With Jim Harbaugh & Co. down in the submarine, there’s no way of knowing who will be the team’s starting quarterback when the season starts in a little more than a week. And if Harbaugh’s secretive ways are to continue, we might not know who won this offseason’s quarterback competition until the Michigan offense takes the field.
But the good news for whichever of the two candidates wins the job is that he will not be hurting for weapons in the passing game.
Last season, Jake Rudock made the transition from Iowa to Michigan look easy, doing great things as the Wolverines’ starting quarterback. But his stay in Ann Arbor was always going to last just one year, meaning the race to replace him was on.
John O’Korn and Wilton Speight are the two guys who are competing to be this year’s Rudock. O’Korn sat out last season after transferring in from Houston, where he threw for 3,117 yards as a freshman in 2013 before losing his starting job the following season when he threw eight interceptions in the season’s first five games. Speight, meanwhile, spent his sophomore season as Rudock’s backup, appearing in six games and most notably leading a second-half comeback in Michigan’s win over Minnesota, throwing a touchdown pass on the game-winning drive.
Both guys have an advantage Rudock didn’t: They’ve spent a year in the system, learning the offense and getting ready for their shot. They’ll hope to have the same success Rudock did thanks to a little more preparation.
“The good thing about it is the quarterbacks have been here,” wide receiver Amara Darboh said during Big Ten Media Days. “They got a chance to see Jake Rudock do it, so hopefully they learned from him and mimic the things he was doing and can translate that to this season.
“I think it’ll be a big difference because they’re comfortable with the playbook and all that. Especially as quarterback, you have to know what everyone’s doing, you have to be ready to tell other people and read defenses and all that. So that’s going to help a lot.”
But the biggest thing that will help out either O’Korn or Speight is the guys they’ll be throwing to.
Darboh and fellow receiver Jehu Chesson are two of the best wideouts in the Big Ten, and together they form one of the best tandems in the country. Darboh caught 58 passes last season for 727 yards and five touchdowns, while Chesson caught 50 passes for 764 yards and nine touchdowns.
“They’re the best in the country, honestly. Best duo in the country,” cornerback Jourdan Lewis said. “Those two guys headlining it, they challenge me to be better, the best cornerback I can be every day or they’re going to expose me every day.”
With arguing their collective value to the Wolverines not really a debate, the only thing left to discuss is which is better. And even Harbaugh is going back and forth on that one.
“Amara Darboh, I would say he's our top receiver right now,” Harbaugh said. “And as we went through the season last year, I thought that was Jehu Chesson. And then Amara surged during spring ball there, and they're in a very good-hearted competition there to be our best receiver.”
But as good as those two guys are, neither is even the most-hyped pass-catcher on the team. That title belongs to tight end Jake Butt, who made the decision to return for his senior season and is being projected as one of the best tight ends in college football.
Last season, Butt caught 51 passes for 654 yards and three touchdowns en route to earning All-Big Ten First Team honors and the conference’s Tight End of the Year Award.
“The main reason I came back is I think we have a chance at having a special season this year,” Butt said. “I got a little taste of what that could be last year. The first two years, I didn’t really get to experience any of the reasons that I came to Michigan — that was to win and win big. I think we have a chance. I can feel the momentum start to build up a little bit going into camp to achieve some of those goals.”
With all three of these guys — not to mention an experienced offensive line and an established running game — there should be little trouble for whoever the new quarterback ends up being. And if O’Korn or Speight proves as capable as Rudock was last season, then the Michigan offense could end up being pretty high flying.