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Michigan Football: Ranking the quarterbacks of the Jim Harbaugh era

There were loads of potential left on the field with a number of guys on this list.

Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl - Michigan v Florida Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

The Jim Harbaugh-era Michigan Wolverines have often been defined by the play they have gotten out of the quarterback position. The results to this point have ranged from flat-out bad to “will give you a chance to win an Ohio State game, maybe.”

This was not exactly what was signed up for when Harbaugh was hired, as he carried the quarterback guru tag with him. Success in the modern college football landscape largely depends on star power at the position. The Wolverines are still searching for that.

They hope that five-star signee J.J. McCarthy could be that guy moving forward. He might be the player that could most signify where this ship is headed. He might not be ready to go this year just yet, but the future is bright.

But before we look ahead, we must remember what came before. He is a quick ranking of Michigan’s major players at quarterback in six seasons of Harbaugh.

8. John O’Korn (2016-17)

Transfer from Houston

O’Korn transferred into Michigan from Houston during the 2015 offseason and spent the 2016 season as a backup. He was thrust into action in 2017 and never consistently did much well. He finished the season with a 53.5 percent completion rate, two touchdowns and six interceptions.

7. Dylan McCaffrey (2017-20)

Four-star recruit (No. 123 overall prospect), No. 5-ranked pro-style QB in 2017 class

We will never know what McCaffrey is or could have been because he always seemed to be injured. He came in as a reserve at times and made some nice plays with his legs, but there was always some sort of setback with him. Then, he opted out of the 2020 season and transferred from Michigan with the starting job open. The only thing that gives him the leg up on O’Korn is that he did not look lost when he was on the field.

6. Joe Milton (2018-20)

Four-star recruit (No. 209 overall prospect), No. 9-ranked pro-style QB in 2018 class

Milton’s first career start was the highlight of his time at Michigan. It was as dangerous and as multiple as the Wolverines have looked offensively in recent memory. Then, he and the offense fell off a cliff, especially in his last three appearances. He has incredible arm talent, but accuracy issues were never able to be ironed out and he transferred to Tennessee this offseason.

5. Brandon Peters (2016-2018)

Four-star recruit (No. 61 overall prospect), No. 6-ranked pro-style QB in 2016 class

Peters and Milton are neck-and-neck here. Their careers were either derailed by injuries or factors outside their control. Harbaugh’s first true quarterback signee showed potential in his early starts in 2017 but was knocked out of the Wisconsin game with a concussion and never looked the same. He is now entering his third season as Illinois’ starting quarterback after transferring out in 2019. He has been solid, but unspectacular for the Illini.

4. Cade McNamara (2019-present)

Four-star recruit (No. 268 overall prospect), No. 7 pro-style QB in 2019 class

Can I comfortably sit here and say that McNamara is better than the players before him on this list? No. But, it does feel like he has a leg up on them in terms of being a more polished passer at this stage of his career. The other recruits were more “toolsy” prospects, whereas McNamara showed a knack for making the right reads and throws on his high school tape. Michigan will need him to rank higher in a future edition of this list to win more than 8-9 games this season.

3. Wilton Speight (2014-17)

Three-star recruit (No. 427 overall prospect), No. 23 pro-style QB in 2014 class

A holdover from the Brady Hoke era, Speight earned Michigan’s starting job in 2016. A pre-Iowa game version of Speight might rank in one of the top two spots on this list. He suffered an injury in the loss to the Hawkeyes late in the year and never quite looked the same. Still, his play gave Michigan a chance to win in Columbus with a trip to Indianapolis on the line. You know the rest of the story.

2. Shea Patterson (2018-19)

Transfer from Ole Miss

This was supposed to be the slam dunk acquisition for Michigan. College football has become a sport of transfer quarterbacks and Harbaugh was able to reel in a former five-star recruit with loads of talent. This would be the Baker Mayfield or Russell Wilson-type of player to put them over the top, right? It darn near happened in 2018 before the Wolverines were shell-shocked in Columbus. That brought about a major change to the offensive side of the ball in 2019 and Patterson never really got going until the Wolverines were out of the conference title hunt. He was a solid player, but there was potential left on the field for both Patterson and Michigan here.

1. Jake Rudock (2015)

Transfer from Iowa

Rudock is far from the most talented player on this list. Some might even argue he had the least amount of talent given that Iowa discarded him. But he gets the nod over everyone else being graded on a curve of doing exactly what was asked of him. His last five games at Michigan were outstanding and still stand as the best-extended stretch of quarterback play Harbaugh has had.