We made it through all the other teams. The focus now turns to THE TEAM.
For the next 14 days before game week, join us as we preview each positional group for Michigan in 2018. First, all eyes are on Jim Harbaugh’s pride and joy: the quarterbacks.
After working with misfit or unready toys his first three seasons, Harbaugh inherits his most heralded signal-caller since Andrew Luck at Stanford.
Starter: Shea Patterson, JR
You know the story. Former 5-star quarterback Shea Patterson transferred from Ole Miss amidst NCAA scandal to Michigan, where he can play right away.
Patterson is the highest-rated quarterback recruit ever under Harbaugh, as 247 evaluated him as the No. 4 overall prospect in 2016. The next closest is Luck, a high 4-star out of Houston that brought the early Harbaugh offenses from merely top 50 to nearly the best in the nation per S&P.
Point being, there’s a reason anonymous coaches find the Patterson-Harbaugh combination “scary.” This offense can go from zero to 100 with an elite player at the helm.
Patterson’s stats at Ole Miss indicate a high-risk, high-reward approach. In 10 games over two injury shortened seasons, he racked up 3,139 passing yards and 23 touchdowns. On the flip side, he threw 12 picks and fumbled the ball eight times in the same timespan.
Many point to awful outings against Alabama and LSU as additional moments for pause, though equally awful pass protection likely made those games untenable.
His best two-game stretch came against two top 20 S&P pass defenses in Auburn and Vanderbilt. He threw for 697 yards and six touchdowns combined against the Tigers and Commodores — and no interceptions.
Against Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason — a former Harbaugh assistant — and his defense, he bought time with his legs, always keeping his head downfield and slinging to receivers in tight windows, like at 1:12.
I love the pocket awareness at 4:50. He makes a subtle shift in the pocket to avoid a free rusher, loads up and completes an out pass for a first down. That play is a beautiful combination of presence, poise, agility and arm strength.
While some consider him a dual-threat, he gained negative yards last year — probably due to one of the higher sack rates in the nation in 2017. However, the read-option touchdown at 6:24 exhibits tantalizing running ability, especially how he plows through the defender at the end.
Lastly for the positives, he loves throwing the deep ball. Almost all of his attempts seen in the Vandy film are pretty damn close to on the money, and never under thrown.
On the negative side, it’s possible he’ll need to adjust to Harbaugh’s scheme a la Jake Rudock in 2015. Rudock only started to blossom after the Minnesota game, and if Patterson takes that long, this season will be an uphill slog.
To quote an earlier column on the potential growing pains:
“The schematic transition from the Ole Miss offense to the Michigan one is a vast change in responsibility. Patterson operated in a spread offense that only required one or two reads per play, lest he get sacked immediately.”
As noted then, in 51 throws against Auburn’s top-ranked pass defense, Patterson progressed through more than two reads only four times. Meanwhile, I counted eight times Jake Rudock had to do this on 38 throws against Penn State in 2015.
The biggest difference is Patterson arrived several months ago and went through spring practices. Rudock, on the other hand, arrived in August 2015 for a crash course in the Harbaugh submarine.
Coaches like Jay Harbaugh said that, “He’s improved his command of things, his understanding of where different outlets are for the ball. Formations, run game, all that stuff.”
The extra time may also give the staff more time to tailor, as our own Trevor Woods pointed out, a scheme to his abilities that resembles the Colin Kaepernick 49ers.
He’s the starter, no doubt, but how fast can he grow?
Brandon Peters, RS SO
Chase Winovich hinted at Big Ten Media Days that Peters is the No. 2 man. The former 4-star out of Avon, Indiana started four games in 2017, sporting a 2-2 record.
The 6-foot-5, now 230-pounder completed barely half his throws for 672 yards, four touchdowns and two picks.
Harbaugh and Pep Hamilton brought him along slowly, dialing up only 27 attempts in the two blowouts against Rutgers and Minnesota. In the latter game, he only threw four passes in the second half, allowing Karan Higdon and Chris Evans to take the wheel towards 371 rushing yards.
He started commanding the offense more on the road against Maryland, as shown by this touchdown toss to Zach Gentry.
He uses a motion by Sean McKeon out wide to draw the defense to the perimeter, and finds Gentry over the middle for an easy score.
He probably did about as well as reasonably expected against Wisconsin, going 9-of-18 for 157 yards against the stingy Badgers. He traded impressive deep throws to Donovan Peoples-Jones and Khalid Hill with missed opportunities to Zach Gentry. After getting knocked out, he returned for the bowl game — where he regressed with two picks against South Carolina.
He added 10 pounds to his frame to weather any potential beatings should he see the field, and his relative growth before the injury shows young quarterback slowly assembling a solid skill set.
Dylan McCaffrey, RS FR
Some close to the program told us that McCaffrey has “it.” What is “it?”
Maybe it’s the genes. He is the son of former NFL wide receiver Ed McCaffrey and former Stanford soccer star Lisa. Also, his brother Christian should have won the Heisman.
All we know about him in live action is from the 2017 Spring Game. He looked smooth, and already advanced in his ability to read defenses. These abilities likely caused him to win the team’s Offensive Scout Player of the Year. Just cross your fingers this doesn’t portend another John O’Korn.
The only other thing to glean is his work ethic, as shown by packing on 17 pounds of (hopefully) muscle this offseason. At 6-foot-5, 217 pounds, he may need one more season as an understudy before exploding in his redshirt sophomore year.
Joe Milton, FR
SB Nation posted this video of Milton showing off his massive arm.
The job going forward is harnessing that strength into accuracy, as he never completed over 50 percent of his passes in any high school season.
Insiders have assured it’s a matter of time before this “next level” prospect puts all the tools together.
The 6-foot-5 freshman entered spring camp at 222 pounds, and now clears 230. There’s some faint hints of him seeing the field in certain packages, especially with the new redshirt rule.
The battle between McCaffrey and Milton will be a fascinating one in future seasons. The former is the polished recruit from an acclaimed family, while Milton is trading the muck of the Orlando swamps for a chance at greatness in Ann Arbor. Reports say both exhibit the necessary intangibles off the field to maximize their development.
Any regression from Peters could result in a tumble down the depth chart.
If Patterson performs well enough to go pro — either in football or baseball — next year’s quarterback battle lines up as fascinating, as former blue-chips will be in a fistfight for the starting role.
On the outset, the position has relative stability. However, it seemed that way in 2017 with returning redshirt-junior Wilton Speight and a supposedly capable backup in John O’Korn. Injuries and incompetence demolished that myth quickly.
At the very least, a scintillating play-maker will take the first snaps against Notre Dame, and should an emergency occur the backups seem to have the right mindset to keep the offense afloat.