John O’Korn says he never thought about transferring following last season. He certainly couldn’t have been faulted had he done so, let alone considered it.
The fifth-year senior quarterback has had a long few years since he burst onto the scene as a freshman at Houston in 2013, when O’Korn threw for 3,117 yards and 28 touchdowns en route to being named the American Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year.
He was a teenager on top of the world. Accolades, stardom, possibly even the NFL beckoned. And then everything went sideways.
O’Korn struggled mightily at the start of his sophomore year, throwing for just six touchdowns versus eight interceptions. His decision-making and accuracy faltered, and by the sixth game of the season, Houston had elected to replace him with Greg Ward Jr.
O’Korn went from being “at the top of the college football landscape,” from being on watchlists for the Heisman Trophy and Davey O’Brien Award, to sitting on the bench. It was a humbling experience for the young quarterback. And with things at Houston irrevocably broken, O’Korn decided to transfer to Michigan.
“Yeah, I felt at times like I was the scapegoat at Houston for a lot of things that were going on within the program, and that will shake a 18-year old kid, you know?” O’Korn said Wednesday night. “Something you’ve just got to go through and learn from to get to where you’re at now.”
He sat out his first year in Ann Arbor and then threw his name into the quarterback competition last winter — a competition that many, given his success as a freshman, expected him to win.
But O’Korn professed that he still struggled with his confidence, which had taken a beating. He wasn’t comfortable, and it showed — especially when he did see the field, such as a start against Indiana in place of an injured Wilton Speight.
O’Korn says he saw that opportunity as a chance to be Cardale Jones, the former Ohio State quarterback who replaced an injured J.T. Barrett and led the Buckeyes to the national championship.
But he couldn’t take advantage of his moment in the spotlight, completing 7-of-16 passes for just 59 yards.
“More than anything, I would’ve liked to get a few throws back from that game,” O’Korn said. “… I think maybe I pressed a little too much, tried to make the big play a little too much instead of just letting things come to me.”
Speight returned the next week, and O’Korn went back to the bench for the remainder of the season.
He could’ve transferred again, finding playing time readily elsewhere. Quarterback, after all, is still the most important position on the field, and there would’ve been plenty of coaches who believed they could harness O’Korn’s potential. Yet O’Korn loved Michigan too much to leave.
“A Michigan degree, I think everybody in here knows what that means,” O’Korn said. “I’m still in undergraduate school, so I would have to go to I-AA or D2 school, and I just really do love it here. Couldn’t be happier, whether I’m on the sideline or on the field, you know, I really love it here. I recognize the potential that we have this season with this team, want to be a part of it. Couldn’t miss that opportunity.”
It also just so happened that O’Korn didn’t have to go looking for a coach who could bring out the best of him. That coach came to him in the offseason, when Pep Hamilton joined the staff as the passing game coordinator and de facto quarterbacks coach.
“He’s been a godsend for me,” O’Korn said. “I think he’s helped me evolve into the player, the leader and the person that I always knew I could be.
“I think he’s helped me get my confidence back. I feel like I’m playing maybe the highest level I ever have right now, and that’s what it’s going to take to lead this time to the things that we want to do this year.”
The biggest change, according to O’Korn, may be a schematic difference. Under Hamilton, the quarterbacks have “a lot more responsibility” with protections compared to last year, when O’Korn says they “didn’t really know what was going on up front.”
That explained the critique that most onlookers had of his play, especially against Indiana: O’Korn often looked uncomfortable in the pocket whether it was clean or not, sometimes scrambling too early.
“I’ve really found confidence just sitting in the pocket,” O’Korn said, “and knowing what’s going on up front.”
O’Korn has seen marked improvement from all the quarterbacks, as well.
“I think last year Coach (Harbaugh) talked a lot about eliminating the big mistake for all the quarterbacks, and right now, it’s almost as if like, ‘Who’s going to make a mistake?’ We’re all playing so well.
“We’ve really benefited so much from Pep being here and he’s really taken all of our games to the next level. They say a rising tide lifts all ships, and right now Pep has been that rising tide.”
O’Korn, of course, still faces long odds to win the starting job. Speight performed well last year, and winning the job when you’ve already lost it once before is nearly unheard of in the cutthroat atmosphere of college football. He says he’ll be ready if his number is called, just like the rest of the quarterbacks and that he’s at a place where he’s “never been before” when it comes to his game.
Most people haven’t seen a confident John O’Korn. He’s finally ready for them to learn what that looks like.