Increased opportunity sharpened Brandon Peters’ focus

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters throws a pass in the second quarter.

Ann Arbor — Way back at the end of July at Big Ten media days, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh revealed the quarterback race was a “dead heat” involving Wilton Speight, the starter the previous season, John O’Korn and redshirt freshman Brandon Peters.

Two weeks into camp, Speight, the eventual starter, and O’Korn had separated themselves, and Peters was third string.

Why had Peters, the former Mr. Football in Indiana who had a strong showing in the spring game, drifted in the race?

“I was making some mental errors that I know I shouldn’t have made,” Peters said Tuesday after practice. “I think coach lost a little confidence in me throughout camp. I think that set me back a little bit.”

Peters said he “lost a little focus” once camp opened, because the playbook was opened a bit more. And from there the mental errors evolved.

“Turning the ball over, not making the right reads, fumbling the snap, not calling the play right in the huddle,” Peters said. “A lot of little stuff.”

He never got down on himself, because he knows enough to understand the negative can snowball into something from which it becomes difficult to emerge. Pass-game coordinator Pep Hamilton, he said, remained patient with him.

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As camp went on, he said, understanding the plays became easier, but by that point Speight and O’Korn had built some distance in the competition.

But seasons rarely go as planned, especially in terms of injuries. Speight has been out since Sept. 23 with three fractured vertebrae but has made a quick recovery and might be available for the final two games of the regular season. O’Korn took over as starter, but after a sluggish start two weeks ago against Rutgers, Peters entered the game and gave the offense a spark. He led four scoring drives including the first three series.

Peters made his first start last Saturday in a win over Minnesota that was dominated by the Wolverines’ running game, and he will start against Saturday at Maryland. Michigan will then travel to Wisconsin and return home for the season finale against Ohio State.

Clearly, he could not have imagined this happening this season.

“At the beginning of the year, third string, obviously not many third strings get the chance to get in the game unless it’s a blowout,” Peters said. “I saw an opportunity when Wilt went down. You never want to wish that against your teammate for someone to go down, but it happened so you’ve got to be ready. When that happened, I saw an opportunity. Second string, anything can happen. One play away.”

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After Speight was injured, Peters started taking backup-quarterback snaps and those valuable practice reps increased.

“As soon as Wilton went down, I knew I had to pick up my game a little bit, be more focused, that kind of stuff,” he said.

The quarterbacks are close, and Peters said Speight often offers tips and reminders.

“He said you can make all the throws, just be confident, ‘Go out there and let it rip, man,’ ” Peters said.

Peters wasn’t asked to do a lot during his first start. He was 8-of-13 for 56 yards and threw a touchdown pass to tight end Sean McKeon.

He was 3-for-3 in the first drive and completed a pass to Donovan Peoples-Jones on the first play of the game.

“He was very effective in the first drive,” Harbaugh said Monday. “There were two throws he should have hit that came up short. Had a screen pass that could have gone really big but it was the one time we had three offensive linemen that not one of them picked up the block. It was a screen to Chris Evans that should have gone, should have busted out.

“Coulda hit a couple more but nothing close to an interception, nothing close to turning the ball over even though he took some big shots in the pocket. Thought he held onto the ball well and did the things to keep us from losing the ballgame. Did the things to help us win the ball game. Know he can execute all throws, so feel good going forward.”

Peters echoed Harbaugh’s assessment.

“I thought I did well,” he said. “Definitely some passes that I could have made that I kind of left short a little bit, but overall I thought I did well and managed the game pretty well.”

The team rushed for 371 yards with Karan Higdon gaining 200 and Chris Evans 191.

“It makes my job a lot easier, 10 times easier for sure,” Peters said of the run-game efficiency. “When we have a running game like that it opens up a lot of things. Obviously, we didn’t even have to throw the ball. We were making 50-plus yard runs almost every drive.

“We definitely could have thrown it a little bit more. The coaches saw we were making huge holes in the run game. Obviously, we didn’t need the pass game much that game which is fine by me as long as we get the win.”

Peters took three sacks including one that knocked the wind out of him when he was slammed to the ground. It’s the first time since his senior year in high school he’s taken a hit like that.

“Welcome to college football,” Peters said, with a laugh.

After slipping behind in camp, he said he now has a “pretty good grasp” of the offense. Hamilton is in his first season as pass-game coordinator, replacing Jedd Fisch, who was in that role for two seasons.

“There wasn’t much change from last year’s offense,” Peters said. “A lot of it carried over. I’ve been in this process for 2 1/2 years now when I came early. I’ve got a pretty good grasp of it. I can do pretty much anything the coaches ask me.”

Speight could be cleared to return to football and the quarterback competition will be open again. Peters said he knows to keep the job he will have to prove he can make plays, control the offense and not turn the ball over.

“I expect it to be a good competition,” Peters said. “Coaches are going to give everyone a chance, so you’ve always got to compete.”