Niyo: If O’Korn’s OK, it’s more evidence of UM's strength

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Michigan quarterback John O'Korn replaced injured starter Wilton Speight and led the Wolverines to victory with 270 yards passing and a touchdown pass against Purdue.

Ann Arbor — Mason Cole isn’t a receiver. He’s not much of a worrier, either. So if you ask him what’ll be different now that Michigan’s season is officially in the hands of fifth-year senior John O’Korn, don’t expect a detailed breakdown comparing his arm strength or throwing mechanics to that of injured starter Wilton Speight.

And as for what might change with the Wolverines’ outlook now that Speight is out indefinitely, Cole, a senior co-captain, sounds about as concerned as his head coach did Monday when someone asked Jim Harbaugh if this rivalry week made it tough to keep emotions in check.

"Do I seem overly emotional to you?" Harbaugh deadpanned.

No, he didn’t. Nor did Cole, as the Wolverines returned to work in preparation for Saturday’s showdown with in-state rival Michigan State.

Moments after Harbaugh confirmed Speight will miss “multiple weeks” because of an injury suffered early in last week’s Big Ten opener against Purdue, the Wolverines’ left tackle was asked what difference that might make for the nation’s seventh-ranked team.

“Really, nothing,” he shrugged. “Just keep on keepin’ on, you know what I mean? Things are fine here.”

If true, it’ll say nearly as much about the program Harbaugh has rebuilt as it does about O’Korn, the former transfer from Houston tasked with leading Michigan for the foreseeable future.

Already we’ve seen evidence of the improved roster depth and talent across the board in Ann Arbor, as a defense that returned just one starter from last year’s top-ranked unit again leads the nation in multiple categories. (Michigan still hasn’t allowed a point in the fourth quarter this season.)

Road tests

But now we’ll see what happens with an offense that lost its top receiving threat in freshman Tarik Black to a broken foot two weeks ago and must rely on a new signal-caller just as it heads into the heart of its conference schedule. After Saturday’s clash with the Spartans, Michigan faces back-to-back road tests at Indiana and No. 4 Penn State.

O’Korn certainly provided a spark replacing Speight early in the Big Ten opener at Purdue, finishing 18-of-26 for 270 yards and a touchdown in the 28-10 victory. Cole called that transition “effortless” — “He came in like he’d been there all year,” Cole said — and senior fullback Khalid Hill echoed those sentiments Monday, saying, “That gives you confidence, when your backup quarterback can perform the way he did.”

As it should, because that sort of thing is hardly a given in college football.

Georgia has carried on with starting quarterback Jacob Eason, out because of a knee injury, improving to 5-0 and emerging as a contender in the SEC with freshman Jake Fromm under center. But that’s the exception, not the rule.

Consider what has happened to Florida State’s season after starter Deondre Francois went down in the season-opening loss to Alabama. (Jimbo Fisher’s team is off to an 0-2 start in the ACC for the first time in nearly 30 years.) Or how injuries on the offensive line might have derailed USC’s title hopes in the Pac-12 barely a month into the season.

And then consider what most Michigan fans thought of O’Korn the last time the Wolverines were getting ready to face one of their rivals, with Speight nursing a significant shoulder injury heading into that game in Columbus late last November.

New attitude

Well, here we are again. Yet as O’Korn talks about his college career coming full-circle there’s a sense of self-assurance some might find surprising.

He transferred to Michigan two years ago after losing the starting job at Houston and feeling like a “scapegoat” for some of the problems there. Then after a year spent running the scout team at Michigan, O’Korn lost out to Speight in the competition for the No. 1 job last season. And though he wasn’t able to wrestle it away this summer, either, O’Korn no longer sounds like a guy wrestling with disappointment.

More: UM expects ‘tough-fought’ game against ‘hated’ MSU

He credits the offseason arrival of Pep Hamilton — Michigan’s new passing game coordinator — for improvements in his game. O’Korn flashed some of his improvisational skills at Purdue, but he looked more comfortable in the pocket, too, hanging in rather than bailing out as he did too often — and too soon — last season. In the process, he also helped Hamilton rediscover Michigan’s tight ends in the downfield passing game.

Mostly, though, O’Korn credits Hamilton with helping “get my confidence back.” Likewise, he says last year’s late-season cameo as a starter, an erratic effort in a snowy escape against Indiana, taught him a valuable lesson.

He’d put so much pressure on himself that day to prove the job should be his — think Cardale Jones at the end of Ohio State’s 2014 national title run, because that’s what O’Korn admits he did — he nearly did the opposite.

“And whether I blew it or not,” he said back in August, “I have the opportunity again this year.”

Indeed, he does. And though that Purdue performance isn’t much for the rest of us to go on, O'Korn's teammates have seen enough — citing both his patience and his preparation — to sound convinced he's ready to take advantage of it this time around, .

“He lets things come to him,” Hill said. “He’s not worried about the outside. He’s just focusing on what’s in front of him.”

And what's in front of him now is all he could ask for, really: Another chance to make a difference.

Michigan vs. Michigan State

When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor

TV / radio: ABC / WJR 760 WWJ 950

Records: Michigan 4-0, Michigan State 3-1

Line: Michigan by 12.5