'He's a leader': UM's John O'Korn to start vs. MSU

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — John O’Korn is Michigan’s starting quarterback going forward, and he has the full support of his teammates.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, during his weekly news conference Monday, said quarterback Wilton Speight, the starter the last two seasons, will not be available for the Wolverines’ game Saturday against Michigan State and for the next several games.

Speight was injured late in the first quarter against Purdue. He appeared to suffer a neck injury and was taken off-site for an X-ray.

“He won’t be able to compete this week or for multiple weeks,” Harbaugh said Monday.

Harbaugh would not divulge the nature of the injury.

“You’ll have to talk to Wilton about that or the doctors,” Harbaugh said. “He’s going to be out. John O’Korn will be the starter.”

Brandon Peters is now the backup, and Dylan McCaffrey is the third-string quarterback.

O’Korn led Michigan to four touchdowns in the 28-10 victory at Purdue. The team scored touchdowns on all three red-zone trips after scoring only one in 10 trips the first three games. Michigan is 4-0, 1-0 Big Ten and was did not have a game last Saturday.

Fullback Khalid Hill said O’Korn is taking a focused but relaxed and patient approach to the starting job.

“John talked the other day about just taking his time,” Hill said. “He felt he was always pressured, and now you can tell John is like, ‘OK, I’m going to take a step back and let it come to me.’ Once you do that, you don’t put the pressure on yourself, ‘Oh, I’ve got to perform well all the time.’ You’re not going to perform well all the time. Most of us didn’t perform last game. You’ve got to let it come to you and take your time and it will come to you sooner or later.”

During preseason camp, O’Korn said he finally had regained his confidence and thanked Pep Hamilton, in his first season as pass-game coordinator, for helping him grow and improve. O’Korn had been a starter at Houston, even earned American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year honors, before being benched after a handful of games the next season.He then transferred to Michigan.

The coach who benched him, Tony Levine, is now Purdue’s co-offensive coordinator. Several times as O’Korn led the Wolverines on scoring drives at Purdue he would look toward the Boilermakers’ sideline — “probably in (Levine’s) exact direction,” he said — and animatedly yell.

O’Korn, who was 18-of-26 for 270 yards and a touchdown, said after that game that he felt his college career had come “full circle.” He impressed his teammates with his smooth transition into that game.

“He came in like he’d been there all year,” senior left tackle and co-captain Mason Cole said. “That’s the biggest thing. We knew he’d be ready to play if he ever had to, and he was.”

Cole said O’Korn, like Speight, has control of the huddle.

“He’s a leader whether he’s the second-string quarterback or the starting quarterback,” Cole said. “He’s always been a leader whenever he’s on the field.

“John’s always been like that. John’s always been a confident guy. He’s a leader out there. He stepped in like he had been doing it all year. “

The players said they’ve always been confident in Speight and O’Korn.

“John is prepared to play, he’s always been prepared to play since Week 1,” senior defensive tackle Maurice Hurst said Monday. “Coach Harbaugh believes in two quarterbacks. Just having Wilton and John both together, they’ve proved to us either of them could step in and play at any moment.

“I feel like we all believe in John or Wilton. It just means we have two quarterbacks capable of playing and winning games for us.”

Cole said both quarterbacks are “mentally strong” and are handling this situation well. Hill said he has spoken to Speight, who has encouraged his team to maintain its focus.

“He wants us to keep working, he wants us to keep going,” Hill said. “He doesn’t want us to dwell on what’s going on with him. Pretty sure he’ll be fine, and he’ll work through what he’s got to work through. He’ll be back sooner or later.”