The sky fell in for the Michigan football team at quarterback last season. When Shea Patterson announced he would transfer to the Wolverines, it was lifted back up and then some. Think Falcon Heavy, if you need a point of comparison.
It’s not hard to figure out why.
Wilton Speight, John O’Korn and Brandon Peters, all of whom started under center at various points last season, combined to average a pitiful 5.65 adjusted yards per attempt. That would have ranked 88th in the country and ninth in the Big Ten among qualified field generals. To put it generously, there was room for improvement — and Patterson seems ready to fill the void.
Though he played just seven games thanks to a torn PCL, Patterson threw for 2,259 passing yards with the Rebels as a sophomore last season. Michigan’s quarterbacks combined for 2,225 in 13 games. If Patterson is able to play next season — he could be deemed ineligible for 2018 as a transfer, but the NCAA is expected to grant him eligibility due to the situation in Oxford — he’s an instant upgrade, to say the least.
He is not a savior.
On tape, there are no shortage of kinks in Patterson’s game. His ball placement and footwork especially need refining. Though Patterson completed well over 60 percent of his passes last season, he frequently left yardage on the table by forcing receivers to adjust to the ball and slow their routes. Even on short and intermediate throws, Patterson had a worrisome tendency to put it high, not only preventing receivers from picking up yardage after the catch, but risking turnovers.
Three of Patterson’s interceptions last season came on slant routes where his accuracy was just slightly off. All three were still within the receiver’s catch radius, but forced them to adjust. That means the ball in the defensive back’s catch radius as well — especially if it goes off the receiver’s hands. Eliminating those few inches of chance is vital to Patterson’s development.
Patterson’s footwork is the biggest issue in his game. When his feet are set and he throws from a good base, Patterson looks like a future top NFL draft pick. However, he doesn’t do so with consistency. Especially against pressure, Patterson’s footwork tends to lapse. Throw a blitz at him and suddenly, Patterson’s feet are both facing forward. Once that happens, he rarely resets, making it hard to get an accurate throw off.
To his credit, Patterson is better at creating offense in those situations than most. He can make throws on the run and create highlights in doing so. But a lot of the time, he can be aimless, rolling out with his eyes down and without a plan in mind. When Patterson spots open receivers in those situations, he can make the throw, but he often doesn’t.
Against pressure, Patterson’s footwork and mechanics both fall apart. He doesn’t reset his feet and often throws off his back foot when the pocket is collapsing, leading to turnovers.
Blame Ole Miss’ offensive line for giving up pressure if you want, but Michigan’s isn’t exactly made up of world beaters. Pass protection was a constant issue for the Wolverines last season and they’re losing left tackle Mason Cole, their most reliable starter, along with center Patrick Kugler. Rice offensive tackle Calvin Anderson may transfer, bringing help, but that won’t fix everything, nor is it guaranteed to happen at all.
The potential for an adjustment period shouldn’t be underestimated either. Patterson played nearly every snap in shotgun last season in a spread offense, armed to the gills with run-pass options and zone reads. At Michigan, he’ll be in a pro-style offense, taking snaps under center with traditional three and five-step drops. There may be some spread elements worked in, but this is a wholly different system and perfecting it won’t be easy — especially given the Wolverines’ potential to struggle in pass protection.
Part of that will be learning to audible, set protections and make checks at the line of scrimmage. Patterson wasn’t responsible for doing so with the Rebels, but there were numerous instances where they failed to make an obvious call at the line.
On a 4th-and-5 in the middle of the third quarter during a blowout loss against Alabama, the Crimson Tide had just two defensive backs over three receivers on the trips side of a formation with the ball on Alabama's 31-yard line. Instead of taking advantage of the numbers with a screen or quick curl, the inside receivers both ran in-breaking routes, towards the rest of the defense. That failure was on the coaching staff, but next season, it will be Patterson’s job to make the adjustment at the line of scrimmage.
All that being said, Patterson’s upside is scintillating. He can create offense by himself, both in and out of the pocket. Though his velocity isn’t great, Patterson has significantly more arm talent than any of Michigan’s other options. He can rainbow the ball deep so accurately the receiver never has to break stride, the type of play that five quarterbacks in the country are capable of making on a good day.
Though his placement needs work, Patterson can also hit short and intermediate routes with consistency, especially when his feet are set. If that was his only selling point, the Wolverines would happily take it after last season. He can keep an offense moving — toss in a run game centered around rising senior Karan Higdon and Michigan’s offensive ceiling is pretty high.
Patterson isn’t the answer — not in the grand, all-being sense. But he’s a pretty good start on the road to finding one.