Niyo: 'Wide-open' QB race is UM's biggest issue

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — For the moment, there’s no reason to pretend.

There’s no incumbent starter at quarterback for Michigan’s football team, ergo there’s no starting quarterback.

And as Jedd Fisch, the Wolverines’ passing game coordinator, said recently, the coaching staff is in no rush to name one.

But unlike last fall, when the competition for that job was decided rather quickly — graduate transfer Jake Rudock easily separated himself from Shane Morris — and the depth-chart secrecy was mostly a smokescreen, “this is more wide-open,” according to Wilton Speight, who certainly would know.

Speight, the redshirt sophomore who ultimately served as Rudock’s backup last season, is the one getting first crack at the first-team repetitions as Michigan’s spring practices conclude this week. And if anyone has something to lose Friday night in the team’s final scrimmage at Michigan Stadium, it’s probably him.

But Speight certainly didn’t sound apprehensive about it Tuesday, as he and his running mates in what coach Jim Harbaugh has described as a three-horse race finally met with the media. Neither did Morris or junior John O’Korn, who was pegged by many as the likely successor to Rudock after sitting out last season as a transfer from Houston.

“We all want to get the job,” said Speight, who replaced an injured Rudock and led Michigan to a fourth-quarter comeback win at Minnesota last season. “But there’s no sense of urgency, as far as we’re nervous or anything.”

There is a sense of urgency, however, when it comes to the actual competition on the field.

“Because you’re replaceable at anything you do in life,” Speight said, matter-of-factly. “That’s all it really means. I’m getting the job done, but someone else is trying to do it better.”

It started with Michigan’s Citrus Bowl practices in December, described by Harbaugh and his staff as an “audition” for spring ball to all but the graduating seniors on the roster. And for the quarterbacks specifically — including freshman Brandon Peters and sophomore Alex Malzone — the message really hasn’t changed since. Fisch keeps telling them to treat the competition “like your life depends on it,” partly because Michigan’s 2016 season outlook does.

Someone needs to take job

With experienced lines on both sides of the ball, and proven playmakers in either backfield, the biggest question mark for a team coming off a 10-win season is under center. And the quarterbacks certainly know it, as the coaches keep reminding them.

“Pretty much every single meeting and every practice, every rep, it’s said over and over,” said Speight, when asked about the open secret underlying his position group battle. “So we understand.”

Understanding is only part of the challenge here, though.

UM quarterback candidates make their case

“With this job comes great responsibility,” O’Korn said. “It’s Michigan. There’s a lot of hype around the quarterback position.”

Each of the three battling for the No. 1 job has his strengths. Speight’s efficiency has him in front for now, but O’Korn brings more athleticism and game experience — he threw for 3,117 yards and 28 touchdowns as a freshman at Houston — and “everyone knows Shane’s got the rocket arm,” Speight said Tuesday.

What the coaches are looking for is someone to take the job and keep it, which means keeping the football instead of giving it up on offense. And right now, as Harbaugh noted after the team’s public practice at Ford Field on Saturday, that seems to be everyone’s weakness: “They’re all in the mode of (making) a big mistake a day.”

“Strides are being made,” Harbaugh said, “but we’ve still got a long row to hoe.”

No given at this point

And they know it. Because they see it themselves, whether it’s the missed reads or the forced interceptions or the failed third-down conversions.

“I think all three of us would say the same thing,” said O’Korn, who roomed with Rudock last year and marveled at his quiet work ethic and attention to detail. “Somebody starts to separate himself and one mistake happens, and we’re back there right at even.”

Friday night will be another chance for one of the three to get some more separation, before the players and coaches go their separate ways until August. Ideally, I think, it’d be O’Korn who grabs the reins and pulls ahead in fall camp, with better mobility and a bigger arm. But that’s hardly a given at this point.

There should be ample opportunities to make mistakes Friday, too, as Harbaugh is promising “game-like action” and “real tackle football” with “live bullets.” New defensive coordinator Don Brown will keep most of his exotic blitzes holstered, but he still has plenty of ammunition and Jabrill Peppers & Co. will be happy to provide some real tackling.

“So that’ll be a nice, good-size task for us,” Harbaugh said. “Looking forward to seeing how that plays out.”

He’s not the only one.