ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Jim Harbaugh doesn’t know yet when the NCAA will rule on Shea Patterson’s eligibility. He doesn’t know if the governing body of college athletics will rule in favor of Patterson and Michigan or make the former Mississippi quarterback sit out one year after transferring.
What the Michigan coach does know is that snaps between the four quarterbacks competing for the job — Patterson, redshirt sophomore Brandon Peters, redshirt freshman Dylan McCaffrey and freshman Joe Milton — are going to be equal, at least to start. He also knows he needs to do anything necessary to improve an offense that finished ranked 105th in the country in total yards, 91st in scoring and 115th in passing efficiency.
That includes implementing more run-pass option (RPO) plays into his system that has long been predicated on the power run game. Harbaugh, passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton and wide receivers coach Jim McElwain told the Michigan Insider this week that there will be RPO plays added to the offense, although how deep they will be incorporated is still being figured out.
Harbaugh met with the media on Friday, the first day of spring practice. He said he’s still studying the situation, although he didn’t mention RPO plays specifically.
“We’re studying our offense. We’re studying all aspects of our offense,” Harbaugh said. “It’s getting our offense improved. Been doing that for months, and [Friday] was the first day to get it out there on the field. It’s keeping the things we do really well and seeing if there are some other things that we can add to it. We’re in that process.”
The first opportunity for the public to see what that studying produces will be the annual spring game on April 14 at Michigan Stadium.
The quarterback battle will get the most attention of any position group this spring and into preseason camp. It’s likely a starter won’t named until the Wolverines break the first offensive huddle at Notre Dame on Sept. 1. That’s the way Harbaugh handled the battle between Wilton Speight, John O’Korn and Peters last year, when Speight won the job and started against Florida. All three players started games because of injury and ineffective play by those in front of them.
Whoever ends up as Michigan’s starting quarterback in 2018 is going to find an evolved approach to the Wolverines offense.
RPO simply puts the play call in the hands of the quarterback. He has to be adept at reading defenses and be willing to go with the best play for the team against the given defense. The quarterback may be called upon to run the ball himself, but this isn’t a zone read offense and it’s not necessary for the quarterback to be a running threat.
Ian Boyd of SBNation.com breaks down RPO, its strategy and how if differs between the college game and NFL in this article. The offense has been prevalent in high schools and college for many years, but it gained more notoriety when Philadelphia used it with quarterback Nick Foles, who was replacing injured Carson Wentz, and won Super Bowl 52 against New England in February.
“We believe that the quarterbacks that we have are going to be very good at it as well,” Harbaugh told the Michigan Insider.
He didn’t want to admit as much to the assembled media Friday night, but the fact is Harbaugh is going to look at anything and everything that will give the offense a chance to be better in 2018. It has to be better to match what the defense provides on a consistent basis.
One day into spring practice is too soon to say who has an edge in the battle. If Patterson is ruled eligible, he is going to be the favorite to win the job. Peters started four games last season, including the Outback Bowl against South Carolina. McCaffrey ran the scout team and drew praise from defensive coordinator Don Brown for the job he did all season. Milton is an early enrollee. Odds are that he ends up redshirting, but that’s not a given.
Michigan needs its offense to be better in 2018 if it hopes to jump over Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State in the Big Ten East. Whoever is the quarterback has to be better.
“Joe Milton had a really good first day. Very impressive,” said Harbaugh, when asked about how the early enrollees did on Day 1. “He treated the first practice like it was a game. You could see him over there studying. He was praying. It was like he was getting ready for a game. I loved it. And then he went out and acquitted himself well [Friday]. Went out and threw the ball well. He did a very good job.”