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How will Michigan utilize Dylan McCaffrey going forward?

A veteran starter, a backup with the ‘it’ factor, and what’s to come at the quarterback position for Michigan

Dustin Johnston- Maize n Brew

The Michigan quarterback room might be the most competitive its been in quite some time. There’s an experienced senior in Shea Patterson, a not your normal kind of backup in Dylan McCaffrey, along with third and fourth options that have received plenty of praise in Joe Milton and Cade McNamara. All of them would like the ball, but only one gets to lead the offense at a time.

McCaffrey has been a player who’s received a lot of love from Jim Harbaugh, and his playing time this season could become a reflection of the noteworthy things Harbaugh’s said about him in the past.

“He’s got a lot of that ‘it’ factor to him, that winning factor. It shows up in two minute drives,” Harbaugh said of McCaffrey in July 2018. “Two minute drive, Dylan gets in there and leads the team down for touchdowns. That’s what was happening in the spring. And that’s a great quality to have.” Two months later in late September ‘18, McCaffrey was 8-of-15 for 126 yards and two touchdowns in limited action through the first four games of the season. “Dylan continues to improve every time he gets in,” Harbaugh said after Week 4. “That’s a position, like all the positions in football, but especially quarterback, it takes playing, having time on task and being out there. He’s getting that. It’s never too big for him. I really like that about Dylan.”

Unfortunately for McCaffrey, his season ended early after he suffered a broken collarbone against Penn State on Nov. 3, putting a halt to his “time on task”.

McCaffrey recovered from the injury and was able to participate in spring practices, and in July at Big Ten Media Days Harbaugh made it clear McCaffrey earned more playing time this season. “Where it stands right now, that could change later or not, I see ‘em both playing (Patterson and McCaffrey). Where it stands right now I see it maybe redefining what a starter is,” Harbaugh said.

In Week 1, McCaffrey got in the game against Middle Tennessee State, and had back-to-back drives leading the offense in the 3rd Quarter. One drive ended with a touchdown, and the other ended with a turnover on downs on 4th & Goal at the 1. McCaffrey rushed 8 times for 42 yards with a rushing touchdown while going 2-of-3 for 17 yards through the air. McCaffrey also caught a pass from Patterson, signalling the team has a 2-QB package up their sleeve. “We’ve been saying that for a long time now (that McCaffrey would play),” Harbaugh said on “Inside Michigan Football” the Monday following Week 1. “It’s like people didn’t believe it or something. We just feel Dylan’s that good. And Joe (Milton) as well. They’re both, along with Shea, really good quarterbacks, so want to get them in the game and take advantage of the skill sets that they have.”

The fact that the Harbaugh is so high on McCaffrey, the fact he said McCaffrey has the ‘it’ factor doesn’t lessen who Shea Patterson is, nor does it signal a deficiency in his leadership capabilities and on-field attributes. There just so happens to be more than one quarterback Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis believe can lead the offense during a single game.

Gattis on Monday: “It’s not one thing or another against either quarterback you know. It’s not when we pull Shea that he’s necessarily doing bad or anything, but we want to give Dylan those reps. We want to get him opportunities in games, we want to get him called out from that standpoint. Dylan’s done a really good job coming in leading the offense and running the offense efficiently and effectively. We can pick and choose when those times come, we pick and choose when we want to do our two quarterback package and it just goes game by game, moment by moment, kind of how the game is going from that standpoint.”

Gattis’ point above is the point of this article. It’s not pitting McCaffrey against Patterson, it’s not Team Shea or Team Dylan, it’s simply an observation about Team Michigan. And when it comes to Team Michigan in 2019, looking at comments from Gattis and Harbaugh indicate they’re ready to throw McCaffrey in when they feel it’s in the best interest of the team.

The usage of McCaffrey is a fluid situation as Gattis pointed out, it’s game by game, even moment by moment. And those situations won’t necessarily mean that Patterson is playing poorly when McCaffrey comes in the game. However, Patterson has said he wants the ball in his hands every play, and through the first two weeks he hasn’t performed at a high enough clip to where Michigan would put a stop to the “re-defining what a starter is” train of thought.

Patterson has been hurt, he’s dealt with an oblique injury since the first play in Week 1 when he fumbled the ball on a scramble. Even with the injury, Patterson has made no excuses and said after his Week 1 performance the offense didn’t play up to their standard and he needs to take care of the football. In Week 2, Patterson fumbled twice, and although one of them was due to a blind side hit, the other was on him. Further, Gattis said there were a couple times where Patterson should have kept the ball on a read-option look. On those attempts, if Patterson kept the ball he likely would have picked up big gains. Pointing out the improvement needed isn’t intended to dismiss the good Patterson has done this year, and especially last, he’s made many fine plays with his arm and his legs. But if Michigan is going to win a Big Ten Championship, beat their rivals, and contend for a College Football Playoff, his play has to improve. And in return, there’d be more of a likelihood McCaffrey stays on the sideline.

While Patterson’s play hasn’t led to a situation where it puts McCaffrey on the field, his play hasn’t been great enough to keep McCaffrey off it.

Meritocracy, a word Jim Harbaugh uses frequently, is a fitting word to describe the situation between Patterson and McCaffrey. “We’ve just gotta continue along. Continue the competition there. No job is ever set in stone in our offense,” Gattis said in August. “That’s something that I think our players know now, every job is gonna be up for a battle. And it’s our job as coaches to develop an atmosphere and an environment, that those players truly believe that, and they’ve gotta bring their best each and every day.”

I’m not implying there’s a quarterback controversy, but what I am saying is Harbaugh wouldn’t have made such a huge statement at Big Ten Media Days if he didn’t think both Patterson and McCaffrey could help the team win this season.

Even if Patterson remains the bonafide starter and McCaffrey just serves as a temporary relief pitcher, live reps are important in case Patterson’s injured for an extended period of time. “I think, in college football today, you have to prepare your two and three as if they’re starters. And we’re not just talking about Dylan – we’re talking about Joe Milton, as well,” Gattis said in August. “You really gotta be able to prepare those guys, because if something happens, and you lose your one, you don’t want it to be a whole culture shock that your starter’s down, and our other players don’t have the trust and confidence level in who your backup is.”

Gattis, quarterbacks coach Ben McDaniels, and Harbaugh are preparing McCaffrey and Milton as if they’ll be the starter, but that isn’t something new for McCaffrey. Harbaugh told McCaffrey in September 2018 that “it’s better to be prepared and not get your opportunity than to be unprepared and get that opportunity”, and McCaffrey bought in, saying “that’s something you have to live by.” If McCaffrey has continued to take that advice to heart, it will have only served him well as his skills must have increased enough for him to be in the conversation for more snaps this season. Snaps that aren’t of the garbage time variety. Meaningful snaps that could occur at crucial points in a game.

Reading between the lines, McCaffrey has done enough to push Patterson. Here’s what Harbaugh said in March about Patterson and McCaffrey:

“Depth chart, Shea’s number one, Dylan’s number two, Joe’s number three. And there’s no possible way that Shea Patterson will be able to put his feet up in my opinion. He’s got serious competition there with Dylan and Joe right now.”

Granted, that was March, but there have been plenty of glowing comments about McCaffrey since, and once again, Harbaugh saying Michigan could re-define what a starter is was one hell of a statement. The rationale for any push-back about this notion resides with McCaffrey’s snap count in Week 2 against Army, where he was only in for a few plays. The thing is, Harbaugh is patient, and likes to put lesser experienced QB’s in when the situation is optimal. He showed that with Andrew Luck at Stanford, Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco, and now with McCaffrey in his third year at Michigan. Even in 2017 Harbaugh waited to put Brandon Peters in against Rutgers when he could have put him in a week earlier against a tough Penn State team on the road. Harbaugh doesn’t always unleash his secret weapon early in a season, (i.e. Colin Kaepernick and a revamped read-option scheme occurred midway through 2012 and it led the 49ers to the Super Bowl). Against Army, the game-plan didn’t call for feeding McCaffrey to the wolves against their attacking defense, they rolled with the experienced Patterson for just about every down. Don’t read too much into McCaffrey’s limited snaps versus Army in relation to how many he’ll receive from here on out, doing that could be deceiving.

As a year goes by, though, things change, and the expectation is a team will improve, as will the QB room. Michigan has a bye week before they head to face a tough Wisconsin team on the road. Patterson has two weeks to heal from his injuries, McCaffrey has two weeks to show Harbaugh and Gattis he can be trusted against stout defenses. From Patterson’s perspective, he’s going to want to do everything he possibly can to show there’s a talent and experience gap between he and McCaffrey. McCaffrey has mentioned they support one another, but they’re very competitive and both want to lead the team.

This article isn’t trying to imply that McCaffrey is better than Patterson, we don’t know. But if Steve Young can replace Joe Montana, nothing is impossible and the thought that McCaffrey could be better shouldn’t be scoffed at completely. There hasn’t been enough of a sample size to indicate McCaffrey is the better option right now, so my default opinion is Patterson is until proven otherwise. Still, in college football I find experience to be overrated and sometimes all a player needs is extended snaps to showcase they’re ready. Take a look at USC true freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis, who started against Stanford in Week 2 after QB J.T. Daniels tore his ACL the week prior. If the unfortunate injury didn’t occur, Slovis wouldn’t have been the water cooler talk after he went 28-of-33 for 377 yards and 3 TD’s against the Cardinal. When you’re dealing with players 18-to-22 years old, experience can be overrated, look at 18 year old Michigan running back Zach Charbonnet who is playing like a man amongst boys. Sometimes, as Harbaugh said, all a player needs is the “time on task”.

If Michigan’s coaches think McCaffrey is a dynamic and dangerous weapon on the gridiron, he’ll continue to see the field. If Patterson is the more accurate passer that can get the team in the correct protections pre-snap, McCaffrey will just be a change of pace option this season. I don’t subscribe to the ‘if you have two quarterbacks you don’t have any’ way of thinking. The more talent, the more depth, the better, especially at quarterback.

The best case scenario is Patterson and McCaffrey keep pushing each other to become better, leading to lights out play at the QB position. And if the team is getting that, it won’t matter who gets the call on a given drive. As Al Davis used to say, “just win, baby!”.