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Is John O’Korn the Answer in Michigan?

John O'Korn may have just thrown his way into the starting quarterback position in Michigan. He won the fans' approval, but did he do enough to earn Jim Harbaugh's?


After leading a come from behind win against Purdue, John O’Korn may have just thrown his way into the starting quarterback position in Michigan. Wilton Speight left Saturday’s game midway through the 1st quarter with an ankle injury. Though his timetable for return is still unknown, the injury wasn’t serious, as X-rays came back negative. O’Korn will be the starter in the absence of Speight, however long that may last. It’s when Speight returns, however, that a tough decision must be made by head coach Jim Harbaugh and company on who the starting quarterback will be.

John O’Korn steals the spotlight

John O’Korn completed 69% of his 26 pass attempts for 270 yards, one touchdown, and an interception against Purdue on Saturday. His total quarterback rating of 86.5 tied him with Baker Mayfield for 9th best of all quarterbacks in Week 4. Those stats by themselves sound pretty good, but let’s put the stats aside for a minute. O’Korn was able to do something on Saturday that Speight failed to do in the first three games of the season: He won the approval of the Michigan Wolverine fans. Though that may not seem very important in the grand scheme of say, being the most talented quarterback on a team, in Michigan, fan approval is a very big deal. 

Here’s why. First, Michigan Wolverine fans have come to expect near-perfection over the course of the history of the football program, as it is the winningest program all time with 939 wins. So when the fans don’t see that, they don’t have much patience. To win their approval means that you’re playing some good football. Second, Jim Harbaugh has spent his first three years as the head coach of Michigan catering to the wants and desires of the fans as much as he possibly can. Obviously, winning is the top priority for both Harbaugh and the fans, so if Harbaugh thinks the Wolverines have the best chance to do that with Speight under center, he will keep him there. However, if he views the two quarterbacks as giving the same amount of chance for success, he’s going to side with the wants of the fans to make his decision. In this case, that favors O’Korn 100%.

What did Wilton Speight do wrong?

So, why hasn’t Speight been able to win over the love of the Michigan faithful? Through Speight’s first three starts of 2017, everyone in the country was criticizing Speight’s performance and the Wolverines offense. The consensus was that Michigan was only winning games with their defense and special teams and that the offense would essentially ruin their championship hopes. Statistics definitely didn’t hurt this thinking. Through three games, and about half of a quarter against Purdue, Speight has completed only 54% of his passes for 581 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. His total quarterback rating of 32.7 places him 109th out of 126 qualified quarterbacks on the season.

That’s not what the number eight ranked team in the country with National Championship hopes wants to see. Speight’s two interceptions were thrown against the Florida Gators in the opening game of the season, and both were returned for touchdowns. If it wasn’t for a shut down defense that allowed only three points, holding the Gators scoreless after the first drive of the game while also scoring a defensive touchdown of their own, the Wolverines could’ve found themselves in a season-defeating 0-1 start to the season.

Speight followed the ugly season opener with a pair of lackluster performances against Cincinnati and Air Force. Air Force proved to be near the last straw for Speight with Michigan fans, as he failed to lead the offense on a touchdown drive until a 36-yard touchdown run by Karan Higdon with one minute left in the game. The Wolverines needed the help of five field goals from Quinn Nordin and a punt return for a touchdown by Freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones to put away the Falcons.

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We also can’t forget the way the Wolverines, and more specifically Wilton Speight, finished the 2016 season. They lost two of the last three games of the season when they controlled their own destiny for a trip to the college playoffs. Speight didn’t play in the lone win of those three games, as he was out with an injury. After losing their way out of a chance at a National Championship run, Michigan then lost to Florida State in the Orange Bowl. In the three losses, Speight completed just 55% of his passes for 485 yards with three touchdowns and four interceptions. In short, Speight has played very poor and uninspiring football in his last six complete games. As the stats show, he has actually played some of the worst football of any starter in the country. The end result: heavy national criticism of the Wolverines offense and a fan base calling for the entrance of John O’Korn.

Does O’Korn have what it takes?

There’s no question that Wilton Speight has struggled. The numbers show it just as well as the naked eye sees it on game day. His recent play hasn’t helped his case to remain the starter for the Wolverines. However, aside from Saturday against Purdue, has O’Korn actually showed anything to prove that he can perform any better the Speight? Does Harbaugh’s decision to name Speight the starter again in 2017 speak to the talent potential he sees in Speight, or does it speak to the lack of confidence Harbaugh has in O’Korn?

John O’Korn spent his first two seasons playing for the Houston Cougars. He showed signs of potential in his Freshman year, in which he led the Cougars to an 8-5 record and helped the team return to a bowl game after missing out on one the year before, though they lost 41-24 to Vanderbilt. In his first season, O’Korn completed 59% of his passes for 3,117 yards with 28 touchdowns compared to only 10 interceptions for a total quarterback rating of 46.2 (99th among 128 qualified quarterbacks). Though his numbers were far from anything special, the Houston coaching staff found reason for optimism, seeing that O’Korn was only a Freshman. The young quarterback would only improved in his sophomore year, right? 

Unfortunately, that was not the case for O’Korn. He took a step back in his second season, and a pretty big step back at that. He led the Cougars to an unimpressive 2-3 start through five games, before getting benched by head coach Tony Levine. Unfortunately for O’Korn, the Cougars went on to win six of their next eight games, including a bowl game victory against Pittsburgh, only supporting the decision of Levine to bench O’Korn. In the five games O’Korn started, he completed only 52% of his passes for 951 yards with six touchdowns and eight interceptions for a total quarterback rating of 22.2. With his poor performance, he gave Levine little choice but to make a change at quarterback. One month after the conclusion of Houston’s season, O’Korn announced his decision to transfer to Michigan.

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Due to NCAA transfer rules, O’Korn sat out of the 2015 season before battling for the starting quarterback job in 2016. Though it was a tight battle throughout the preseason, Speight finally won the competition and remained the starter throughout the year. Harbaugh’s decision to name Speight the starting quarterback was due largely to the success that Speight played with early on in the season. He simply outplayed O’Korn.

O’Korn did appear sparingly throughout the season in eight games, and he also started a game against Indiana, in place of an injured Speight, in which Michigan won. In his limited action, O’Korn completed 20 of 34 passes (58%) for 173 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. His lone start against Indiana was less than inspiring, however, as he completed only 7 of his 16 passes (43%) for just 59 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions for a total quarterback rating of 26.9 (93rd out of 119 qualified quarterbacks in that week).

When all is said and done, O’Korn’s track record has been less than impressive. If the same quarterback shows up to play that has consistently underwhelmed throughout his collegiate career, O’Korn will be hearing the boo’s from the Michigan fans in only a matter of games, as they will then be calling for 3rd quarterback on the depth chart Brandon Peters to get some game action. If the guy that we saw on Saturday against Purdue shows up, well then Michigan has found their answer at quarterback, and O’Korn does have what it takes to be the starter in Ann Arbor.

What should Harbaugh do?

It’s anyone’s guess what decision Harbaugh will make with his starting quarterback situation. He has waited until the weekend of the opening game of the season in each of the last two years to announce his starting quarterback, even though he kept Speight as the starter this year. He likes to keep the opposing defense in as much uncertainty as he possibly can leading up to each game. He does well to give very little information away in interviews.

So, we most likely won’t know his decision on who he’ll start when Speight is healthy until, well, Speight is fully healthy and the following game is only days away. That may not even be before the Wolverines’ next game against Michigan State on October 7th (the Wolverines have a bye week this weekend). When Speight is ready to get back on the field, all eyes will be on who Harbaugh lines up under center with the 1st team offense.

Until then, let’s make our own predictions. It seems like the only and most accurate conclusion that can be made about the Michigan quarterback situation right now is that it’s really ugly. Sure, O’Korn played a great game against Purdue, and that should be credited towards what he’s capable of doing. However, he is the Wolverines’ backup for a reason. As was said earlier, his track record as a starter is very unimpressive. So, you tell me, is O’Korn a different quarterback this year than he’s been in the past?

Despite the poor history O’Korn has, I do believe he deserves his shot at leading this Michigan offense. Speight has had his opportunity, and he simply hasn’t done enough with it. Remember his quarterback rating this season ranks 109th out of 126 qualified quarterbacks, and he fell apart when the games mattered the most at the end of the 2016 season. Surely, O’Korn can do better than that, even if he doesn’t play like he did against Purdue.

This Wolverine team boasts one of the best defenses in the country, with a kicker who leads the country in made field goals, and a return team with a talented freshman in Donovan Peoples-Jones. They also boast a running back committee with three players capable of moving the ball. The only thing that seems to be missing is a capable quarterback. Only time can tell if John O’Korn can fit the shoes of quarterbacking a national championship caliber team. 

Maybe he can, maybe he can’t, but he at least deserves the chance, if not for his performance against Purdue on Saturday, then because of the poor performance of Wilton Speight. Speight no longer deserves to be named the starter of the number eight team in the country. It’s as simple as that. The decision is Jim Harbaugh’s to make, but if he sees any chance of a national championship run in 2017, he needs to explore new options on offense. Let the Michigan faithful battle-cry be heard; bring in John O’Korn.

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Micah Reum

Born and raised just outside of Detroit, Michigan, I can still remember watching Barry Sanders running away from defenders at the Silverdome. Those days are long gone, but the impact they had on me remains, as I've been an avid sports fan ever since. You can find me writing for the NFL and NCAAF columns of RealSport, where I hope my words can bring life to and fulfill your reading desires.

Is John O’Korn the Answer in Michigan?

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