Leading up to last season’s Citrus Bowl, Josh Gattis was already planning for the future.

In the waning days of his first season as the Michigan football team’s offensive coordinator, he knew his offense was only months away from losing quarterback Shea Patterson to graduation. So as the Wolverines zeroed in on their matchup against Alabama, Gattis pulled aside backup quarterbacks Dylan McCaffrey, Joe Milton and Cade McNamara to zero in on a matchup of their own.

“This is the opportunity right now to start this (starting quarterback) competition and compete,” Gattis recalled telling them in December.

In hindsight, that trigger might’ve been pulled too early.

“It was a little bit unfair (at the time), because they still (were) not taking the reps needed,” Gattis said during a teleconference on Thursday. “They’re still taking backup reps because we had to prepare. Shea was our starter — there were no ands, ifs or buts about it. … But I challenged all three of those guys to step up in any kind of way, show me that you can lead this team, show me that you can lead this offense. And I met with them after practices and I told them, ‘Hey guys, we’ve got to start now.’

“So just challenging the mentality of those three guys. We want a healthy quarterback competition. We want a balanced quarterback competition where we can give those guys the right reps needed. We just couldn’t do it right then in December.”

The Citrus Bowl practices came and went, as did the months of January and February. Soon enough, it was time for a spring practice slate that was supposed to be defined by the much-anticipated quarterback battle.

But Michigan’s spring slate — like every other program across the country — was canceled amid the COVID-19 pandemic, robbing Gattis of the opportunity to see McCaffrey, Milton and McNamara duke it out over the course of 15 practices. Though leaving spring ball with a clear starter never seemed likely, its cancelation only added more uncertainty to the situation.

One way or another, someone needs to fill Patterson’s shoes. And without a spring slate to determine the best candidate, one would think the natural next step is an examination of last season’s pecking order.

Not for Gattis.

“No guy is out front, no guy is behind,” Gattis said during a teleconference on Thursday. “There is no order. It’s not based on last year, it’s not based on the depth chart (from) last year. Those things are not important. What the depth chart last year was irrelevant because we had one quarterback who was our starter.”

In Gattis’ eyes, it’s the same three-horse race for the job that he envisioned back in December. Ultimately, one of the quarterbacks will win the keys to an up-tempo offense that returns most of its playmakers.

Now entering his fourth year with the program, McCaffrey has the most experience of the group. He’s attempted three times as many career pass attempts as Milton, even after missing time due to injuries during each of the last two seasons. Milton, on the other hand, boasts a cannon for an arm, and he showed flashes of a high ceiling during limited playing time in 2019. McNamara did not see game action last season, but his passing accuracy and touch drew praise as a four-star recruit coming out of high school.

Kick all that to the curb. To Gattis, it’s an even playing field heading into the summer.

“We’re nowhere near having a frontrunner,” Gattis said. “We lost our starter, obviously. We’re in a three-man competition, coming into the spring, with Joe, Dylan and Cade, and no one’s got a competitive advantage over anyone. We’re excited about the guys that we have on the roster. We’ve got to solve that question later down the road when we get the opportunity to.

“… Every guy is going to get the right opportunity to go out there and lead this team. When we have that answer is when they’ll know.”

As of now, that answer remains months away.

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