Michigan and Shea Patterson handled the drawn-out eligibility issue as patiently and low key as they could. In some ways, that was the easy part. Because now they’ll have to handle the sure-to-be-booming hype.
By most accounts, this is the piece Jim Harbaugh has been missing, a playmaker with confidence and mobility, to return Michigan to title contention. It’s not really that simple, but you get the point. Patterson was the No. 1 quarterback recruit in the country two years ago, and showed tantalizing flashes in 10 starts for Mississippi in the talent-rich SEC.
Now, good luck tamping down expectations for the Wolverines, whether realistic or not. The schedule is brutal, with road games against Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State, and the offensive line is unsettled. But the defense should be excellent, with nine starters returning, and most of the skill-position players are back.
Of course Patterson’s eligibility is a significant boost for Harbaugh’s program. And yes, it’d be a complete shock if he’s not the starter over incumbent Brandon Peters in the opener at Notre Dame.
But this alliance comes with a pressure-packed caveat for the Wolverines — no more excuses for a weak offense, no more excuses for 8-5, and no reason they shouldn’t have a legitimate shot in the Big Ten East.
In Harbaugh’s three seasons, the Wolverines have finished no higher than third in the division, and there are two key reasons they’ve lagged behind Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State: Quarterback and offensive line.
While Michigan went through Wilton Speight, John O’Korn and Peters last season, the others were rolling with dynamic leaders. The Spartans still have their guy, Brian Lewerke, and so do the Nittany Lions, Trace McSorley. Ohio State finally, mercifully graduated J.T. Barrett, but has prime candidates, notably Dwayne Haskins, to step in.
We’re going to learn a lot about Patterson, who completed 63.8 percent of his passes at Ole Miss last season before suffering a knee injury, but threw nine interceptions. He also had 17 touchdown passes in seven games. (Ahem, Michigan had nine touchdown passes in 13 games.)
Patterson is lauded for his ability to adapt and improvise, to create something when things break down. And frankly, that’s what we need to see from Harbaugh, too, after an offseason of self-reflection and staff-shuffling. The notion of Harbaugh as a quarterback guru certainly could use some refreshing.
Patterson presents a prime opportunity, but also a challenge for Harbaugh and passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton. He’s not the traditional under-the-center, dropback type that Harbaugh has molded before. Yes, Colin Kaepernick was a dual-threat guy with the 49ers, but Patterson isn’t exactly like that either.
He’s not big (6-2, 203 pounds), and in fact is the shortest among Michigan’s four quarterbacks — Peters, redshirt freshman Dylan McCaffrey and true freshman Joe Milton are all about 6-5. Players and coaches raved about Patterson during spring practice, while acknowledging Peters ramped up his competitiveness.
With Harbaugh and Patterson, hype meets hype, in a program that hasn’t yet fulfilled it. Fittingly, the NCAA ruling came the other day with the Wolverines in France, on the type of high-profile educational excursion that grows the brand and heats the spotlight. Neither Harbaugh nor Patterson ever has shied from it, so you assume they’ll be ready for it.
“He’s got a lot of special qualities,” Harbaugh said. “I mean, he is really talented when it comes to throwing the ball. He’s really good and elusive and has a really good feel for the game. He’s a quick-minded guy. All positive.”
Quick-minded and quick-footed, and you might have to look quickly or you’ll miss him. Believe it or not, two days after the NFL draft, outlets are assessing the top pro prospects for 2019. And sure enough, three sites — Bleacher Report, SB Nation, CBS Sports — have Patterson slotted between 17th and 24th in the first round. One site, Walterfootball.com, pegs Patterson as the No. 1 pick in the draft. (I warned you about the hype!) Those assessments are wildly premature, and probably also an overreaction to what just happened in the draft. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield — a 6-1 firebrand who runs around and makes plays — went No. 1 to Cleveland. Some also have compared Patterson to Johnny Manziel, so the full spectrum is covered.
On the move
Patterson has been on the move most of his life, and with Michigan unsettled at both tackle positions, he might need to be as nimble as ever. Harbaugh has tried to remedy that situation, hiring touted offensive line coach Ed Warinner, who was Ohio State’s co-offensive coordinator from 2012-16.
Born in Toledo, Patterson attended Michigan games as a kid. His family moved to Texas and Louisiana, and he finished high school at IMG Academy in Florida. When Ole Miss was placed on probation, Patterson petitioned to be immediately eligible at Michigan, saying he’d been misled by former coach Hugh Freeze. The NCAA, recognizing a need to loosen transfer rules in certain situations, avoided stepping in another hypocrisy puddle and finally agreed.
Harbaugh said the quarterback battle is wide-open, and all four spoke in France about the competition. It is important a viable No. 2 emerges, especially if Patterson indeed is one-and-done at Michigan. He certainly talks like someone with big plans, and isn’t bashful about declaring them.
“I would have stayed at Ole Miss if it wasn’t for the situation we were in,” Patterson said. “I can live with throwing an interception in the national championship game or in the playoff … but I don’t know if I could have lived with not even being able to get a chance to compete for one. Watching Michigan all last year, and with the guys we’ve got coming back on defense, I feel like we’ve got a really good shot at doing that.”
We’ve heard that before from the Wolverines, just not from a player like this, in a position as important as this. It’s a lot to say, a lot to handle, and a lot on the line for a quarterback and a coach still trying to fulfill big promise.