John O’Korn hasn’t played in a football game since Nov. 28, 2014, but his year away may have been the most important one of his career.
The redshirt junior quarterback arrived at Michigan last fall after a tumultuous career at Houston that ultimately led to his transfer. O’Korn won the starting job as a freshman and threw for 3,117 yards and 28 touchdowns, but he lost his spot to converted receiver Greg Ward Jr. after just five games the next year.
“It was just a (comfort) thing,” O’Korn said. “I kind of felt out of place there at times. Part of that’s my fault, and part of that is just the nature of playing in a spread offense as a pro-style quarterback. I think that’s the number-one thing, just (comfort) — I think this system fits me a lot better and allows me to be the best player I can be.”
Of course, O’Korn wasn’t able to get back on the field right away. Per NCAA transfer eligibility rules, he had to sit out the 2015 season. But now, with the Wolverines in the heat of spring camp, O’Korn is finally a factor again as he competes with redshirt sophomore Wilton Speight and redshirt junior Shane Morris for the starting job.
He didn’t just sit idly on the sidelines for a year, though. Working as a member of the scout team all season, O’Korn was an extremely active practice player, and he was present in just as many meetings and drills as a starter would have been. After six months of inactivity since he lost the job at Houston, O’Korn’s role in the fall was a welcome return to normalcy.
“Any time you spend time away from the game, you appreciate it more,” O’Korn said. “I started to miss the little things that I didn’t really realize I would miss — chalk talk, drawing up plays, watching film hours on end in a dark room by yourself.”
It wasn’t long before O’Korn started to feel settled in at Michigan. And even though he found himself surrounded by a decorated coaching staff — including a quarterback guru of a head coach in Harbaugh — O’Korn’s biggest resource ended up being his roommate: 2015 starting quarterback Jake Rudock.
In many ways, Rudock and O’Korn have parallel stories. Rudock was also a starter at his former school, Iowa, before unceremoniously losing his job and departing as a transfer. Rudock, too, began his career with the Wolverines embroiled in a preseason quarterback competition, which he ultimately won before going on to throw for 3,017 yards — the second-highest single-season total in Michigan history.
The two quarterbacks even went to the same high school, St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
In his time as the starter, Rudock gained a reputation as a quiet leader who rarely made crucial mistakes. As O’Korn tried to acclimate to his new team, he quickly realized that his roommate was setting the perfect model to follow.
“With Jake, he’s not really the type that’s gonna say a whole lot,” O’Korn said. “But just watching him, how he operates, how he prepares for games, how seriously he takes everything — the minute details, everything is so important — just watching him was really good. I could sit here and talk all day about things I learned from watching Jake.”
A few months later, Rudock — who flew under the radar for much of his collegiate career — is preparing for a potential career in the NFL. And O’Korn, no longer relegated to the sidelines, might be on his way to becoming his roommate’s successor. A pro-style quarterback with the ability to use his feet to get out of trouble, he brings a unique skill set that will certainly have him in the mix.
To win the job, though, he’ll have to beat out two other quarterbacks who have already played meaningful snaps for the Wolverines. O’Korn, Speight and Morris are very different players, and Harbaugh has said the player who separates himself from the others will have done so by limiting his big mistakes.
O’Korn has had a year of preparation to figure out how to do that. And if he continues to follow the Rudock model, he’ll be taking the field on Sept. 3 for the first time in nearly two years.