Position Previews 2017: Quarterbacks

Redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight is fighting to retain his starting job behind center.

Redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight is fighting to retain his starting job behind center. Buy this photo
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Sunday, August 27, 2017 - 5:54pm

As the final days count down until the Michigan football team opens the 2017 season against Florida in the AdvoCare Classic on Sept. 2 at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, the Daily breaks down each position group for the Wolverines this year. In this edition: quarterback.

For the first time in three seasons, Michigan can look forward to having a returning starting quarterback under center.

While most positions on the roster will be filled by rather inexperienced hands, the Wolverines can take comfort in the knowledge that they will be led by a veteran signal caller in redshirt junior Wilton Speight. Yet, in the spirit of coach Jim Harbaugh, there are a few competitors eyeing Speight’s spot in the lineup in 2017.

Here’s how the group stacks up this year:

Who’s back: Speight (6-foot-6, 243 pounds), fifth-year senior John O’Korn (6-foot-4, 215), redshirt freshman Brandon Peters (6-foot-5, 216), redshirt sophomore Alex Malzone (6-foot-2, 224) and sophomore Michael Sessa (6-foot-8, 205).

Who’s not: Fifth-year senior Shane Morris (4-for-5 passing, 45 yards), graduate transfer to Central Michigan.

Who’s new: Freshman Dylan McCaffrey (6-foot-5, 196).

Stats in 2016: Speight: 204-for-331, 2,538 yards, 18 touchdowns, seven interceptions. O’Korn: 20-for-34, 173 yards, two touchdowns.

Contenders: While the job seems to have Speight’s name written all over it, Harbaugh has yet to announce a starter for the season opener. O’Korn loser of last year’s fall camp battle and Peters surprise standout of this year’s spring camp were given a chance to make their case for the top spot. And as of late, Harbaugh has been vocal that the competition narrowed to Speight and O’Korn.

After earning the nod ahead of the 2016 season, Speight started 11 of 12 games missing a matchup against Indiana due to a shoulder injury and received All-Big Ten third team honors. The path toward the starting job began in 2015, when he led a game-winning comeback drive in the fourth quarter at Minnesota after Jake Rudock was sidelined with an injury. In Michigan’s first real challenge of 2016 a tightly-contested affair with Wisconsin Speight showed that his clutch performance was no fluke. With the game tied at seven late, he threw a 46-yard touchdown pass to former wideout Amara Darboh to beat the eventual Big Ten West champion Badgers.

With the Wolverines reeling after both losing its undefeated status and its starting quarterback at Iowa on Nov. 12, they desperately needed a jolt of confidence from somewhere. O’Korn was tasked with providing it. He earned his career first start for Michigan the next week against Indiana, but it didn’t pan out the way he may have hoped. The Hoosiers took a 7-6 halftime lead the first time the Wolverines had been down at the break all season. And while O’Korn’s 30-yard rush in the third quarter helped stave off a Hoosier comeback, Michigan’s quarterback finished the game just 7-for-16 with 59 passing yards and no touchdowns.

While Peters did not see game action in 2016, he certainly made the most of his first spring camp last April. His promising weeks of practice culminated in a spring game performance that left some wondering if he could usurp Speight for the starting job. That Saturday, he started for the Maize team against a Blue team led by Speight and O’Korn. Peters outplayed them both. In leading his side to a 31-29 victory, he completed 9 of 17 passes for 160 yards and rushed for a 12-yard touchdown. O’Korn went 3-for-6 with 60 yards and a touchdown. Speight went 9-for-26 with 78 yards and two interceptions.

Though Harbaugh has quieted the murmurs that Peters will start — saying on Aug. 11 that the competition is now between Speight and O’Korn — the young quarterback is an intruiging talent nonetheless. On the outside looking in, the signs point to Speight, who has been named to the preseason watch lists for both the Davey O’Brien and the Maxwell Award given to the nation’s best quarterback and all-around player, respectively. But that’s no guarantee for what’s happening on the inside.

Edge/Prediction: After leading Michigan to a double-digit win total and a New Year’s Six bowl, Speight seemed to have the starting job under lock and key. But that season was also marred by a 1-3 finish, including a shocking upset at Iowa, an overtime thriller at Ohio State and a comeback that fell just short against Florida State in the Orange Bowl.

Though Peters had an impressive surge in the spring, Harbaugh made it clear that fall camp would be the deciding factor between his trio of signal callers. After weeks of competition in August, Harbaugh has narrowed his choice down to the last two standing in 2016’s position battle Speight and O’Korn.

With so many other question marks surrounding the Wolverines in 2017, it seems especially important for their leader to be battle-tested. Speight believes Michigan is his team, and he has the mental toughness to carry it if troubled times were to arise. Though O’Korn chose to return to the Wolverines instead of pursuing a graduate transfer, the best bet is that Speight will take the field in Dallas to lead Michigan into the 2017 season.