Niyo: Can Patterson help Michigan win arms race?

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Shea Patterson is exchanging his Mississippi red and blue for Michigan's maize and blue.

Michigan fans know what they’re missing. They can’t help but know, really, because everyone else around them has one or two or more of what they don’t have, whether you’re talking about Big Ten championship trophies or NFL-caliber quarterbacks over the last decade.

Jim Harbaugh knew what he was missing, too. He saw what everyone else saw — and then some — this past season, as the Wolverines repeatedly came up short in big games. At times, it felt like they were playing with one arm tied behind their back offensively. And while not all of that gets pinned on the quarterback play — the offensive line and receiving corps both were major issues — much of it certainly can be.

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That’s why Monday’s announcement Mississippi quarterback Shea Patterson is transferring to Michigan was an important one, if not a surprising one. The weekend campus visit by Patterson felt more like a house-hunting trip than a recruiting stop. And he might soon be joined by a couple of his Ole Miss teammates, safety Deontay Anderson and receiver Van Jefferson, that are contemplating a similar move, with the Rebels program facing NCAA probation.

Whether or not Patterson will be eligible to play in the fall is still up in the air, though it seems like a safe bet he’ll get his clearance eventually. And once he does, then the real competition will begin, because that No. 1 quarterback job will be up for grabs as well, with redshirt freshman Brandon Peters bracing for a fight and true freshman Dylan McCaffrey eager for a chance to prove himself in Harbaugh’s mandated “meritocracy.”

Filling a need

That’s the real payoff here for Harbaugh and his staff, who just landed one of the better young passing talents from the SEC — a player that some recruiting analysts had pegged as the nation’s top quarterback in the class of 2016 — to a roster that seems well-stocked at just about every other position. And to a program that’s had too many question marks at the most important position for far too long.

Injuries and ineffective play forced Harbaugh to use three different starting quarterbacks this season: First Wilton Speight, then John O’Korn and finally Peters, who’ll get another start for the Wolverines in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1. But none of them was able to lift Michigan past their rivals in a competitive Big Ten East division.

Shea Patterson

Michigan ranked 110th in pass efficiency, 111th in passing yards, and only seven FBS teams threw fewer touchdown passes this season. More telling, O’Korn and Peters combined to go 60-of-121 for 735 yards and one touchdown with four interceptions in Michigan’s four losses. Most of that was O’Korn’s work, of course. All but the three quarters of the Wisconsin game that Peters played, in fact.

Yet coupled with Speight’s decision to transfer, that’s all the more reason why Harbaugh needed to bring in another transfer quarterback — his third in four years. At the very least, he needs the experienced depth — Peters’ 64 snaps were the only regular-season action any of the returnees could claim — and the competition.

No guarantees

In Patterson, who has two years of eligibility remaining, he gets that and potentially much more, with some intriguing playmaking talent and moxie. (That scrambling ability might come in handy, too, if Michigan’s offensive line next fall looks anything like it did for much of this season.) Harbaugh and offensive staff also get a former five-star recruit to go along with four-star talents in Peters, who’ll be a redshirt sophomore next fall, and McCaffrey, who sat out as a true freshman this season. Another four-star recruit, Joe Milton, is expected to join the group in the fall, along with Kevin Doyle, a three-star prospect out of Washington, D.C.

More: Wojo: Dynamic Shea Patterson is logical target in Michigan's QB hunt

Stars don’t guarantee anything, obviously. Transfers don’t, either, as we saw with O’Korn. But the lack of a guiding star at the quarterback position goes a long way in explaining Michigan’s aimless wandering over the last decade. Outside of the Denard Robinson era, it was Steven Threet and Tate Forcier and Devin Gardner, until Harbaugh arrived and immediately brought in a graduate transfer from Iowa in Jake Rudock who played his way into an NFL job in Detroit.

By contrast, Michigan State has had a future NFL quarterback starting every season but one since 2007, going from Brian Hoyer to Kirk Cousins to Connor Cook. Now they’ve got Brian Lewerke, who looks like he might be one, too. Ohio State has enjoyed a similar run, going from Terrelle Pryor to Braxton Miller to J.T. Barrett, with a Cardale Jones cameo thrown in for good measure.

Those teams had plenty else going for them, including some dominant defenses the years they won league titles. But Michigan has had defenses like that lately and hasn’t gotten over the hump — 2-8 against the Spartans and 1-9 against the Buckeyes in that 10-year span.

What’s missing? Michigan fans know, and Harbaugh does, too. How could they not? Their rivals keep giving them annual reminders.