In all likelihood, John O’Korn is now the starting quarterback of the Michigan football team.
That was a sentence a lot of fans expected to read before the first game of the season, before the emergence of redshirt sophomore Wilton Speight ultimately relegated O’Korn to a backup role.
But now, with Speight sustaining an unspecified shoulder injury in a loss to Iowa last week, the starting job appears to finally be in O’Korn’s hands.
For a team with College Football Playoff hopes — the 3rd-ranked Wolverines (6-1 Big Ten, 9-1 overall) still control their own destiny despite the loss — losing a starting quarterback with just two regular-season games remaining might be a cause for panic. O’Korn’s teammates, though, don’t seem to have that mindset.
“We’re gonna be running the same exact plays,” said senior tight end Jake Butt. “John’s been doing a great job understanding his role, and he’s been ready every single week and preparing every single week as if he were the starter. If his number is called, I’m confident — everyone’s confident — that John will be able to get this job done for us.”
It doesn’t seem to be blind confidence, either. Several of O’Korn’s teammates pointed to his methods of preparation and said they’re not expecting much of a drop-off.
That preparation started last season, when O’Korn had to sit out a year after transferring from Houston. He couldn’t play in games, but he was the quarterback of the scout team and earned scout player of the week honors several times.
Even after losing the job this year, O’Korn didn’t scale his preparation back. According to Butt, O’Korn likes to sit in the front row at meetings, is one of the first players to watch film and is one of the best note-takers on the team.
Though he hasn’t been calling the shots on the field, O’Korn has earned the respect of his teammates — including fifth-year senior defensive lineman Chris Wormley, who said he wishes he spent as much time preparing as O’Korn did.
“John’s done a great job all year of being a leader, whether (he’s) playing or not,” Wormley said. “He’s still a leader in my eyes, at least. He watches film after practice probably more than anybody I’ve ever seen at the college level, which is weird for somebody that isn’t asked to play as much as he does. … But with him doing that for the last two, three months, it’s gonna help him out big time if he’s starting on Saturday.”
O’Korn won’t have Speight’s 10 games of preparation under his belt, but he does have one extra tool to help him out: his feet.
Standing two inches shorter and 30 pounds lighter than Speight, O’Korn has a proven ability to move around in the pocket and even pull off designed runs — as evidenced by his performance in this year’s Spring Game, where he tallied 28 rushing yards and a touchdown.
“You see Wilton try and scramble and it looks like it hurts,” Wormley said. “But for O’Korn, he’s a little shiftier, a little faster and more athletic. He’s got a great arm, so I’m excited to see what he can do too.”
The rest of the team seems quietly confident, as well — according to running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley, it’s “plug and play.” Wheatley confessed that in practice, he’s usually zoned in on his own position group, but he’s noticed no peripheral difference under center.
For Michigan to accomplish its lofty goals — starting with beating Indiana on Saturday and winning a possible playoff-deciding matchup at No. 2 Ohio State after that — it will need those differences to be as muted as O’Korn’s teammates expect them to be.
“O’Korn is gonna do well — you don’t look at it as a drop-off, you don’t look at it as anything different,” Wheatley said. “It’s the next guy in. Game normal.”