced player to the top of the depth chart initially during a position battle, but this is a unique circumstance with Michigan where it is a clean slate for absolutely everybody. Class standing, playing experience and talent will all be thrown out the window. Harbaugh has created an atmosphere of competition, which should bring out the best in the players he has. All positions are up for grabs by all players.
Is a Morris rebound out of the question? Absolutely not. But the lefty needs to show that he can do more than put a considerable amount of heat on his passes. In 87 career pass attempts, he has thrown five interceptions and no touchdowns.
This looks like a position battle that will ultimately come down to Speight and Malzone, with the former getting the starting nod in the opener against Utah. Neither guy throws fastballs like Morris does, but both are capable of letting the game slow down and taking what defenses give them. Having had a year to adjust to the college game will eventually be what separates Speight, in my opinion.
We'll see what happens throughout the spring, but each player in the mix has a set of pros and cons in terms of their experience and what they bring to the table. It's possible that true freshman Zach Gentry shows up for fall camp and adds another dimension to this position battle, but the next month or so will go a long way in determining who ultimately will be taking snaps at quarterback in the season opener at Utah.