When spring practice began just three weeks ago, Michigan’s quarterbacks had nowhere to go but up.
The incumbent, junior John Navarre, struggled at the end of last season, throwing nine interceptions in his last five games. Meanwhile, sophomore Jermaine Gonzales is remembered mostly for the snap that flew over his head in Michigan’s 26-20 loss to Ohio State. And finally, when he was inserted into the opener against Miami, junior Spencer Brinton overthrew a screen pass – his only attempt of the season.
“(The coaches) would say, ‘You guys are horrible right now,’ ” said Brinton of the beginning of spring practice. “But we’ve gone from the ground to a little bit of horrible. We just need to keep getting better.”
Brinton took the first step in that direction in the annual spring game at Michigan Stadium on Saturday. The junior transfer from San Diego State, who was on a Mormon mission for two years prior coming to Michigan, connected on 11-of-18 passes for 126 yards and one touchdown and got in a rhythm as the game progressed.
“You have 15 practices, and then it all comes together, and the cobwebs start to get out,” Brinton said. “I’m starting to understand the offense and what we’re trying to do with the ball.”
“He needed this winter and this spring to really get his feet on the ground and learn the system,” offensive coordinator Terry Malone said. “Two years out of the country not touching a football – that’ll put some rust on you.”
The highlight of Brinton’s day came when he dumped the ball to tailback B. J. Askew for a 31-yard pickup – the longest gain of the day for a sluggish Michigan offense. Later, after leading the Wolverines into the red zone, he fired a pass to tight end Bennie Joppru for the score.
“I’m starting to understand the mental part (of being a quarterback),” Brinton said. “Before about two months ago, I couldn’t tell defenses from defenses. I didn’t have a clue what was going on. I’ve been taught a lot from (new quarterbacks coach Scot Loeffler about) understanding defenses and blitzes.”
Loeffler was impressed with the lefthander, but both he and Brinton are not letting the quarterback’s success Saturday overshadow the fact that there is a lot he needs to improve upon before Michigan opens the season against Washington.
“I made a lot of reads that I shouldn’t have,” Brinton said. “I broke a lot of progression rules. I need to get those things out of my system.”
Gonzales returned to quarterback after a stint at wide receiver, played well in limited action Saturday. The sophomore hit on 8-of-10 tosses for 85 yards and two touchdowns. Gonzales said that playing wide receiver helped him when he came back to be a signal-caller.
“Knowing (how to run) routes and knowing what to do in certain situations from the receivers point of view really helped me out,” Gonzales said.
While Brinton and Gonzales advanced to the “little bit of horrible” stage of development, Navarre stayed close to the “ground” for most of Saturday’s game. The junior was 6-of-18 for 63 yards on the day and was victimized by several batted-down passes at the line of scrimmage.
“(The batted balls are) a combination of a lot of things,” Navarre said. “They’re shorter routes, and the defensive line is tremendous.”
Loeffler and Malone are planning to look at tape to see if Navarre’s low release point is what is hampering him. But the bigger issue may be his confidence after the bad ending to last season.
“(Navarre’s) had a fresh start,” Malone said. “He’s got a new coach and a new coordinator. He’s the incumbent. He needs to be confident, and we need to make sure that he’s confident.”
Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr has deemed his quarterback situation a “competition,” not a controversy. Brinton and Navarre are both trying not to worry about anything except their own individual performances.
“Before (my mission), I’d watch and see how the other quarterbacks would play,” Brinton said. “(I would be like), ‘Oh, he had a good pass’ or ‘he did really bad,’ and I’d let how (my competition) played affect myself.
“(Getting the job) is going to depend on me – how much time I put into it, taking what I learn in the film room out to the field.”