Who Has the Edge in Michigan's Quarterback Battle?

Ben Kercheval@@BenKerchevalCollege Football Lead WriterFebruary 24, 2016

FILE - In this Sept. 11, 2014, file photo, Houston quarterback John O'Korn (5) passes the ball against BYU in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game in Provo, Utah. University of Houston quarterback John O'Korn posted on Twitter that he is transferring to Michigan. O'Korn will have to sit out next season due to NCAA rules and will have two seasons of eligibility remaining.(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

Second-year Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh will go from enjoying a wrestling match to overseeing one this offseason—in the figurative sense, of course.

Such is life for college football's most active and visual coach. From the WWE to Quarterbacks 1, 2 and 3, Harbaugh once again has to choose a starting signal-caller, and the race is completely open. 

OK, so it's not a seamless comparison. In fact, Harbaugh has a more appropriate analogy for Michigan's quarterback battle, which will begin in earnest at the start of spring practice on Feb. 29 in Bradenton, Florida.

"Cage match," Harbaugh said this month when asked to describe the upcoming competition, via Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com. "Let's move from meritocracy to cage match. That's even better."

You'd expect nothing less from a coach as intense as Harbaugh. While most coaches would take a proven quarterback any day of the week, these are the types of competitions they love as well. When something is truly up for grabs, it's supposed to bring out the best in everyone involved. 

Here are the players competing for the chance to succeed Jake Rudock, in no particular order (Zach Gentry has moved from quarterback to tight end):  

  • Wilton Speight (Jr., 6'6", 235 pounds): Speight eventually slid into the No. 2 spot on the depth chart behind Rudock and appeared in seven games as a sophomore. He completed nine of 25 passes for 73 yards. His shining moment came in a 29-26 win over Minnesota in which he came off the bench to throw a go-ahead touchdown. 
  • Shane Morris (R-Jr., 6'3", 209 pounds): Morris has a couple of starts to his resume from the Brady Hoke era. While he initially began the 2015 season as the No. 2 quarterback behind Rudock, he eventually redshirted and is back for another season. 
  • John O'Korn (R-Jr., 6'4", 220 pounds): The Houston transfer sat out the '15 season to satisfy NCAA rules. He was the American Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year in '13. Though he didn't begin his career with the Wolverines, he's by far the most experienced quarterback on the roster. 
  • Alex Malzone (R-Fr., 6'2", 218 pounds): The former 4-star recruit redshirted his true freshman season. 
  • Brandon Peters (Fr., 6'4", 209 pounds): Peters was a 4-star early enrollee in Michigan's 2016 recruiting class. 

This is a crowded group, to be sure, but who has the edge heading into spring drills? While the order can (and certainly will) be shuffled, O'Korn appears to be the early favorite. That's the national belief, anyway, after Andrea Adelson of ESPN.com named O'Korn the top impact transfer for 2016

O'Korn's experience can be broken down two ways. Like Speight, Morris and Malzone, O'Korn has had one year to learn the playbook. In that sense, he's on a level playing field with a majority of his competitors. Unlike the other quarterbacks, however, O'Korn has significant playing experience from his days as a Cougar. 

As a freshman in 2013, O'Korn threw for 3,117 yards, 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The following season, he appeared in six games and eventually lost the starting job to Greg Ward Jr. Still, O'Korn has nearly 20 games under his belt and 34 touchdowns to boot. In that way, O'Korn is a lot like Rudock when he transferred from Iowa to Michigan last year. 

The next-leading guy in scoring? Speight, with one touchdown. 

Stats aside, O'Korn has been through all the ups and downs that mold a hardened, veteran signal-caller. He's had moments of success and moments of failure. He's earned a starting job and lost it. Nobody in the quarterback race knows the true meaning of competition to the extent O'Korn does, because he's been on both sides of it.

That, as former Wolverines defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin told reporters last November, gave O'Korn an extra edge as a scout-team player in '15. 

"He's been awesome. We see him every day, John's a competitor and a great quarterback who doesn't take any BS from the defense at all," Durkin said. "That's why I like him. He's got a little feistiness to him."

Does that remind you of anyone? Maybe a certain head coach in maize and blue?

That feisty attitude was on display earlier this month when O'Korn was confronted on Twitter by a Houston fan lambasting him for his transfer to Ann Arbor. The quarterback's response?

Of course, dealing with social media trolls by no means guarantees O'Korn will be the starter. However, this is a diehard competitor who never lacks confidence in himself. It brings to mind how Oklahoma and former Texas Tech quarterback Baker Mayfield carries himself—minus the dancing, that is. That's the type of energy Michigan needs on offense. 

O'Korn has the experience and the bravado of starting quarterback. He, like everyone else competing for the job, just needs the chance to develop.

Harbaugh has a sterling reputation in that department. After a slow start last season, Rudock became one of the Big Ten's most efficient passers. In the final five games spanning the regular season and bowl appearance, Rudock averaged 9.1 yards per passing attempt and threw 14 touchdowns to two interceptions. His passer rating in November (167.48) was the highest of anyone in the Big Ten. 

Recall, too, that Rudock didn't officially join the quarterback competition until preseason camp. O'Korn has a significant head start in that regard. 

With his past experience, both good and bad, plus a willingness to work hard in practice with no reward on Saturdays, O'Korn enters spring as a clear front-runner to start in '16. 

Now he just needs to seize the opportunity. 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise. All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com. Player measurables courtesy of Michigan unless noted otherwise.  

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