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Michigan 2020 spring football preview: Quarterbacks

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Spring ball is around the corner and the QB competition is far from decided.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 08 Western Michigan at Michigan Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Michigan football spring practice will be getting underway soon and ahead of that we’re previewing each position group. Today we’re talking about the quarterbacks.

In December 2017, Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson announced he’d be transferring to the University of Michigan. Patterson was eventually awarded immediate eligibility, in turn changing the quarterback pecking order and taking over the reigns for two seaons. The emergence of Patterson created a situation where players like Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton had no choice but to wait their turn to be the signal caller on offense. Patterson’s time at Michigan came and went, and a new era will begin in 2020 for Michigan at the quarterback position.

A New Hope

While Patterson racked up numbers that cumulatively rank among the best all time at Michigan, he struggled against some of the best teams he faced, Ohio State included. The hope is that whoever’s Michigan’s next starting quarterback can net the team wins against the Buckeyes, and in bowl games.

This will be the first time at the start of the season during the Jim Harbaugh era that the starting quarterback will be a Harbaugh recruit. Jake Rudock wasn’t, Wilton Speight wasn’t, Patterson wasn’t, but all the QB’s Michigan now have on the roster are Harbaugh recruits.

Michigan’s QB room currently consists of Dylan McCaffrey, Joe Milton, and Cade McNamara, with incoming freshman Dan Villari joining the team this summer.

Michigan has seen glimpses of McCaffrey and Milton, both of them receiving plenty of hype and attention despite not playing much the past two years. Both QB’s have shown flashes of explosiveness during their time on the field, enough to create a high level of excitement from fans eager to see them in action in fall 2020.

McCaffrey has went 18-of-35 so far in his career with 242 yards and 3 TD’s while also rushing for 166 yards and 2 scores. Milton is 6-of-11 for 117 yards with 1 TD, 2 INT’s, 47 rushing yards and 2 TD’s. Neither player has received an adequate amount of live game reps to declare either player having an edge over the other in terms of experience or talent. Even so, McCaffrey appears to be an electric runner, with former UM cornerback Lavert Hill saying at the NFL Combine this week that McCaffrey is one of the fastest players on the team. Milton is a dual-threat option in his own right, but the lore when it comes to his skill-set is his rocket arm that can sling it over 80 yards.

  • Harbaugh on McCaffrey: “He’s got a lot of that ‘it’ factor to him, that winning factor. It shows up in two minute drives.”
  • Harbaugh on Milton: “Definitely has a lot of arm talent. It’s really important to him, which is a must. That’s a ‘has to be that way’ to get better and better and better. He’s realizing that there’s always something to work on, something to improve. And he’s approached that with a real great attitude in that way as well.”

Michigan has a legitimate quarterback competition on their hands, but how will they go about deciding who’s their guy?

A Fair Competition

McCaffrey and Milton aren’t the only players vying for the starting gig, former four-star prospect Cade McNamara wants a shot, too. It remains to be seen whether the three of them will split reps equally or not this spring, but offensive coordinator Josh Gattis wants to make the competition as fair as possible.

“The biggest thing that we’ve gotta do, is we gotta maintain a system that’s going to be fair, that’s going to give all of the quarterbacks on our roster the opportunity to really push themselves and apply themselves to be able to compete for the job. It’s often a challenge during the season, because when you have a starter in the past, your backups don’t always get the fair amount of reps,” Gattis said in February. “They’re getting them with the twos and the threes, but they’re not given the same opportunity as the starter. As compared to spring ball, we’ve gotta come up with a system of reps and opportunities, to allow each and every one of our quarterbacks on our roster to be able to compete with a fair amount of opportunity and reps. Whether that’s splitting time with the ones, whether that’s splitting time with the twos by rotation, it’s something we’ve gotta be able to manage, and it’s a challenge, especially when you have multiple quarterbacks.”

Giving each quarterback a fair amount of work and equal opportunity is definitely a point of emphasis for Gattis. “If the job is coming down to just two guys, then obviously it’s a two-way system. We feel like Cade has developed, Joe has developed,” Gattis said. “I’m really excited to see Joe, I’m really excited to see Dylan, so we gotta figure out a way to get those guys the equal amount of opportunities to be able to show what they can do and lead this team in the direction we need them.”

The Next Step

Michigan’s had good quarterback play the past few seasons, but not elite when it has mattered the most. Shea Patterson was good, but the team needs their version of Joe Burrow.

In order to beat Ohio State, win a Big Ten Championship, and realistically make a push for a berth into the College Football Playoff, the next step is going from good QB play to elite QB play. There’s a huge difference. Sure, it takes a complete team to win all the games on the schedule, but there’s no position more important than that of quarterback, and an elite one can drastically change the trajectory of a program.

This is year two of the Josh Gattis era for Michigan’s offense, McCaffrey and Milton both have familiarity with his system that is tailored toward their dual threat skill-sets. Michigan became the most pass-heavy it has been under Harbaugh last season with Gattis calling plays, and there’s a good shot the team passes even more this year. The training wheels are off for McCaffrey and Milton, they’ve both had time to improve their craft without getting thrown into the fire too soon, and we’ll soon find out if the hopes and expectations were warranted or not.

As far as spring ball is concerned, it’ll be about developing chemistry with wideouts, shaking off any rust that accumulated since the 2019 season ended. Maybe one of the quarterbacks will blow the other out of the water in these practices and be named the bonafide starter well before summer camp begins, or maybe the spring will just be the start of a long and tightly contested competition that drags out well into August. What we do know is Michigan appears to be in good shape at the quarterback position, and there’s a chance 2020 is the season they finally have an elite quarterback that can will the team to win each and every Saturday.