Jim Harbaugh’s greatest trait as a coach is his ability to relate to those who play his old position.
Harbaugh, who spent 14 years as an NFL quarterback, is essentially a quarterback whisperer. He coached former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck during his second college head coaching job at Stanford. Harbaugh’s expertise translated to the NFL, where he transformed Alex Smith into a winning quarterback in 2011 and coached Colin Kaepernick, a former backup used in gimmick packages, into a viable starter with dual-threat capabilities.
Harbaugh proved himself to be a QB guru once again during his first season in Ann Arbor. He helped Jake Rudock finish fourth in the Big Ten in passing yardage and touchdowns thrown while leading the Wolverines to a rejuvenating 10-3 season.
But with Rudock out of the fold in 2016 and expectations awfully high, the pressure will be on Harbaugh to work his magic one more time. The Wolverines haven’t chosen a starting quarterback yet and Harbaugh has a few candidates to decide between. Houston transfer John O’Korn was viewed as the favorite entering spring practice, but has since been outplayed by redshirt sophomore Wilton Speight.
Speight surged into the summer with plenty of momentum after usurping O’Korn during spring practice. Speight ultimately finished camp taking the No. 1 reps, which came as a surprise to many. He put his improvement on display during Michigan’s spring game.
The 6-foot-6, 239-pound gunslinger also has a bit of playing experience. Last season, he led the Wolverines on a gutsy game-winning drive to beat Minnesota 29-26 last Halloween. He appeared in six games last season, throwing for 73 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
O’Korn started 11 games at Houston as a freshman in 2013 and was named the American Conference’s Rookie of the Year after throwing for 3,117 yards and 28 touchdowns in his debut season.
Things took a turn for the worse the following season, however. Despite being named to 2014 Davey O’Brien and Maxwell Award watch lists, O’Korn eventually lost his starting job to converted wide receiver Greg Ward Jr., and opted to leave the program. O’Korn was the first player to transfer to Michigan after Harbaugh’s hiring when he chose the Wolverines on Feb. 2015 and sat out last season, per NCAA transfer rules.
O’Korn showed flashes during the spring game, throwing for 93 yards and scoring a rushing touchdown. But the transfer might be behind Speight entering fall practice.
Redshirt junior Shane Morris redshirted last season and appears to be on the outside looking in. He lost last season’s quarterback competition to Rudock and stuck with Michigan despite speculation that he would transfer at season’s end. He now has two years of eligibility remaining.
Morris has some playing experience under his belt. He appeared in five games and started one in 2014, completing 14 of his 40 attempts for 128 yards and three interceptions. Morris might be a distant third in this competition and was spotted lining up as a wide receiver during the spring game.
The quarterbacks change every year, but the constant variable has been Harbaugh’s ability to extract the most out of whomever he tabs as his starter. The Wolverines are reloaded with an outstanding defense, an established offensive line and enough weapons to compete nationally.
If Harbaugh is able to develop another passer, Michigan could challenge for a Big Ten championship and potentially a spot in the College Football Playoff.