The biggest mystery surrounding the upcoming Michigan football season is who will be the starting quarterback, but by now, the two top candidates are no longer much of a mystery to the Wolverines.
With Jake Rudock gone, several candidates are competing to fill the vacancy. On the team’s media day Aug. 7, head coach Jim Harbaugh named redshirt junior John O’Korn and redshirt sophomore Wilton Speight as the frontrunners. Of those two, both have spent at least a year at Michigan, while O’Korn has a full season of starting experience in 2013 and Speight came off the bench to win a game for the Wolverines last season.
Redshirt junior Shane Morris is also in the running, but won’t likely receive the starting nod as O’Korn and Speight are making huge strides with the season’s opening kickoff just a little over two weeks away.
Regardless of who gets the starting nod for Michigan’s first game against Hawaii on Sept. 3, both candidates certainly have large shoes to fill. Rudock’s playbook both on and off the field is no doubt something that O’Korn and Speight want to replicate, as they’ve taken advantage of every learning opportunity during Rudock’s one-year stint for the maize and blue.
Despite Rudock’s shaky debut against Utah last season, in which he threw three interceptions in the Wolverines’ season-opening loss, he ended up becoming one of the team’s most admirable competitors — a result of Rudock’s strength through silence.
According to both O’Korn and Speight, Rudock was the guy who came in, stayed quiet and worked to the best of his ability in order to be at the level required for a starting quarterback at Michigan.
That also meant Rudock’s absence from social media. Speight mentioned that while players nationally will tweet how hard they’re working, Rudock emphasized that you just need to go about your business and not flaunt the process.
“I really learned a lot from him in just a little under a year … just about how he went about business, stayed in his own lane and kinda ran his own race, and that’s kinda what I’ve been trying to do this year,” Speight said during the team’s media day. “Bring guys with me but also not worry about all the outside speculation and what people are saying about me and stuff like that.
“Doesn’t matter what the fans and everything think about you in the offseason. As long as you’re doing what you need to do and you know that, you don’t need to show everybody.”
The same sentiment of “running your own race,” as Speight put it, has also rubbed off on O’Korn, who was Rudock’s roommate last year. That meant O’Korn had the added benefit of not only seeing how Rudock prepared on the field but also off it in every possible way.
“He was a guy that just came in everyday, kept his mouth shut and just worked his butt off,” O’Korn said. “That’s something that I want to try and do too.”
As for O’Korn running his own game, like Rudock and Speight, it boils down to his mentality.
“The best thing you can do in a competition is not treat it like a competition,” O’Korn said. “If you’re too worried about comparing yourself to the other guy or the other two guys, then you can fall off your own game a little bit.”
With Speight and O’Korn taking a page out of Rudock’s story in preparation for the upcoming season, there’s also the matter of experience.
According to passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch, this year’s Speight is by no means the same one that came into the start of last season’s camp. Now more confident and more mature, Speight’s turnaround came on Oct. 31 against Minnesota when he led the game-winning drive for a 29-26 victory.
The excitement hasn’t simmered many months later.
“He’s excited about the fact that that’s not gonna be the only touchdown that he ever throws for Michigan,” Fisch said at media day.
And it may not be if Speight sticks to and trusts the “Jim Harbaugh-type offense” that has given rise to Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick and most recently Jake Rudock.
“He’s turned some of the, I guess, average quarterbacks into the greatest quarterbacks, the guys that put up unreal numbers and stuff,” Speight said. “Anytime someone like that gives you his voice of confidence, you feel really good about it. I’m just gonna ride that wave into camp and see where it takes me.”
O’Korn, meanwhile, has taken a different path, but one that’s nearly similar to Rudock’s.
In 2013, Rudock led Iowa to an 8-5 season. Further south at Houston, O’Korn threw for 3,117 yards and 28 touchdowns as a true freshman. The next year, both Rudock and O’Korn lost their starting spots — the former after the Gator Bowl, the latter just five games into the season.
By fate, the two St. Thomas Aquinas (Fla.) High School graduates ended up transferring to Michigan for the 2015 season.
Though O’Korn sat out last season, experience is experience, and he got plenty of it in only one season at Houston.
“There’s no substitute for experience,” O’Korn said. “Just not having to run out there and look at the crowd or worry about what a defense is doing. I’ve pretty much seen every defense I’m gonna face in my time at Houston on field in a game situation.”
Added Fisch: “When he breaks the huddle and he runs the offense, he knows what he’s doing. He’s done it before, he’s done it in games … he does everything right off the field. He’s somebody that wants to lead. He wants to be the guy. He wants to find a way to really take this team and run with it. You can see that every day that you’re around him.”
After only a week of preseason training camp, Harbaugh told the media at Schembechler Hall on Monday that his quarterbacks were coming along better than they were at this point last season.
Given Speight and O’Korn’s game time experience and the similar approach they’ve taken heading into the season, it won’t make Harbaugh and Fisch’s decision any easier.