Leader, competitor: Shea Patterson closes Michigan career with respect of teammates, coaches, foes
Orlando, Fla. – Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson has been on a journey, one with plenty of twists and turns that has taken him to two football programs, placed him firmly at the forefront of the transfer/immediate eligibility campaign, and along the way has played for four offensive coordinators.
Now it comes to this, leading the Michigan Wolverines -- the team he rooted for as a youngster and the subject of the bedtime stories his father, Sean, would tell young “Shea man” before he’d go to sleep -- one last time when they face Alabama in the Citrus Bowl on Wednesday. Patterson’s journey isn’t ending, of course. He will play in the Senior Bowl before NFL scouts in late January, but this is the final page of his college story.
Patterson has been a two-year starter for Michigan since transferring from Ole Miss in December 2017, enduring a lengthy and uncertain five-month process to gain immediately eligibility from the NCAA, and then, ultimately, winning the job.
Heading into his final college game, Patterson has 5,428 passing yards, eighth on Michigan’s career list, and will surely pass Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who is seventh with 5,449 yards. Patterson became the first Michigan quarterback to have three straight 300-plus yard games, which is how he finished the regular season. This year he has 2,828 yards, 22 touchdowns and six interceptions.
This is the second time he has faced Alabama. During his freshman season, the Tide clobbered Ole Miss, 66-3.
“It didn't exactly go my way,” Patterson said with a laugh. “I was a completely different player back then, and I was just happy to get the experience.”
He was asked to reflect on how he has evolved from that freshman year to this point.
“Completely different,” he said. “I was watching film my freshman and sophomore year and it's just -- I mean, it's completely different and …”
Patterson’s voice trailed off, and he was unable to finish his answer, perhaps overwhelmed in the moment thinking about his career.
That’s when offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, completing his first season with the Wolverines as a play-caller, stepped in, having his quarterback’s back like any good coordinator would.
“I'll go to battle with this guy any day of the week,” Gattis said, with Patterson sitting beside him. “This is Sugar Shea Patterson right here. Just to see his confidence throughout the year continue to rise each and every week, his preparation, his performance.
“This guy's a player, man. He's been playing at an extreme high level for us and he's been the leader of our offense, leader of our team. And, like I said, I'll go to battle with him any day out of the week versus any team in the country.”
Harbaugh flew to Oxford in late 2017 when it was clear Patterson planned to transfer from Ole Miss, under NCAA probation that would include a two-year bowl ban. There, Harbaugh met with several of the players who planned to transfer, but he absolutely wanted Patterson.
“He has just gotten better and better and better. And he came in really good,” Harbaugh said Tuesday of Patterson. “But I think once he got comfortable with his teammates, with the new system, I think he just -- you always saw the growth. He's better today than he was yesterday. He's always had that mindset, the competitive edge.
“That just keeps coming back to me when I talk about Shea or think about Shea. It's humility with a competitive edge. And as (Alabama) coach (Nick) Saban said, Shea can make all the throws. And his accuracy has just gotten better and better. His understanding is at a very high level. And then he can run. He can get out of the pocket. He can create plays. He can create space. He's effective both as a runner and a thrower.”
Saban and the Alabama staff started following Patterson when he was a freshman in high school. They have watched a significant amount of film of the quarterback as they’ve prepared for this bowl game, and Saban said Patterson has thrived under Harbaugh.
“He's one of those guys that came up with a great reputation and was very effective in high school in Louisiana, in Shreveport, and I thought he played well when he played at Ole Miss and I think he's got nothing but better as he's played at Michigan,” Saban said Tuesday.
“He can make all the throws. He's very athletic. He can pull the ball and make you respect him on all the zone reads. But he can also extend plays because he is athletic and a good player. I just see a growth in the guy from a maturity and experience standpoint. I think he's playing in the system now where he's very well coached and he's done a really good job for his team.”
By the second half of the season, Patterson and the offense found a rhythm. Turnovers the first half were a major issue, as was Patterson’s oblique injury he suffered in the opener, but they never wavered from Gattis’ plan.
"There was some adversity that we faced offensively, and Shea is one of the leaders that really took ownership of it,” Gattis said.
Tight end Sean McKeon watched Patterson continue to improve, especially the last month of the regular season.
“I think he feels really comfortable in the offense right now,” McKeon said. “I’ve seen him watching film, studying more than I ever have. I feel like he knew the offense in and out, he knew his reads and he’s gotten a lot better reading coverages and what to attack.”
Alabama defensive coordinator Pete Golding said this week that Patterson’s ability to run has drawn his attention, and the Tide defensive players have been prepping for that aspect of Michigan’s offensive game plan.
“On third down he does a really nice job of extending plays, so when things break down in the back end, they've got guys covered, he can step up or out,” Golding said. “The big thing is accounting for him in the run game. He's very athletic. They do a lot of unique things to be able to run the quarterback, for you to use all 11 guys. And I think on third down, it's going to be pivotal to make him be a pocket passer. We've got to be able to contain him and keep him in the pocket.”
Undoubtedly, Patterson will do what he can to make himself as versatile as possible his final game for the Wolverines. After all, nothing about his college career has been one-dimensional, so why start now?
MICHIGAN VS. ALABAMA
Kickoff: Wednesday, 1 p.m. Camping World Stadium, Orlando
TV/radio: ABC/950 AM
Records: Michigan 9-3, Alabama 10-2
Line: Alabama by 7