Shea Patterson is the savior again. The quarterback who can make it all right. Who can redefine a college football program. Who can win a championship.
His teammates see it. The fans in Ann Arbor, Michigan, do, too. Hell, anyone who follows college football knows this is the deal with the most important transfer of the 2018 college football season.
Yet at Big Ten media days last week, there was Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, the perpetually quirky one, sticking with his coachspeak about the biggest addition to the program since Harbaugh himself walked back through the door.
"We have four quarterbacks who can play for us," Harbaugh said, mimicking a statement he has recited over and over in a long, monotonous offseason. "I'm excited to watch them compete."
Meanwhile, back in reality: "Yeah, I can feel it," Patterson says. "I walk around town, and people come up to me, and it's not like, 'Hey, what's up? How are you doing?' It's, 'Hey, we gotta get it done this year. This is the year.'"
This is the year.
The one they've been looking forward to in Ann Arbor since Michigan lost to Ohio State last season. Again. Since Michigan lost to Michigan State. Again. Since Michigan finished its third season under Harbaugh—who returned to his alma mater in December 2014 in glorious fashion and amid grand expectations—by being humiliated by South Carolina in a meaningless bowl game.
2017 wasn't the year. 2018 can be. And it's because of Patterson, the top quarterback recruit in the 2016 class, per 247Sports, who spent the last two seasons as Ole Miss' savior—only to leave after nearly getting caught in the backwash of former head coach Hugh Freeze's recruiting-violations scandal.
Just don't take Harbaugh's word for it.
"We're confident we can win with any of our quarterbacks," he said in yet another avoidance, all of them likely as motivation for Patterson.
Harbaugh's three previous teams had average quarterback play, at best, which cost him not only games against bitter rivals (a 1-5 record against Ohio State and Michigan State) but also a chance at much more (see: College Football Playoff). His offense last year finished 91st nationally in scoring and 105th in yards.
It'd be OK to embrace the player who can change it all, to swallow the coachspeak and acknowledge the expectations.
Teammates have. On one unusually cold, windy day of practice this spring, when Patterson was making intermediate and deep throws against the wind—and making every one count, accurately and in tight coverage windows—Michigan defensive end Chase Winovich said, "I was standing on the sideline watching. I knew right then: This kid is something special."
Even Harbaugh will admit that's where it begins.
Describing what makes a quarterback—and while maintaining the position was wide-open (of course it wasn't)—he explained how a player seizes control of the most important position on the field. It begins, he said, by winning over your teammates.
"Shea is all about the team," Harbaugh said in a momentary break from his mantra. "I think guys saw that real quick."
Here's your team player, everyone: the player who made constant sacrifices for a university he adored and for a coach whom he says used and deceived him.
"Even if I weren't a football player, I would've chosen Ole Miss," Patterson says. "I love that place."
He is finally opening up about his acrimonious exit from Mississippi, talking at length for the first time about how it went down at the place he still calls home and how he found his way to Michigan because he just wanted normalcy—and a chance to play for a championship.
He didn't want to leave Ole Miss, where his brother, Sean, remains on staff and where his closest friends still play—and where his life, he says, still resides. But so, too, does the pain and drama of the last two years.
"It was like breaking up with a girlfriend you really love," Patterson says. "It was brutal."
No more brutal than what a player who is all about the team—Harbaugh's words—went through from January 2016 to April 2018.
The ugly, unseemly timeline:
• January 2016: Patterson signed with Ole Miss, and five days after he arrived as a midterm enrollee—a week before national signing day and with Ole Miss on the verge of signing a top-five class—the first of two NCAA notices of allegations arrived. Patterson says Freeze promised the problems occurred under the former staff, not his.
This promise was critical in Patterson's 2018 NCAA appeal to play immediately at Michigan, because Freeze's staff was involved in the allegations and it wasn't disclosed to Patterson, who could have appealed to the NCAA to void his letter of intent before he ever walked on the field at Ole Miss. Had Patterson left after the first notice of allegations, Ole Miss' heralded recruiting class would've fallen apart.
• November 2016: With Ole Miss scrambling to reach bowl eligibility after back-to-back New Year's Six bowl appearances—and desperate to keep the momentum Freeze had built at the former SEC lightweight—star quarterback Chad Kelly suffered a season-ending knee injury and Freeze asked Patterson if he would burn his redshirt season to play the final three games of the year. Save the recruiting class in January; save the season in November.
Rarely would an elite quarterback—especially the No. 1 QB recruit in the nation—do such a thing. But Freeze sold it the only way he could: Do it for your teammates.
"I told Shea, 'Don't our seniors deserve to play in a bowl game? Don't the guys who busted their tail all season and would've gotten to a bowl game if Chad were healthy deserve to play in a bowl game?'" Freeze said in summer 2017. "I told him, 'You can get us there.'"
Ole Miss lost two of its final three games and failed to make the postseason.
• January 2017: A second NCAA notice of allegations—including seven Level 1 violations—arrived. The program was staring down the NCAA barrel, but Patterson—who chose Ole Miss over LSU and Alabama and could've played anywhere in the country—decided to stay again.
• July 2017: Freeze resigned after officials at Ole Miss had found a "pattern of personal misconduct." Once again, Patterson—who already was staring at playing his sophomore season under Ole Miss' self-imposed bowl ban—stayed in Oxford. He could have used the same eligibility appeal he'd eventually use to play for Michigan to get on the field immediately at another school.
• October 2017: Patterson sprained his right knee in a loss to LSU, ending his sophomore season after just seven games.
• December 2017: The NCAA announced sanctions that included another year of postseason ineligibility and scholarships losses. Days later, Patterson announced he was leaving Ole Miss.
He played 10 games in his Ole Miss career, throwing for 3,139 yards, 23 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
"We weren't playing for anything at Ole Miss last year; we were playing for each other," Patterson says. "We thought, 'Let's suck it up, play hard, and then go out (in 2018) and try to win it all.' I don't think I could've went on living like that, knowing that I had no chance to play in a bowl again.
"You take one bullet, and it knocks you down. Then the next one comes, and it knocks you out."
He arrived in Ann Arbor last December, a foot of snow on the ground and the shadow of his NCAA eligibility appeal following his every move.
No matter what he did, no matter how hard he worked or how well he performed in practice, he had no control over his ability to play in the 2018 season. The NCAA and its painfully slow, famously confounding processes, were at the wheel.
"First of all, it was negative 5 degrees the first few weeks I was there, and I was like, 'Man, did I make the right decision?'" Patterson says. "I love the South. I was born in Ohio, but my heart is in the South. The professional approach here is what attracted me to Michigan. Just the way they handled their business. That has a lot to do with Coach Harbaugh."
Patterson's first meeting with Harbaugh was more football-based. The guy who made Andrew Luck the first pick of the NFL draft and Colin Kaepernick a Super Bowl quarterback could refocus his dream of winning championships and playing in the NFL.
Then he was introduced to the beauty that is the Harbaugh Experience.
How do you explain the Harbaugh Experience? Former Michigan (and current UCLA) quarterback Wilton Speight tells a story to sum it up nicely. Early in his Michigan tenure, Harbaugh pulled Speight aside and told him not to eat chicken, a protein that is considered fairly safe by nutritionists. When Speight asked why, Harbaugh said, "because it's a nervous bird."
"He thinks some type of sickness injected its way into the human population when people began eating white meats instead of beef and pork," Speight says. "And he believes it, 100 percent."
That wasn't any less strange than the way Harbaugh responded to questions about Patterson during Big Ten media days. How he insisted the best quarterback on his roster—and the one guy who can save the program—is just one of four quarterbacks available.
That's right, he said available.
"He's as real as it gets. He's just how you'd think he'd be," Patterson says. "He's definitely a character, a little bizarre. You'll be sitting there talking to him, and you're thinking, 'What the hell is this guy talking about? Is this real life?' But I really like him."
While Patterson spent most of the spring in a lengthy public battle with the NCAA, he grew comfortable with his new team, new coach and new life. And though it took mere days for his teammates to see Patterson can be the key piece to the Michigan puzzle, the drawn-out NCAA appeal was eating him alive.
Then Elizabeth Heinrich, Michigan's NCAA compliance director, called Patterson in late April and asked him to meet in her office. He walked in the door, and Heinrich told Patterson it was over.
"It felt freaking amazing," Patterson says.
He pauses, and reality quickly erases the moment.
Patterson has been shielded from media access by Harbaugh for much of the offseason. He's spoken only briefly during the team's spring trip overseas and at length with Bleacher Report during a quarterback camp in suburban Los Angeles about his highly publicized transfer and the adjustment to his new football life—one that looks nothing like what he left, with one caveat.
He's still the savior.
"I've been it all my football life; it's part of playing the position," he continues. "But I get it. This is different. There's more at stake now."
There's more at stake for Patterson, who to this point has barely shown what made him one of the most sought-after recruits of the 2016 class.
There's more at stake for Michigan, which is in the midst of its longest Big Ten championship drought ever. It hasn't won the conference since 2004, equaling the 13 years it didn't from 1951 to 1963. They don't handle losing well in Ann Arbor, where Rich Rodriguez, Brady Hoke and Harbaugh have combined to beat bitter rivals Ohio State (once) and Michigan State (twice) three times in the last decade.
There's more at stake for Harbaugh, the beloved alum who has done everything right since returning—except develop a game-changing quarterback. He was the quarterback guru in previous stops with Stanford and the NFL's 49ers, and they expected similar results at Michigan. Instead, they've been given a steady diet of Jake Rudock, Speight, John O'Korn and Brandon Peters—not exactly quarterbacks who move the needle or, more importantly, can carry teams in big games.
And that's where this all comes together.
"Jim's problem is he hasn't had a quarterback," says one Big Ten coach. "They've been terrific on defense, they play smart, they're tough, they don't hurt themselves. They've just been normal for three years at a position where you need to be exceptional."
Patterson went back to Oxford this spring for his brother's wedding and saw all of his former teammates. The same guys he still calls and texts on a daily basis.
They understand each other and the dynamics of the situation. They've moved on. He has moved on.
"He had to do what was best for himself and his career," Ole Miss center Sean Rawlings says. "There were some hurt feelings at first, but the longer you play this game, the more you realize there are some things you just can't control."
Six players left Ole Miss at the end of the 2017 season, and five were members of the 2016 recruiting class. The contentious separation between Ole Miss and Patterson got so ugly, the school would only agree to support Patterson's eligibility waiver if he withdrew claims he was misled during his recruitment about the severity of the NCAA case.
Why did Ole Miss need that? So it could officially report to the NCAA that Freeze didn't mislead players, a statement that could help mitigate NCAA sanctions.
The savior is gone from Ole Miss and has moved into the same role at Michigan. The game is in his hands like it was before—not out of reach in a bureaucratic black hole.
Everyone and everything is zeroed in on the one player who can make or break a team. Even if Harbaugh refuses to admit it.
"It's not pressure to me; it's second nature," Patterson says. "I watched Michigan play last year. I saw the talent on the team. I came in here thinking if I can help them out, maybe I can be that missing piece."
There's too much at stake for this not to be the year.
Matt Hayes covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MattHayesCFB.