Michigan's New Quarterback Will Carry the Burden of Reversing the Narrative for Jim Harbaugh's Damaged Reputation of Developing Signal-Callers

By David Regimbal on July 2, 2020 at 10:15 am
Dylan McCaffrey
Jeff Hanisch – USA TODAY Sports

When Jim Harbaugh was hired to be Michigan's head coach ahead of the 2015 season, he came to Ann Arbor with the reputation of being a quarterback whisperer

He was viewed as the key factor in the development and eventual superstardom of Andrew Luck at Stanford, and then later with Colin Kaepernick at San Francisco. Rich Gannon and Alex Smith were other NFL quarterbacks who thrived under his direction.

That expertise was supposed to put Michigan over the hump. The Wolverines hadn't been truly relevant on the national stage since the preseason of 2007, when a senior-laden offense was expected to make a national title run. Eight consecutive seasons of absolutely delicious mediocrity followed, with three different head coaches (Lloyd Carr, Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke) filtering through the program.

Year one of the Harbaugh era seemed to validate Harbaugh's quarterback-friendly reputation. Senior starter Jake Rudock, a transfer from Iowa, posted career-best numbers in completion percentage (64 percent, up from 61 percent), passing yards (3,017, up from 2,436) and touchdowns (20, up from 16).

But the signal-callers in Ann Arbor have been a mixed bag ever since. Wilton Speight took over in 2016 and was spectacularly average, completing 61 percent of his passes for 2,538 yards and 18 touchdowns against seven interceptions. A year later, Speight battled injuries and a pair of backups (John O'Korn and Brandon Peters) combined to produce a miserable 2,226 passing yards on the season while completing just 53.5 percent of their passes. The three quarterbacks threw more interceptions that year (10) than touchdowns (nine). 

All that was supposed to change when Harbaugh got his guy in 2018. Shea Patterson, a former five-star prospect who played his first two seasons at Ole Miss, transferred to Michigan with immediate eligibility. A solid junior year in which Patterson completed 64.6 percent of his passes for 2,600 yards and 22 touchdowns (with only seven interceptions) had Michigan on the doorstep of a College Football Playoff berth when it visited Ohio State in the final week of the regular season.

The result for Patterson and Michigan was a historic beatdown. Patterson completed just 58 percent of his passes for 187 yards against arguably the worst Ohio State defense this century, while on the other side of the field, the Buckeyes' record-setting quarterback in Dwayne Haskins went for 396 yards and six touchdowns against what was previously the nation's top-ranked defense.

Patterson wasn't able to build on that junior season. Michigan entered 2019 as the favorite to win the Big Ten, but Patterson took a step back. He only completed more than 60 percent of his passes in just four of Michigan's 13 games, and those contests were against Army, Rutgers, Michigan State and Indiana.

Looking back to 2015, that's a bumpy road for Michigan's quarterbacks, particularly under a coach who was supposed to elevate the level of play at that position. The narrative that Harbaugh is one of the country's top quarterback gurus has faltered, and that's a weight that Michigan's new quarterback in 2020 will have to bear.

With Patterson's departure, a position battle between Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton was supposed to kick off during spring practice. Of course, the coronavirus pandemic halted spring camps across the country, pushing the team's biggest question back to fall camp.

While Harbaugh and the coaching staff say McCaffrey and Milton are on even ground, McCaffrey is widely expected to be named the starter ahead of Michigan's season-opener against a solid Washington team on the road.

Whoever gets the nod, be it McCaffrey or Milton, is going to face more pressure than the inherent demand a year-in, year-out quarterback experiences. They'll also be tasked with rebuilding part of Harbaugh's brand while trying to get Michigan to a place it hasn't been in 18 years – atop the league standings as Big Ten champions.

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