Michigan Football fans knew that when Jim Harbaugh was hired to take over the program that quarterback play was going to take a massive step forward from where it was during the previous two coaching staffs.
Through seasons, it has produced mixed results.
Harbaugh has not found his “Andrew Luck” quite yet, which has created the popular bit that goes as follows:
“How in year three Michigan does not have a quarterback is beyond me! #Overrated”
In a lot of ways, that is not exactly a fair assessment and it is time for that to be spelled out for a number of people.
But to tell this story, we have to go back and build a timeline to start this argument from.
Harbaugh is hired (December 2014)
Harbaugh became the head coach at the University of Michigan after a long process that has been covered pretty extensively. We know what had to happen for that to play out.
The day he signed a contract to become this team’s head coach, he had the following players at quarterback on the roster:
Shane Morris, Wilton Speight, Brian Cleary, Matt Thompson, Garrett Moores
Morris and Speight were Brady Hoke recruits in the classes of 2013 and 2014, respectively, while the other three were walk-ons. Only Morris had started and gotten any game action.
Harbaugh was hired and then had to put his staff together during a dead period with no-contact with recruits. In an effort to salvage Hoke’s crumbling final recruiting cycle, the team sprinted to the finish line before National Signing Day 2015 to put some semblance of a class together.
The Hoke/Harbaugh 2015 class included two quarterbacks. The first was four-star prospect Alex Malzone, who committed to the program in April 2015 under Hoke and Doug Nussmeier. He was the 14th-ranked pro-style QB in that cycle.
Harbaugh and his newly-hired staff honored that commitment, as they did with the other remaining players who stuck around during the transition.
When the dead period ended and the sprint to NSD was on, Michigan was able to secure the services of four-star QB Zach Gentry and flip him from his commitment to Texas. The 6-foot-7 prospect was the eighth-ranked pro-style passer.
Harbaugh, ever the believer in perpetual competition at quarterback, addressed the need for a veteran presence in that position group when he brought in a pair of transfers to add to the mix.
One was fifth-year senior Jake Rudock, who was benched for C.J. Beathard at Iowa and cast out. The other was John O’Korn, who transferred from Houston after a sophomore season where he too was benched by his team.
O’Korn had thrown for 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions during his freshman year, so this was a reclamation project Michigan saw fit to take on.
The 2015 Season
The first competition at quarterback for the Wolverines under Harbaugh was a camp battle between Morris and Rudock, who was eligible to play right away. It never seemed like it was much of a battle, and the veteran won the job and started every game for the Wolverines during the 2015 season.
Harbaugh’s work with Rudock was one of the great stories of that year and one of the best coaching jobs he has ever done. He started slow and was limited, but clicked as the year went on.
In one season, he went from being benched at Iowa, to winning a job at Michigan in fall camp, and then was a sixth-round NFL Draft pick. All while leading the Wolverines to a 10-3 record in a season where pundits had them barely competing for a bowl game.
Rudock would finish the season with 3017 yards (2nd in school history in a single season), 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions while completing 64 percent of his passes, which is tops in program history.
In year one under Harbaugh, Michigan had a quarterback.
The 2016 Season
Michigan had a ton of momentum going into the 2016 season returning most of their roster from the 10-win campaign just a season before, except for one problem.
They did not have an established quarterback again to lead them.
This set up to be what would become the first true quarterback competition in Ann Arbor under Harbaugh between Speight, a finally-eligible O’Korn and Morris on the outside looking in.
Harbaugh also signed his first true quarterback completely recruited by him in the form of Brandon Peters. He was a four-star prospect and the sixth-ranked pro-style passer in the 2016 class.
Harbaugh himself saw similarities in his game to Andrew Luck, which created hype around Peters as a prospect as someone to build around for the future.
Speight won the starting job with O’Korn as his backup and Morris as the No. 3 and Malzone filling out the bottom. Peters redshirted and was the “break in case of emergency” quarterback.
Michigan rolled through the first nine weeks of the season and inserted itself firmly into the College Football Playoff picture and Big Ten title hunt. Speight’s play and development was a huge part of that.
His very first pass attempt as a starter went for an interception, but he continued to grow with the offense as Michigan found a solid signal-caller, even if he was not quite at the level of Rudock the year before.
Note: What a weird sentence that is to type out.
Speight, however, went south as the team did at the tail end of 2016. He played the worst game of his career in a loss at Iowa and was injured in the process.
The next week, O’Korn would get the start against Indiana and his play in that game was perhaps a sign of things to come for the Wolverines. After two seasons of practice hype, he finally received his shot in extended duty and went 7-for-16 with 59 yards in a 21-10 victory. Speight would return for the game at Ohio State the following week.
Michigan’s struggles at the end of the season were largely due to the offensive line getting punched in the mouth, but Speight was not blameless in it. He made some horrible mistakes in the game against Ohio State and the team could not get a first down in the fourth quarter to ice what should have been a Wolverine victory.
Social media’s thoughts on Speight took a turn for the worst during the bowl game against Florida State, but the last time he had the ball in his hands late in the game, he led the Wolverines on a scoring drive to give them the lead.
Speight would finish the season 2538 yards passing with 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions and completed nearly 62 percent of his passes.
In year two, Michigan had a quarterback.
The 2017 Season
And now we are at the year freshest in the minds of Michigan fans.
The Wolverines lost a ton of talent to the NFL on both sides of the football and came into the year as one of the youngest teams in the nation, but not at quarterback.
Speight entered the year as the starter, though his grip on the job was not quite as tight after the way the 2016 season ended. There will always be perpetual competition in Ann Arbor, but camp this year saw Speight and O’Korn battling it out again with Peters now inserting himself into the conversation.
Michigan signed Dylan McCaffrey as their quarterback in the 2017 class. He was a four-star prospect and the fifth-ranked pro-style passer in the nation. But, as has been the case the last few years, the plan was always for him to take a redshirt year as he got stronger and adjusted to the game.
Speight won the job out of camp and started the game at Florida, where he had two costly interceptions returned for touchdowns as calls for his benching reached a fever-pitch in Ann Arbor.
The entire offense struggled for most of the early part of the season with fans crying for a look at Peters, who performed well in the spring game earlier in the year. But, for reasons unknown still to this point, O’Korn was the first quarterback off the bench when Speight went down against Purdue.
O’Korn’s performance in the Purdue game was the highlight of his Michigan career, completing 18-of-26 passes for 270 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
After everything that transpired in the first five weeks of the season with youth, injuries, etc., it appeared as if Michigan found its quarterback for 2017.
Then the Michigan State game happened.
O’Korn threw three baffling interceptions as the Wolverines made the curious decision to air it out in a monsoon and lost 14-10 coming out of a bye week. They had two weeks to prepare and the wheels fell off.
He would follow up that performance with a 10-for-20 for 58 yards showing in an overtime win at Indiana.
It was pretty clear from there that Peters needed to be given a shot.
The straw that broke the camel’s back came against a terrible Rutgers team where he was not able to move the ball and prevent turnovers. It was Peters’ time and it should have been much earlier in the season.
If he did not win the job out of camp, that is understandable. But that he was not the No. 2 QB behind Speight ready if he went down is what appears to be the first major blunder this staff has made. They may even admit that themselves.
Peters played well in wins over Rutgers, Minnesota and Maryland, but the wins were just that. Victories over teams that Michigan should have beaten and beaten handily. Still, he flashed enough promise in those games to feel good about his future and for the first time in awhile, Michigan fans were excited about the prospect of ending the year against Wisconsin and Ohio State.
Michigan was the better team for much of the contest in Madison until Peters went down. That is not to say they would have won the game, but he gave them the best chance to win.
The head injury that he suffered would keep him out against Ohio State, and everyone knows the rest of the story from there.
O’Korn would again be turned to for the job, and is probably the single-biggest reason they lost the game. He’s a great kid and a good teammate, but the box score and the film tells the story of what he is on the field.
In year three, Michigan dealt with some issues throughout the year at quarterback. Once they found one, they lost him, and their hands were forced to go back to O’Korn.
It is not the staff’s fault that Peters got hurt, but they can be blamed for not having him ready to play sooner. That is completely fair, and has created plenty of “what if’s” about what this season could have been.
They deserve some blame for that.
There are fans on Twitter who are arguing that they should have replaced him with Malzone or burn the redshirt for McCaffrey, but it was never going to happen. There has never been a single whisper that Malzone has ever been in the mix for significant snaps at quarterback.
Truthfully, at full-strength, he’s probably No. 5 on the hypothetical depth chart. McCaffrey isn’t a Josh Rosen-type that was going to be ready to go from year one. It takes time for most guys.
What’s Coming Next
Speight is eligible to return in 2018, but there is no reason to believe that Peters will not be the guy next season. McCaffrey could be finally ready to go, and if that is the three-headed competition Michigan is looking at, they should be in decent shape at the position.
Joe Milton, a four-star with perhaps the most raw arm talent of any of these guys, will be heading to Ann Arbor in the 2018 class, but it is going to take time with him. His mechanics are a huge work in progress. Three-star Kevin Doyle will also be joining him.
Whoever emerges has almost the entire team back from this past season, so it will be interesting to see how they develop.
Harbaugh is always going to be looked at with a microscope for his history of developing quarterbacks, but the overall body of work remains strong despite some struggles at Michigan.
Rudock and the 2016 version of Speight developed nicely. Not getting Peters involved earlier feels like a missed opportunity and questions about what happened there are warranted.
Harbaugh hasn’t found his crown jewel yet, but we do not exactly know who it is, when it will happen and how good they will be.
When Ohio State goes out and gets the job done with backup quarterbacks, it is easy to get frustrated with Michigan’s lack of success there. But that is a program that has recruited well at that position for what seems like the last two decades and they have had the coaching staff to match that.
Like it or not, disagree with it or not, Michigan has not had that sort of stability. And once Harbaugh’s “guy” in Peters finally got a chance, it looked like they had something there. And he is the first one that was recruited to the program under him.
So to blame Harbaugh for the Malzones and the Morrises of the world not turning into anything, well, that is nitpicky as all hell, to be honest. Of the guys that have emerged, the Wolverines have done a solid job there.
Next season in a lot of ways will determine where this thing is headed moving forward.
There’s only ever been one Andrew Luck, so holding Harbaugh to that standard could be a bit unfair. But the quarterback play has to be good, and it has to be better than it was this season.
Everyone will just have to wait and see what happens next.