For transfer quarterbacks like O'Korn, no plan is ever certain
Five hundred and seventy-five days have passed, and now the day is coming, just as John O’Korn always knew it would.
A few minutes after noon Saturday at Michigan Stadium, when the Wolverines take the field for their first offensive possession of the 2016 season, O’Korn will either lead them onto the field or he won’t. He will either be the next starting quarterback for Michigan or he won’t. He will either achieve the position he set out for or he won’t. If that sounds uncertain, it’s how O’Korn has woken up every day since he came to campus.
Redshirt sophomore Wilton Speight held an edge over O’Korn after spring camp, and many assume Speight will translate that into a start Saturday. But the Wolverines have been coy about declaring a winner of the job O’Korn traveled some 1,200 miles to earn.
The road that started 575 days ago, when O’Korn announced his transfer, has been as well-documented as it has been well-traveled. In 2013, O’Korn was a breakout freshman at Houston, throwing for 3,117 yards and earning American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year honors.
In 2014, he lost his starting job to a wide receiver. In 2015, he was on Michigan’s scout team.
The line between the two fortunes O’Korn has experienced grows thinner every year, and the quarterbacks competing for Michigan’s starting job know how important it is to be on the right side of it. Plenty of stories have ended both ways. In the past two years, the Wolverines have started to bring in several transfers, all with plenty to gain, little to expect and mixed results.
In January, a few days after Michigan demolished Florida in the Citrus Bowl to end its best season in four years, passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch texted each of the returning quarterbacks with a memo: The competition to become the next starter would be the toughest of their lives.
The clock started then, and the quarterbacks knew it. After the Spring Game on April 1, redshirt sophomore Wilton Speight acknowledged that the battle would change the rest of the winner’s life. The starter, barring injury, will join an exclusive club, hold the keys to one of the Big Ten’s title contenders and gain major exposure toward a potential pro career.
The involved parties now know who that starter is, though head coach Jim Harbaugh has not disclosed it to the public. Today is the last day O’Korn’s role with the Michigan football team is in question. Saturday, everything will finally begin to clear up.
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O’Korn’s situation isn’t new. According to the NCAA, in the 2012-13 academic year — the most recent for which the governing body has statistics — 6.6 percent of athletes transferred between schools, with the football rate about one percent below that average. (For perspective, that would be about seven of the 132 players on Michigan’s team.) They must sit out for a season, as O’Korn did, unless they have already graduated.
Many transfers have high profiles. In last season’s College Football Playoff, two of the four starting quarterbacks were transfers — Alabama’s Jake Coker came from Florida State, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield from Texas Tech.
But until recently, Michigan didn’t often take advantage of the trend. Excluding linebacker Marell Evans, who left for Hampton for a year before returning, the Wolverines went without acquiring a transfer from 2008 until June 2014. Then, running back Ty Isaac, a redshirt junior on this year’s team, arrived from Southern California.
It didn’t take long for Harbaugh to capitalize by bringing in four during his first four months as head coach. He recruited graduate transfers Wayne Lyons, a safety from Stanford, and Blake O’Neill, a punter from Weber State who started 12 games for Michigan in 2015.
And, of course, there were the quarterbacks: O’Korn and graduate transfer Jake Rudock from Iowa, a high school teammate of O’Korn’s at St. Thomas (Fla.) Aquinas who started all 13 games last season.
In searching for a destination as a transfer, it’d be difficult to imagine an outcome better than Rudock’s at Michigan. After losing his starting job at Iowa much like O’Korn did at Houston, Rudock sought a new spot for a year to finish his career. He settled on Michigan, won the job and turned in one of the best passing seasons in school history. As a reward, the Detroit Lions selected Rudock in the NFL Draft, and Rudock has lasted the preseason so far.
Before Rudock, just four other transfers have lettered and played in games since 1942 (before which less restrictive rules made transfers more common), according to the Bentley Historical Library.
The first two were military-related. Jack Wink started for Wisconsin in 1942 and then moved to Michigan, where he trained in the Navy’s V-12 program and played nine games in 1943. Howard Yerges played at Ohio State in 1943 before he also transferred to Michigan as part of his Navy training. He lettered at Michigan from 1944 to 1947, catching 11 passes as a fifth-year senior on the 1947 “Mad Magicians” national championship team.
The Wolverines went 54 years without playing another letterman at quarterback until Spencer Brinton arrived from a two-year Mormon mission. With two years of experience at San Diego State in 1997 and 1998, Brinton was a backup to John Navarre and then Chad Henne from 2002 until 2004. In 2007, Steven Threet arrived on campus from Georgia Tech and started for most of the 2008 season.
Seven years later came Rudock, and now O’Korn’s will be the next chapter. Only a select few know now how it will begin Saturday.
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Since he stepped on campus last year, O’Korn has had a mentor during the process in Rudock. Both transferred after losing their starting jobs, though Rudock was a graduate transfer and O’Korn an undergraduate.
The former teammates were also roommates last season as Rudock quarterbacked Michigan’s turnaround and O’Korn waited on the scout team for his turn.
But he knows that turn may never come. Speight, a redshirt sophomore who relieved an injured Rudock at Minnesota last year and engineered a game-winning comeback, took most of the first-team reps toward the end of spring camp. The coaches have said nothing during fall camp to indicate that he has squandered that lead, and while they have said the competition is close, the longer the competition goes on, the more it seems likely Speight maintains his advantage from the spring.
O’Korn surely did not come from Houston and sit out for a year to stay on the sidelines, though he knows that may end up being the case. If it is, he’ll have to take on the traditional backup quarterback role that Speight had last year, being ready to play in case of injury. The old attitude of being “one play away” will be his mindset.
“I think it has to be, you know?” he said. “I think it has to be. Regardless of what decisions are made, it’s not up to me. It is up to me — it’s up to how I perform — but at the end of the day it’s not up to me. So yeah, I think that’s the outlook that I would want to take, and I think that’s the outlook that I would want Wilton or Shane to take as well.”
O’Korn tweeted on Feb. 5, 2015 (though per NCAA rules, the school couldn’t announce it until later) that he would transfer to Michigan and couldn’t wait to play for Harbaugh and Fisch in Michigan Stadium. He will almost certainly do that this month — either as the starter or late in one game as a backup — but perhaps not as he planned.
Last Friday, before he knew who the starter would be, O’Korn pondered the journey he has taken since high school: a good year at Houston, a bad year at Houston, a year on the sideline at Michigan and a knock-down, drag-out battle for the quarterback spot at Michigan. Asked what he would have thought about that back in high school, he said he would have been content.
“I think about that often, and honestly I don’t think I’d change a thing,” O’Korn said. “You learn so much, being thrust into the fire as a freshman, just kind of being forced to play. Whether I was ready for it or not, I was playing. That was the reality. You learn from those experiences. And then the year off last year, it really wasn’t a year off. I was playing against the best defense in the country every day and getting prepared for this year.”
O’Korn, who started high school in Pennsylvania, has been through this process before. Between his sophomore and junior years of high school, he transferred from Huntingdon (Pa.) to St. Thomas Aquinas. He wasn’t the starter at the end of that move, either, but he took the job midway through his junior season and finished the year.
“I had no idea what I was doing, so I draw from those experiences,” O’Korn said. “And it’s a lot easier this time around. It really is.”
Whether O’Korn would have planned this route is a different question. But college careers rarely go according to plan, and they often still work out — just ask Steven Threet.
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Threet’s brief tenure at Michigan has not been remembered as a positive one. The season he played at quarterback was one of the worst in program history, in which the Wolverines finished Rich Rodriguez’s first year as head coach 3-9 for their first losing season since 1967.
Nothing about that season went according to plan. The 12th-ranked pro-style passer recruit according to 247Sports.com, Threet first enrolled at Georgia Tech in January 2007. On Jan. 20 of that year, Miami (Fla.) announced it had hired Threet’s offensive coordinator and position coach, Patrick Nix. Later that spring, Georgia Tech recruiting coordinator Geoff Collins left for Alabama.
“The two pillars of why I made the decision to go there were gone,” Threet recalls. “With the (Michigan) option on the table, it just made a lot of sense for me.”
An NFL hopeful seeking the right opportunity, Threet accepted a transfer offer from then-Michigan coach Lloyd Carr. He played on the scout team at Michigan in 2007, but Carr retired after that season and the school replaced him with Rodriguez. At 6-foot-6, 230 pounds, Threet wasn’t an ideal fit for Rodriguez’s option offense.
But he stayed and started for most of 2008, albeit in a system that wasn’t designed for him. He finished with 1,105 yards passing and 201 rushing with 11 total touchdowns and seven interceptions. Stuck in a tough spot again, Threet packed his bags once more, this time for Arizona State.
But despite encountering bad luck at every stop, Threet never thinks about what could have happened in different circumstances.
“I think as I continue to find out, regardless of what you plan, you’re going to get some different things than you’re expecting, everything from on third down to life in general,” Threet said. “You don’t know. You’re just trying to plan and prep the best you can, and then go through it. I think that kind of shaped my mentality in that way, to kind of attack things like that.”
For every good fit like Rudock’s, there are moves where the coaches, system, personnel or any number of other factors don’t line up as a player hopes they do. Threet’s year at Michigan would qualify as the latter.
Michigan fans dismiss that season as a dark memory. As the Wolverines enter the second year of the Harbaugh era, it seems to be in the distant past. But eight years later, Threet remembers it positively.
“It’s an experience I had looked forward to for a long time, so to be able to do that was something I was very happy about and proud of, and still am to this day,” Threet said. “It’s not necessarily the way I thought it was going to happen when I got there.
“But rarely do things work out just as you planned.”
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On a few occasions since late last season, when Rudock found his rhythm and became one of Michigan’s most dangerous offensive weapons, Harbaugh has called Rudock a “godsend.” For one year, it was a perfect match, as Rudock gave Michigan exactly what it needed, and vice versa.
But not all players who go looking for greener pastures find them. What happens in the alternative?
Michigan fifth-year senior wide receiver Jehu Chesson grew close with Rudock last year — he made a point of welcoming Rudock to campus during the summer — and has had to spend similar time developing chemistry with O’Korn. Chesson thinks of a quote he recently heard from New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick: “Talent sets the floor, but character sets the ceiling.”
“Jake came in with a lot of talent,” Chesson said. “He may not have been the most talented player. His character really, really, really defined his limits, because obviously he’s doing great things on Sundays right now with the Lions. I think that’s what John really embraced. He’s very talented, more so than Jake obviously, I think we’d all agree on that. But his character will really set his limit, and that goes for every one of us too.”
In that department, Rocco Casullo, O’Korn’s high school coach, says there’s no problem. If Michigan calls on O’Korn at some point, either tomorrow or later in the season, O’Korn will have to lead, perhaps like he did in his senior year at St. Thomas Aquinas in 2012.
The morning after a tough loss to Miramar dropped Aquinas to a lackluster 3-2 on the season, O’Korn and teammate Fred Coppet held a players-only meeting. Casullo still doesn’t know what was said, but the Raiders then reeled off 10 straight wins en route to the state championship.
If O’Korn doesn’t have the same opportunity, he won’t be the first one, and it’ll be a different outcome than he imagined when he announced his transfer 575 days ago. His fate is an unknown to the public today, just as it was to O’Korn last week, when O’Korn last spoke to the media and addressed both possible outcomes for this weekend.
Michigan’s staff has held an intensive competition, charting players’ every move since spring camp started in February and comparing their performances. And near the end of that battle, one built on head-to-head evaluation, O’Korn tried not to let the pressure get to him.
“You don’t want to compare yourself every day,” O’Korn said. “I feel like comparison will kill you. If I go out there and worry about what Shane and Wilton are doing every day, then I’m not going to be as focused on what I need to do.”