At the NFL Scouting Combine last February, Adrian Arrington offered two reasons why he was entering the draft a year early.
Arrington, Michigan’s second-leading wide receiver last season, didn’t want to learn the spread offensive scheme under new coach Rich Rodriguez.
Then Arrington bluntly offered his second explanation: “There’s no quarterback there right now.”
If one of the two hadn’t been the case, Arrington said he likely would have returned to Ann Arbor for his final year of eligibility.
With Chad Henne’s graduation and the transfer of highly touted freshman Ryan Mallett to Arkansas, Arrington wasn’t the only person wondering about Michigan’s quarterback situation last spring.
And then super-recruit Terrelle Pryor chose to attend Ohio State in early March, and the starting quarterback position at Michigan, the next spot in a legendary lineage, became a battle among three unknowns who had a whopping one completion between them.
For the past seven months, redshirt freshman Steven Threet, redshirt sophomores Nick Sheridan and David Cone, and even true freshman Justin Feagin, have been put down, doubted and made the punch line of jokes.
But no matter what the media or the public said about them, one was going to be Michigan’s starting quarterback this season.
From the beginning, the odds were stacked against Steven Threet ever playing for Michigan.
Threet came to Michigan’s football camp in June after his junior year at Adrian High School. He went through workouts with Mallett, the five-star prospect from Texarkana, Texas.
Unfortunately for Threet, a four-star recruit in his own right, Mallett was Michigan’s top quarterback target for that year’s recruiting class, and he had already committed.
“That was a great experience for him, and he’ll tell you to this day that he competed with Mallett and was the better of the two quarterbacks,” said Phil Jacobs, Threet’s coach at Adrian.
So with Mallett already in the fold, Michigan asked Threet to wait and see.
But with offers from a number of BCS-conference programs, including Wisconsin, Stanford, Illinois and Georgia Tech, Threet decided not to wait. In early July, he committed to the Yellow Jackets.
“Steve was disappointed, because he wanted to be a Michigan Man all along,” Jacobs said. “He fell in love with the recruiters and the position coaches at Georgia Tech.”
Threet graduated early from Adrian and arrived at Georgia Tech in January 2007. But soon after Threet arrived, both the coaches that recruited him took jobs elsewhere.
Threet seemed to be Georgia Tech’s backup quarterback at the end of spring camp, behind then-junior Taylor Bennett. But in July of that year, Threet announced he would transfer back to the school he rooted for his whole life: Michigan.
He didn’t take the decision to transfer lightly, knowing it meant sitting out a year no matter where he went.
Family played an important role in Threet’s decision. He talked through the pros and cons with his father and his older brother, Jay, who played baseball at Purdue before transferring to Bowling Green for his last two seasons.
When he decided to return to Michigan, Threet called Jacobs with a message: “ ‘Coach, I’m going to go back to Michigan, and I’m going to beat Mallett out for that starting job.’ ”
As it turned out, Mallett was out of the picture before Threet even finished his redshirt year.
Rodriguez was hired on Dec. 18, 2007. Less than a month later, Mallett enrolled in classes at the University of Arkansas.
Mallett officially transferred because he didn’t think he would fit in Rodriguez’s offensive scheme, but there was speculation he wanted to go to school closer to home.
Threet had a strong connection with former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr and his quarterbacks coach Scot Loeffler, too. But he decided to be patient with the transition.
“I think my experience at Georgia Tech kind of helped me with that as well, kind of wait it out, not be irrational about anything,” Threet said. “Let the system work. The coaches made it pretty obvious that you don’t have to be the fastest guy on the team to play quarterback in this offense.”
With Mallett gone, Threet’s path to the starting spot was certainly clearer. Threet had even played in a similar offensive scheme under Jacobs at Adrian. But before the team started spring camp, another name popped up in conversations.
At the men’s basketball game against Ohio State in February, Rodriguez was asked about his two scholarship quarterbacks, Threet and Cone.
The coach answered, and then he threw a third name in the mix: Nick Sheridan.
Shortest distance, the longest odds
In the grand scheme, Sheridan was an unlikely candidate to be a starting quarterback at Michigan. He walked onto the team, lacked the height of most Division-I quarterbacks and he wasn’t particularly fast or strong.
The son of former Michigan defensive position coach under Carr from 2002-2004 and current New York Giants linebackers coach Bill Sheridan, Nick played quarterback at Saline High School, less than 10 miles from Michigan stadium.
Sheridan didn’t receive any scholarship offers from Division-I schools coming out of high school, but Carr invited him to walk on to the Michigan football team. He could have gone to a Division III program and competed for a starting job. But Michigan was too good an opportunity, even if it meant toiling in relative anonymity for four years.
“It was just the best combination of academics and athletics that was available to me,” Sheridan said. “I couldn’t pass up a place like Michigan.”
Even though it seemed unlikely Sheridan would ever see the field at Michigan, he worked as hard as he could, improving every day and thriving on the competition.
“What has been great for him is the fact that he’s been able to be in a program like the University of Michigan where the day-to-day, year-round competition is so fierce that you can’t help but get better,” Bill Sheridan said. “I’m convinced that Nick is much better and much more developed than he ever would have been had he gone to a Division-III school.”
In fact, Sheridan had improved enough to show Rodriguez that he had the skill set to be a Division-I quarterback.
In spring practice, the battle for the starting quarterback spot developed into a two-man race between Threet and Sheridan, splitting reps equally with the first-team offense.
Threet had more size and arm strength. Sheridan showed flashes of brilliance in the new offense.
Quickly, the media threw questions at both about the position battle. But as many tried to square Sheridan and Threet against each other, they only grew closer.
“It has been a difficult situation at times,” Sheridan said. “Both of us badly want to play. You put the team first. Fortunately, we’re both very unselfish and understand a bitter competition is not going to help the team, and it’s not going to help either of us. I just try to help Steve out, and him the same for me.”
The pair spent a lot of time watching film together over the summer, trying to understand as much of Rodriguez’s complex offense as they could before fall camp started in early August.
They developed a rapport that allowed them to keep their relationship light even as they competed for the starting job. They jokingly graded each other’s press conference performances and took digs at each other’s high school (Adrian and Saline are rivals in Michigan’s Southeastern Conference).
“We obviously spend a lot of time together, in the hotel, in meetings, in practice and what not,” Threet said. “When it’s time to be focused and get the job done, we do. But also, it’s good that us, and David Cone as well, we’re pretty good friends. So it makes it a little bit easier.”
Finding a starter
Neither Threet nor Sheridan stood out enough in fall camp for Rodriguez to name a starting quarterback in the week leading up to the season opener against Utah.
When Michigan came out against the Utes on Aug. 30, Sheridan, who was starting his first semester on scholarship, was behind center. Threet stood on the sideline with a headset on, relaying the plays.
Late in the first half, the two switched spots. But Threet wasn’t angry about not starting and Sheridan wasn’t upset about getting replaced during the game.
“I’m sure both those guys are preoccupied on a daily basis on Michigan winning football games,” Bill Sheridan said. “They’re just preoccupied with trying to get better as individual quarterbacks. I don’t think those two guys are wrapped on ‘me against you.’ ”
The next week against Miami (Ohio), Threet took the opening snaps. He did it again on the road against Notre Dame the week after that, playing well enough in South Bend to solidify his starting spot.
Though there’s a lot of pressure on his shoulders now, Threet never appears nervous. He has always been laid back and quick to laugh anytime — and being Michigan’s starting quarterback won’t change that.
“I feel that I can be focused, but be myself, at the same time,” Threet said. “Me as a person, I can’t be uptight. I don’t like that feeling, so that’s not how I’m going to approach a game.”
Though Sheridan hasn’t matched Threet’s success in the first three games of the season, he isn’t planning to cede the starting spot.
Bill Sheridan will attend the game tomorrow with the Giants on a bye week, and Nick is hoping his father will get to see him play in person. But even more, he wants Bill to see Michigan upset Wisconsin.
“I’m excited, hopefully I get in there (tomorrow),” Nick Sheridan said. “Who knows what the circumstances will be? If I don’t, that’s OK, too. I just want to win.”
Answering the doubters
A year ago, few Michigan football fans knew much about Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan. Neither did Adrian Arrinton
But Threet has stepped up as a capable signal-caller and proven that Arrington was wrong at the NFL Scouting Combine.
And now, fans can take a measure of relief — Michigan has a quarterback.