Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh seems irritated about questions regarding his quarterback situation. Angelique S. Chengelis, Detroit News
Ann Arbor — It’s not a controversy, and it’s too early to be a full-blown issue. To Jim Harbaugh, it isn’t even a question, and that’s the way he has to treat it right now.
Wilton Speight isn’t losing his starting quarterback job anytime soon, and he shouldn’t. But you can say that, and also say this: His uneven play is a concern that won’t dissipate unless he improves.
During Michigan’s 2-0 start, Speight has completed 51.9 percent of his passes, thrown two interceptions and fumbled once. He’s been sacked four times and shown inconsistent footwork, which has led to overthrows. When Michigan failed to move on its first two possessions of the third quarter Saturday, while clinging to a 17-14 lead against Cincinnati, there were boos.
Harbaugh isn’t fanning the fumes, and isn’t interested in a deep discussion about backups John O’Korn and Brandon Peters. When I asked if the quarterback competition is ongoing, even into the season, Harbaugh looked irritated and abruptly cut the line of questioning Monday.
“Wilton’s the starting quarterback,” he said, “and we’re forging on.”
As for Peters, the touted redshirt freshman who was in the early mix, Harbaugh would only say, “Progressing nicely.”
Staying the course
I’m a big boy (literally), and I can handle snippy responses. In a situation like this, just two games into a promising season, it’s not a surprise Harbaugh is sensitive to premature judgment. But mainly, I think he isn’t welcoming the question because there’s no easy answer and no quick fix.
Michigan has a tricky upcoming test against Air Force, and a coach should never waver on his starter until he’s sure he has a viable alternative. The Wolverines are young, with freshman receivers and three new offensive linemen, and it certainly isn’t all on Speight. And make no mistake, he still has the ability to be very good.
He’s having mechanical issues, which can lead to confidence issues. I don’t think it’s a loyalty situation, that Speight’s experience in his second season as the starter guarantees he sticks. If O’Korn, a senior, or Peters had beaten him out, they’d be in there. It’s silly to suggest otherwise.
Say what you wish about Harbaugh’s unorthodox ways, but he has a solid record of quarterback development, notably with Jake Rudock two years ago. And he’s never hesitant to plug in the next guy, going back to his promotion of Colin Kaepernick with the 49ers.
There’s no secret agenda here, no holding back the young guy. Harbaugh clearly thinks Speight is his best quarterback, and has a full season of evidence to support it. Last year, Speight completed 61.6 percent of his passes, with 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions, but was less effective down the stretch after injuring a shoulder in the loss to Iowa.
Michigan fullback Khalid Hill talks about Wilton Speight and Michigan's quarterback situation. Angelique S. Chengelis, Detroit News
Speight does have a nagging propensity for the big mistake, including two interception returns for touchdowns in the opener against Florida. And Peters, who looked good in the spring, is a bit of a puzzle. O’Korn handled two drives against the Gators fairly well, completing his only pass for 37 yards to Tarik Black, and appears to be the clear No. 2.
When fall camp opened, Harbaugh suggested it was a “three-way tie” among the quarterbacks. That fits into his meritocracy model, where jobs must be earned and re-earned. But it’s a fine line at quarterback, where the starter can’t fear a benching after every mistake.
Speight never has lacked self-confidence, and seems encouraged his mistakes are tied to technical issues rather than poor decision-making. That is a notable difference, suggesting it’s more correctable.
“Sometimes when I avoid or move around in the pocket, I get a little sloppy with my feet, which causes the ball to sail or go a little low,” Speight said after the 36-14 victory over Cincinnati. “That’s something I’ve been working on every day and continue to do so.”
Room for improvement
Michigan’s offense has to get better in a lot of areas before it gets tested by tougher opponents such as Michigan State and Penn State. Michigan fans might have gotten spoiled by Rudock’s steady development in 2015, and even by Speight’s progress last season.
On that senior-leaden team, Speight threw an interception on his first pass, then ripped off eight straight outstanding performances, with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions. That built equity in the coaching staff and teammates, and two shaky games don’t drain the equity.
Passionate fans drain it much more quickly. It’s ridiculous when college players get ripped like pros, but with social media, there’s no stopping the criticism.
“Everyone sees it, but it doesn’t faze (Speight), so it’s not gonna faze us,” senior center Patrick Kugler said. “He’s a fearless leader. He’s not a big rah-rah guy, but you don’t need a million rah-rah guys. He’s poised, no matter the circumstances.”
Speight also has sneaky mobility, great size and strong intellect. He can make big plays too — a couple of deep post touchdowns to Tarik Black and Kekoa Crawford already this season, and a 33-yard touchdown strike to Grant Perry. The difference between a three-loss season and a special season doesn’t rest solely with the feisty defense. It rests with the quarterback, and Harbaugh will ride him as long as reasonably possible.
Defending a struggling player can make a coach sound defensive, although sometimes you have no choice but to go all in. Ohio State probably didn’t think it would have a quarterback issue, and now with J.T. Barrett under intense scrutiny, Urban Meyer has to stay committed.
It’s the fans’ role to invest emotionally and react impulsively. It’s the media’s role to ask questions and dissect the options. It’s the coach’s role to shut out the noise and figure it out, and Harbaugh seems acutely aware of the task ahead.