Wojo: In QB hunt, Harbaugh usually finds his guy

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — The defensive line is monstrous and the defense should be menacing. The receivers and offensive linemen have tons of experience. The coach is You-Know-Who.

It’s easy to see why Michigan finally is a preseason top-10 team again. I mean, it’s easy if you overlook that gaping unknown at quarterback. The temptation is to say it’s not a big deal, Jim Harbaugh always finds his guy, and if he doesn’t, he keeps looking. In some ways, the Wolverines’ biggest concern seems like a lesser concern, and maybe it will be.

But until you see it, you can’t be sure. Until Harbaugh sees it, he won’t say.

As fall camp opens Monday, Michigan’s starting quarterback has not been identified, although it’s clear the race has narrowed. It’s junior Wilton Speight, who played in one meaningful situation last season, and junior John O’Korn, who hasn’t played in a meaningful game in two years since transferring from Houston.

Three others — Shane Morris, Brandon Peters, Alex Malzone — could rise, but it’d be a shock if anyone other than Speight or O’Korn started the opener against Hawaii Sept. 3. Speight took first-team reps in the spring and exhibited maturity and calm self-assurance. O’Korn isn’t far behind, and my guess is, he’ll ultimately grab the job because of his experience at Houston, and because of his mobility, arm and leadership qualities.

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Harbaugh says there will be “no tricks, no politics, no games,” and the competition will be fair and fierce. At least it won’t be as dramatically uncertain as last year, when Iowa transfer Jake Rudock didn’t participate in a single Michigan practice until fall camp opened. He won the job and helped win 10 games, and that basic template — play smart, pay attention, be prepared — is the reason observers aren’t scared off by the absence of an established starter.

It’s also the reason offensive coordinator Tim Drevno and quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch don’t sound jittery, less than a month before the opener.

“We have a (capable) quarterback for sure, I just don’t know exactly who it’s gonna be,” Fisch said. “My opinion, you’d love for somebody to just take it so we’re like, ‘Wow, we got a guy, let’s roll with that.’ But do I think that’s gonna happen? Hmm, I think we got a lot of guys that are battling right now.”

Emulating Jake

O’Korn and Speight have similar drop-back styles and both talk confidently, as quarterbacks are required to do. Both are legitimately emboldened by what Harbaugh and his staff did with Rudock, and what Harbaugh has done with virtually every quarterback he’s handled. He recruited Andrew Luck to Stanford, revived Alex Smith with the 49ers and nearly turned Colin Kaepernick into a Super Bowl winner.

O’Korn got to witness last year’s battle up close. He couldn’t play but he was in meetings and practices, and in case he wasn’t sponging up enough, he lived with Rudock too.

“I saw what he was like every single day, and he was a guy that just came in, kept his mouth shut and worked his butt off,” O’Korn said Sunday at Michigan’s Media Day. “That’s something I want to try to do too. The thing about Jake is, all of us knew he was gonna be that good. Whoever plays is gonna have the same success, if not more.”

Michigan opens with five straight home games, so theoretically, the battle could continue into the season. But Fisch said that was unlikely and a starter probably would be identified by the last week of camp. It will be an interesting and vital call.

O’Korn was the American Athletic Conference rookie of the year at Houston in 2013, when he completed 58 percent of his passes for 3,117 yards, 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The Cougars stumbled the following season, O’Korn was benched and coach Tony Levine was fired.

O’Korn probably rates higher on the risk-reward scale, somewhat prone to interceptions. Speight is taller (6-foot-6 to 6-4) and rates higher on the safety scale, although he has thrown only 25 passes in two seasons. With a dominant defense, maybe you make the safe choice. Or maybe you don’t mind a risk-taker because the defense will cover up mistakes. Or maybe I’m overanalyzing this.

Either way, whoever gets the job will be expected to keep it.

“John’s a good buddy of mine, but obviously it’s not always going to be daffodils and dandelions,” Speight said. “It’s going to get competitive and it’s going to get heated. We all respect each other, and that’s all you need.”

Grace under pressure

Speight’s biggest boost was his poised performance at Minnesota last season, when he replaced an injured Rudock and led Michigan to a 29-26 victory. He threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Jehu Chesson with 4:57 left and added a two-point conversion to Amara Darboh.

Fisch repeatedly tells Speight the touchdown pass doesn’t have to be the only one of his career, pushing the competition. Both quarterbacks are quick to note other contenders, but logically this is a one-on-one confrontation, and Morris even has gotten time at receiver.

“The nature of our quarterback competition is, there’s three of us that could probably be starters at 125 different schools across the country,” O’Korn said. “For some reason, all three of us are here, and somebody’s gotta play. So yeah, you got that fight or flight mechanism. Whoever’s the toughest guy, the hardest-working guy, the best guy for the job is gonna play.”

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Michigan has three stellar senior pass-catchers — Chesson, Darboh, tight end Jake Butt —and they say there’s scant difference between the quarterbacks. O’Korn might be more outgoing and aggressive, while Speight might be more fundamentally sound.

Whoever starts, Harbaugh is going to run his straight-ahead power offense, and the Wolverines probably don’t need a quarterback to carry them. But don’t kid yourself — they need a quarterback to take command, as Rudock did, and not merely be risk-averse. O’Korn joked he’s never run a huddle in college because of Houston’s hurry-up offense, and can’t wait to reacquaint himself with such basics after sitting out a year.

“Off the field, it was just getting my love for the game back,” O’Korn said. “Sometimes when you play for a coach with different philosophies, you can lose that a little bit. Everything’s lined up perfectly here, with coaches that have the fire and enthusiasm I dream of.”

The Wolverines are looking for a quarterback drawn by the fire, unfazed by the competition. Once again, they like their chances of finding him.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/bobwojnowski