For better or worse, the Michigan football team’s quarterback competition is nearing its end as the team breaks camp this weekend to begin game preparation next week. The attention surrounding the battle has ramped up during training camp, but everyone has been careful not to spill any details about how it’s going.
Friday, in the last media session of training camp, the players let their guard down.
“Everybody’s been doing really good, but there’s a dark horse in the battle. Erik Magnuson’s really been coming on towards the end of camp,” said senior tight end Jake Butt — with a straight face — of Michigan’s starting left guard. “He’s hitting the deep balls really well. Coaches are really impressed with him.”
Magnuson, a 6-foot-6, 305-pound fifth-year senior, posted a picture on Instagram last week of him in a quarterback’s stance and captioned it by saying he would move under center. Butt and redshirt junior quarterbacks John O’Korn and Shane Morris decided to take the fun a step further on Friday.
All joking aside, O’Korn and redshirt sophomore Wilton Speight began camp as the front-runners, according to head coach Jim Harbaugh, and have done nothing apparent to change that. O’Korn, Speight and Morris are still splitting reps in practice. And if Harbaugh and the coaches see an edge in one of them, they haven’t let on to any of the three.
“There’s so much back and forth, honestly, that you’d like to think that you know,” O’Korn said. “There’s honestly been times that I felt like I knew, and I’m sure there’s times that (Wilton) and Shane both felt like they knew. But it’s not the case. I think Coach Harbaugh would tell you he’s in no rush to name a starter, and whether that happens before the first game or after the first game, it’s out of my hands. It’s out of our hands.”
All three were at Michigan last season under Harbaugh, Speight and Morris as reserve quarterbacks and O’Korn as a transfer sitting out per NCAA rules. They witnessed the competition between Morris and Jake Rudock and now know a bit more of what to expect.
“It’s all about stats and how you move the ball down the field, and at the end of camp, I guess the coaches will look at that and stuff, but I feel good about where I stand heading into this last week, game week,” Speight said. “I feel good about it.”
When the competition played out last year, Rudock won the job, though Harbaugh didn’t make an announcement until the implicit one that came with Rudock taking the first snap.
There were hints, such as Rudock taking the majority of the reps in a practice open to students at Michigan Stadium. Players last year, as well as Speight on Friday, said they could tell based on practice reps before the season opener. This year, the gap is smaller. The quarterbacks know they may not find out the starter until kickoff again, though similar clues may emerge.
“I don’t think you need anyone to tell you if you’re the starter or not,” Speight said. “You just kind of read body language and how practices are going and stuff like that. I think the guys will have a certain mindset going into this game.”
The only notable sign this year has been spring camp, from which Speight emerged as the leader. The coaches and players haven’t divulged any such advantages this month.
Many schools — including Big Ten opponents such as Michigan State and Wisconsin — named a starting quarterback this week to help build a confidence in the offense, though Alabama has not yet. Harbaugh does not appear to be in a hurry to do so.
“I don’t really think about it,” Speight said. “I guess I was on the outside looking in last year, I don’t know. I think I’ve got a feel now and everyone has a feel, but again, it’s coach’s decision, and not many people really know based on Coach Harbaugh’s mind. He’s one of a kind, so (we) just kind of wait and see what he does.”
If there’s one thing that Harbaugh did show last year, it’s that he wants the competition to be as intense as possible. He, offensive coordinator Tim Drevno and passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch chart everything the quarterbacks do in practice and outside of it.
The winner by that metric will reveal himself next weekend. Until then, the three quarterbacks are happy to continue the race.
“Everything’s a test,” O’Korn said. “Even when you think it’s not a test, it is. So I think everything’s being evaluated, from the way that we walk down the halls to the way that we throw a pass on a certain route.”