With the Michigan football team’s 2017 regular season in the books, the Daily looks back at the performance of each unit this year and looks ahead to the future in 2018. In this edition: quarterbacks.
Boy, that was a turbulent year for Michigan quarterbacks.
The Wolverines saw three different players take snaps from under center. One cracked three vertebrae in September, missed the rest of the season and decided to transfer. One filled in for an injured teammate, eventually lost his job, then returned to the spotlight for the biggest game of the year. And the last — the only member of the trio who will be on next year’s roster — wrested the starting job away midseason and flashed his potential a few times before suffering a nasty concussion.
Rarely has Michigan seen such misfortune and upheaval at the most important position on the field. Yet that is hand that Jim Harbaugh was dealt in 2017. And if there’s one thing that fans will remember from an otherwise mundane 8-4 season, it will be the trials and tribulations that Wilton Speight, John O’Korn and Brandon Peters each went through this fall.
The season began with Speight — a redshirt junior and the incumbent — as the starter following a heated competition throughout spring practice and fall camp.
By all accounts, Speight was supposed to serve as a veteran presence for an offense that featured seven new starters this year. And for a while, he did — though there were some growing pains.
Through the first three games, Speight completed 54.3 percent of his passes, averaging 7.17 yards per attempt, with three touchdowns and two interceptions. Those numbers were off the pace he set in his first year as the starter.
But Speight wouldn’t get a chance to return to his prior form. Early in the fourth game of the year, he took a hit to his lower back and didn’t get up. He left that game and didn’t return for the rest of the season. Then on Sunday afternoon, he announced his plans to transfer elsewhere for his final year of eligibility, removing himself from the equation for next year.
Into Speight’s absence stepped O’Korn. He led the Wolverines to a comeback against Purdue after Speight’s exit. The following three-game stretch, though, saw him struggle as Michigan dropped games to Michigan State and Penn State.
Things came to a head when O’Korn started slowly against Rutgers. In came Peters, the highly-touted redshirt freshman the fanbase had been clamoring for. He helped polish off the Scarlet Knights — and then mostly watched as the running game took over in wins over Minnesota and Maryland.
Of course, the Wolverines’ good fortune at quarterback wouldn’t last. In the midst of a competitive battle at Wisconsin, Peters took a shot that knocked him out. He was carted off the field and O’Korn stepped back in. Michigan dropped its final two games of the regular season.
HIGH POINT: For all his struggles later on, O’Korn’s debut was marvelous. He re-ignited a stagnant offense, throwing for a season-high 270 yards to lead the Wolverines to a 28-10 win over the Boilermakers. In that moment, O’Korn looked capable of taking then-No. 8 Michigan to greater heights. Of course, that proved to be a mirage.
Then there was Peters. He had the fewest passing attempts of the three — yet posted the highest quarterback rating. He wasn’t asked to do much, but he completed short, easy passes, took care of the ball and occasionally made impressive throws downfield. It’ll be hard to forget the roar of the crowd when he entered a meaningless game against Rutgers. It’ll be hard to forget the moxie he played with on the road against the fifth-ranked Badgers, as well, when he completed 9-of-18 passes for 157 yards before his untimely exit.
If Peters can come back for the bowl game to build on his first few performances, Michigan’s coaching staff might have its quarterback of the future.
LOW POINT: Speight’s injury stands out. So does Peters’. Both were brutal plays that saw the quarterback down on the turf for an extended period of time. No coach or team ever wants to see the man under center go down, and it’s up to Michigan to protect its quarterback better going forward.
There are many other moments throughout the season that stand out, as well.
In the season opener, Speight threw two consecutive pick-sixes to make an easy game against then-No. 17 Florida that much harder.
Against Michigan State in a monsoon, O’Korn tossed interceptions on three straight drives. The next week, O’Korn completed 10-of-20 passes for just 58 yards.
Most painfully, inconsistent quarterback play doomed the Wolverines against No. 9 Ohio State.
Plays that should’ve gained big yardage turned into incompletions. Then, with one final chance to win the game, O’Korn misread the Buckeyes’ coverage and threw an interception. There was no Michigan receiver nearby.
THE FUTURE: Speight’s transfer removes one big piece of the puzzle. O’Korn’s graduation removes another.
Peters, with three-and-a-half games of starting experience under his belt, would appear to be the favorite. But don’t underlook freshman Dylan McCaffrey, who redshirted this year. McCaffrey earned high praise from defensive coordinator Don Brown for his work on the scout team this fall, and he was a highly-touted recruit like Peters. The two will be the favorites in the starting competition next year.
Redshirt junior Alex Malzone, who served as O’Korn’s backup against Ohio State, remains on the roster. But he’ll be facing an uphill battle — he fell behind Peters on the depth chart, and if McCaffrey had not redshirted, he might’ve been ahead of Malzone as well.
The Wolverines are currently slated to bring in two freshmen next year in four-star Joe Milton, who recently tweeted that he would enroll early, and three-star Kevin Doyle.
One thing’s for sure: there’ll only be more quarterback intrigue between now and next season’s opener at Notre Dame.