The Trials and Tribulations of Jim Harbaugh (finally) Getting His Guy at Quarterback

by Hollywood Sports

I am thinking a lot about the University of Michigan football team -- as I work on the other programs that are in reach of making the College Football Playoff. A successful run in the bowl season and the three College Football Playoff games begins now. I previously wrote about how head coach Jim Harbaugh has made a concerted effort to promote player positivity by pushing them to smile and lift each other up on the sideline along with bypassing post-game on-the-field interviews to allow for his players to be featured on national television. After renegotiating a contract extension after the disastrous 2-4 campaign during the 2020 COVID season, the Wolverines have since gone 24-2 and seem poised to make their second-straight College Football Playoff (even if they were to get upset by Purdue in the Big Ten Championship Game despite being 16.5-point or so favorites). 

There are plenty of reasons that help explain the improved success of this program. But perhaps an underrated dynamic is that Harbaugh finally has his recruits at quarterback developing and playing at his former position for his alma mater. 

When Harbaugh arrived at Michigan in 2015, he was considered a quarterback whisperer for his development of players at the position in which he starred for years for the Chicago Bears and the Indianapolis Colts among the four teams he played for in his NFL career. Harbaugh was a starting quarterback under head coach Bo Schembechler when playing at Michigan before graduating in 1987. As the head coach for the San Francisco 49ers, Harbaugh nurtured the development of Alex Smith who was considered a bust at the time despite being a former number-one pick in the NFL draft. Harbaugh later made the controversial decision to bench Smith for Colin Kapernick whose running skills helped take the Niners to the Super Bowl. Harbaugh was the head coach at Stanford during Andrew Luck's collegiate career. One of his quarterbacks at the University of San Diego, Josh Johnson, is still in the NFL (Denver) after a 13-year career at 36 years old. 

When Harbaugh arrived at Michigan in 2015, 5th-year senior quarterback Devin Gardner had just graduated. Junior Shane Morris, redshirt freshman Wilton Speight, and freshman Alex Malzone were in the quarterback room -- all recruits from previous head coach Brady Hoke. While the transfer portal is now commonplace in 2022, this was not the case in 2015 -- but Harbaugh made the unconventional move of convincing Iowa graduate student Jake Rudock to transfer to Michigan to be his starting quarterback. Rudock was a two-year starter but appeared out of favor with the Hawkeyes making his ripe for the picking. Harbaugh coached the veteran up, the Wolverines finished 10-3 on the season, and Rudock would go on to have several seasons in the NFL off the strength of that season. 

The success of Rudock may have convinced Harbaugh that the transfer portal was an untapped resource to be taken advantage of -- but this assessment might have held the program back, in hindsight. Harbaugh brought in John O'Korn from Houston to compete for the starting quarterback job in 2016 after he was benched in his sophomore season under a new head coach (and spread offense). O'Korn showed potential as the Cougars' starter in his freshman season. Yet O'Korn struggled in making second reads and lost the job to Wilton Speight was a dependable game manager.

Speight returned as the incumbent starter for his season in 2017. O'Korn was his backup. After redshirting the previous year, Morris transfers to Central Michigan as a former high-level recruit under Hoke. Redshirt freshman Brandon Peters, a Harbaugh recruit, is the third-stringer. 

The Wolverines go 8-5 with the offense lacking an explosive passing attack that only had eight touchdown passes all season. Speight gets injured late in the year. Brandon Peters gets the start in the Outback Bowl against South Carolina. The Wolverines lost by a 26-19 score with Peters showing glimpses but not enough to build the program around. Harbaugh hit the transfer portal again by attracting Shea Patterson to come to the program after losing his starting job at Ole Miss in his sophomore season. Patterson was a former five-star recruit that Michigan pursued but listed below is Dylan McCaffrey who came to the program from the same 2016 class. McCaffrey was the son of former NFL wide receiver Ed McCaffrey who was rated as the 5th best Pro-Style QB in the class. Peters remains in the mix in his sophomore season. Like O'Korn, Patterson was a starter in his freshman season putting up promising numbers while doing so in the SEC.  With the writing on the wall, Speight transfers to UCLA for a graduate year. 

Patterson takes the starting job in 2018 and puts up the most efficient numbers at quarterback for the program since 2000. He successfully adapts from the no-huddle spread run at Ole Miss to Harbaugh's pro-style system. He returns as the definitive first-stringer with McCaffrey as a backup along with freshman Joe Milton who comes in with a rocket of an arm. But Patterson fails to take another step in development in his senior year when the Wolverines go 9-4. Michigan loses to Alabama in the Citrus Bowl by 19 points in their fourth straight loss in a bowl game. Patterson graduates and signs a contract with the Kansas City Chiefs as an undrafted free agent. He is now in the USFL.

2020 was gearing up to be the year McCaffrey takes over under center in the fourth year in the program as a redshirt junior. Then the COVID pandemic occurs. The Big Ten cancels their football season in August before later rescinding that move. McCaffrey enters the transfer portal and takes his talent to Northern Colorado where his father was head coach (in 2021 and 2022, he puts up solid but unspectacular numbers playing against FCS competition). Milton wins the starting job to begin the season. Injuries force him out which allows Cade McNamara, a freshman from Nevada. The offense performs better under McNamara who makes is an effective game manager to who the players seem to respond. Milton transfers to Tennessee where he was tapped as the starter by first-year head coach Josh Heupel last year before getting benched for Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker who was a Heisman Trophy candidate before his season-ending injury last month. 

McNamara returns as a redshirt freshman with an extra year of eligibility from the COVID season in 2021. He faces competition from another quarterback in the transfer portal with former Texas Tech quarterback Alex Bowman entering the program after playing as a freshman before getting injured and losing his job. J.J. McCarthy also enters the fray as a freshman as a five-star recruit. With Bowman joining the program in the fall, McNamara wins the starting job before completing 210 of 327 passes for 2576 yards with 15 touchdowns and only six interceptions. McNamara leads the team to beat Ohio State for the first time in the Harbaugh era. Michigan makes the College Football Playoff for the first time. 

Yet the allure of McCarthy's upside as a vertical passer and as a runner remains with the Wolverines for the 2022 season. McNamara steadily improved in the offseason while demonstrating the leadership skills that led him to be a captain the previous season. Harbaugh makes the controversial decision to give both McNamara and McCarthy starts to begin the season to determine the quarterback competition. The offense ignites under McCarthy, giving Harbaugh a definitive answer which received almost no pushback from the fanbase. The rest is history, up to this point. McNamara deals with an injury during the season before announcing his plans to transfer. Incidentally, Bowman remains with the program. 

That is quite a genealogy. In hindsight, the Rudock transfer may have been the most successful move in the transfer portal. Patterson gave the team two solid years, but he did not meet the expectations of a former five-star recruit with the opportunity to work with the quarterback whisperer that was once Harbaugh's reputation. But Harbaugh's own quarterback recruits have been mostly misfires from Peters having middling success at Illinois to McCaffrey being only decent at Northern Colorado now and Milton losing the starting QB job at Tennessee. Watching McNamara lead a new program will be interesting to watch despite him not likely being an NFL quarterback. For the first time in eight years at Michigan, Harbaugh has a five-star quarterback under center that he both recruited and developed. 

Best of luck -- Frank.

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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