John O’Korn and Wilton Speight: A Collision Course
Michigan fans went for a ride with the quarterback position on Saturday. It started with starting quarterback Wilton Speight suffering an injury early from what some won’t call a dirty hit, but I won’t call a clean play. It ended with John O’Korn having his best performance since a 5 touchdown performance against Rutgers while playing for Houston in 2013, and the QB controversy being turned up to 11. They all go to 10, but this one goes to 11. However, this ride started long before Saturday, and long before this season, it goes all the way back to 2013. With everyone trying to validate their own opinions, there seems to be a lot of revisionist history going on. I’ve even seen fans attacking Speight, O’Korn, and the judgement of Jim Harbaugh. Of course, all of this is an over reaction to a single football game, but that’s what sports fans do. So as the story of the O’Korn-Speight battle appears to reach its climax, let’s go back to the beginning, and remember how we got here.
John O’Korn transferred to Michigan from Houston, after losing the starting quarterback job in his sophomore season. O’Korn had a stellar freshman season in 2013, throwing for over 3000 yards, and nearly a 3 to 1 TD/INT ratio. The start of his second year was a disaster. 4 interceptions, no touchdowns, and a home opening loss to Texas-San Antonio. The Roadrunners may have one of the best logos in college football, but they were one of the worst teams. O’Korn would play well the next three games, throwing 6 TD’s to only 2 INT’s, but losing a game against BYU. His last start would be against UCF, where he threw for less than 100 yards, no touchdowns, and 2 INT’s. Some questioned if John O’Korn’s freshman season was a fluke, and why in the world would new Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh want to bring him in?
Their names are Doug Meachem, Travis Bush, and Tony Levine, former coaches for the Houston Cougars. Meachem called plays in 2013, O’Korn’s freshman year. He would leave Houston at the end of that season to take the same position at TCU. The Horned Frogs went 12-1 that year, their only loss being a shootout 3 point loss to Baylor. TCU was part of the controversy of the first ever College Football Playoff, when they fell out of the top 4 in the final week, and Ohio State jumped in. Doug Meachem was a finalist for the Broyles Award which goes to the best assistant in the country. In 2017, after three seasons in Fort Worth, Meachem would leave for the Kansas Jayhawks.
Houston head coach, Tony Levine, would promote Travis Bush to offensive coordinator in 2014, O’Korn’s sophomore season. Feeling the hot seat, Levine decided to make the change at quarterback and bench his star QB. After another 5 loss season in Houston, the coaching staff was fired at the end of the year. Bush would not find another job until 2016, when he accepted the position of AD and head coach for a high school in Texas. Tony Levine would also take a position in 2016, joining Jeff Brohm’s staff at Western Kentucky. Levine would follow Brohm to Purdue, to serve as special teams coordinator and co-OC. Things came full circle for O’Korn and his former head coach who decided to bench him back in 2014, as Levine stood on the opposing sideline watching O’Korn completely redeem himself. Sports are the dramas no script writer could ever create.
Wilton Speight committed to Michigan in February of 2013. He was part of Brady Hoke’s last recruiting class at Michigan in 2014, a class that had made, and continues to make, major contributions for Jim Harbaugh. Names including Jabrill Peppers, Mason Cole, Bryan Mone, Chase Winovich, Brandon Watson, Ian Bunting, Noah Furbush, Lawrence Marshall, and others. When Harbaugh was hired before the 2015 season, the first position where rumors swirled was at quarterback. Rumors surrounding Speight were that of a potential transfer.
Returning to the team with him that year was Shane Morris. A former top recruit, who saw his career spiral down in sync with Brady Hoke. Many wondered if the failures of that staff had ruined any potential for Morris. Still, he was the favorite to start in Harbaugh’s first season. With only about a month to complete a recruiting class, Harbaugh would secure the already committed Alex Malzone, and flip New Mexico QB Zach Gentry from Texas. Just after signing day, it was announced John O’Korn would be transferring to Michigan, but he would have to sit out the 2015 season. The week of the Michigan spring game we learned that former Iowa quarterback, Jake Rudock, would grad transfer to Michigan, making him eligible to play that fall. That spring game would feature Morris and Malzone, and it wasn’t pretty. Neither QB played well in a 7-0 defensive struggle, which is one way to describe a spring game, but Morris came out the clear front-runner. The question was, with limited time in fall camp would Jake Rudock earn the job over Morris? One name not being mentioned with all the moving parts, was Wilton Speight.
After considering a transfer, Jim Harbaugh convinced Wilton Speight to stay with Michigan. Speight had seen how players with better recruiting rankings, or upperclassman, would get a leg up for starting jobs, and he thought he was now buried behind a crowded field. Harbaugh made it very clear that was not how things worked at Michigan anymore. Star ratings and class would no longer matter. The players who worked the hardest, who performed well in practice, and earned the right to play, would play. Michigan would have a meritocracy, and if Speight wanted the job, and worked hard enough for the job, he would get it. The players that gave Michigan the best chance to win would start. Harbaugh was selling a new culture at Michigan, and Wilton Speight was buying in.
Going into fall camp the quarterback competition had become much clearer. Gentry, a major coup for Harbaugh, was very raw and wasn’t going to be a factor early. He would move to tight end at the end of the season, a move questioned at the time, but now paying huge dividends. Part of a constant theme, it’s not smart to question Jim Harbaugh. After a dismal spring game, freshman Alex Malzone had fallen out of the competition, and was no longer a factor for starter. All August we heard the battle was between the returning Morris and grad transfer Rudock. Harbaugh and passing game coordinator, Jedd Fisch, made it clear this was an open competition, and spoke about those two when referencing the battle in camp. Harbaugh loves competition, because it gets the best out of every one. No promises had been made to Morris, or Rudock, they both knew they were going to have to win the job in camp.
In what we now know is typical Harbaugh, a starter was not announced at the end of camp. Both players were listed on the depth chart, and we would have to wait for the first snaps against Utah to know for sure who the starter was. It seemed clear to most watching closely, and inside, that Rudock was the starter. Harbaugh hadn’t told the press, but he had told the players, and fans everywhere became body language experts as we all hypothesized that “Rudock was walking like he was the starter”. In fact, he was, as Jake Rudock would start against Utah, and the rest of the season for Michigan.
The shocker came in Michigan’s third game of the season against UNLV. Up 28-7 with a little under 6 minutes left, Michigan had the ball after a 3 & out punt by the Rebels. Michigan’s defense was spectacular as the game had been a shutout until about 9 minutes left in the game. Jim Harbaugh, feeling the game was in hand, decided to send out his backups, trying to learn as much as he could about his new players. Trotting out at quarterback was not the QB who was a former top recruit, who was the only returning QB with Michigan starting experience, who was the QB that looked best in the spring game, who had battled Jake Rudock for the job in the fall, it was not Shane Morris. Trotting out at quarterback was the QB who nearly transferred after thinking he would never see the field for Michigan, who was a non factor in the spring game, who was never mentioned in the fall QB competition, who bought into Jim Harbaugh and his culture 100%, it was Wilton Speight. Speight had earned the right to be the third man in a 3 man competition for starting QB, and after a dejected Shane Morris slipped in practice, he had earned the right to be the backup quarterback for Michigan.
Wilton Speight’s status as backup was cemented when he was called upon in a game defining moment against Minnesota. Jake Rudock had been knocked out of the game late in the third quarter with Michigan trailing to Minnesota 23-21. Speight’s first pass was an incompletion on third down, and Michigan was forced to punt. Michigan would go on to have two straight 3 & outs, Speight was 0 for 3 on passing attempts, and the Wolverines were now trailing 26-21. Despite Speight and the offense’s struggles, Speight once again came out at quarterback with about 8 minutes left in the game. Minnesota had just kicked an awful punt, and given Michigan the ball at the Gopher 40 yard line.
Speight would lead a 7 play drive for Michigan, going 3 for 3 on passing attempts, including a clutch 12 yard touchdown pass to Jehu Chesson on 3rd & 10, giving Michigan the 27-26 lead. In what ended up being the most important play of the game, Speight would also connect with Amara Darboh for a two-point conversion, giving Michigan the 3 point lead, meaning a field goal would only tie the game. On the last possession of the game, Minnesota would go 74 yards and score what they thought was a game winning touchdown. After review, the call was overturned, and the ball was placed at the 1 yard line. Following some poor clock management, Minnesota was left with only 2 seconds on the clock. Instead of kicking a field goal and going to overtime, interim head coach, Tracy Claeys, decided to go for the win in the first game since Jerry Kill’s surprising retirement. Michigan stuffed a QB sneak from Minnesota at the goal line as time expired, and the legend of Wilton Speight was born. Had Speight not converted the two-point conversion, the Gophers could have simply kicked a field goal for the win. Instead, Speight learned Harbaugh was true to his word, he had been given the chance he earned, and had just won a conference road game for Michigan. Jake Rudock would continue the season as starter, with Speight seeing snaps in a win against Rutgers, and a devastating loss to Ohio State. Rudock would go on to get drafted after by the Detroit Lions.
Despite Wilton Speight seeing action in the 2015 season, the assumption was always that John O’Korn would be the starter in 2016. Not only did O’Korn have more experience, and had shown flashes in his freshman year at Houston, but the reviews all season from the practice field were incredible. Defensive coordinator DJ Durkin, gave O’Korn credit for improving the defense while he ran scout team every week. Multiple sources had come out and said, if O’Korn had been eligible he would have likely started over Jake Rudock. In 2016, Michigan also added the commitment of top ranked quarterback Brandon Peters. Many were already making the comparisons to former Harbaugh QB, Andrew Luck. The belief was O’Korn would start in 2016, while Peters would redshirt. With Peters potentially pushing for the starting job the following season, or taking over for good in 2017 when O’Korn graduated. Once again, Wilton Speight had been buried at Michigan and was the subject of transfer rumors.
Going into the spring game last season, most Michigan fans were excited to see John O’Korn in a Michigan uniform, and wanted to get a look at the future in Brandon Peters. What they got, was a reminder that Wilton Speight was still there, and as long as Harbaugh gave him a chance he was going to fight for the starting job. Wilton Speight was clearly the better quarterback that day, and Michigan now had another QB competition on its hands, just the way Jim Harbaugh likes it. An intense battle would ensue through the summer, with Speight and O’Korn even contacting receivers behind each other’s back to set up throwing sessions. As heated as the battle was all through fall camp, the two never feuded, in fact they became very close friends, something true to this day. Although they both obviously wanted to start, they had earned respect for each other, and truly cared about Michigan football, and the team the most. For the second year in a row, the players would be told, but we wouldn’t know who the starter was until the start of the first game, this time against Hawaii.
After an assault of the shoulder pads, Jim Harbaugh crowned Wilton Speight his starting quarterback. The spring game had not been fluke, and the competition we heard of all summer and into the fall was real. Speight had once again beaten the assumptions, and was the starter for the Michigan Wolverines. It was an incredible climb for the player who walked into Jim Harbaugh’s office not long after he was hired, to discuss his potential transfer. Speight represented everything Harbaugh was trying to sell at Michigan, as did John O’Korn. O’Korn had multiple options when he decided to leave Houston, but he chose to come play for Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. There were no promises of starting jobs in the future, he would have to earn it. There were other programs who made such promises, but O’Korn was fine having to prove himself. Despite losing the job, he did not become dejected like we had seen from Shane Morris the previous year. To O’Korn’s credit, he became a fantastic teammate, a leader on and off the field, a true Michigan man. Supporting Speight and the team, and doing everything he could to help them succeed. Going into his fifth season, now it was O’Korn who was the subject of transfer rumors. Speight would be the returning starter after a successful season, and O’Korn could transfer and play right away. Whether it was the fact Harbaugh’s meritocracy meant O’Korn could still theoretically have a chance to start, or it’s just because he loves Michigan, John O’Korn decided to stay for his final year.
Jim Harbaugh’s third spring game at Michigan had a very different feel to it. After two years of the quarterback competition dominating all the story lines, it appeared to be the one position that was settled. Michigan just had the most players selected in the NFL Draft of any program, and was returning only 5 starters. With a team full of youth, talent, potential, and inexperience, there were going to be battles all over the field. Then, much like Speight had done the previous year to O’Korn, Brandon Peters outplayed Speight in the glorified scrimmage at the Big House. So, (Copy and Paste) Michigan now had another QB competition on its hands, just the way Jim Harbaugh likes it. With the Harbaugh era now in full force, would his first star QB recruit earn the starting job? In his third season at Stanford, Harbaugh faced an incredibly similar situation, with redshirt freshman Andrew Luck. Peters, who had drawn comparisons to Luck, was a fan favorite to get the job.
Despite what was largely a successful season in 2016, Speight had a lot of detractors in the Michigan fan base. He suffered an injury in the loss against Iowa, and was even rumored to be out for the season. John O’Korn would start against Indiana, and not perform well. Despite the upset loss, Michigan was still in control of their own destiny. A win against Ohio State meant a spot in the Big Ten Championship game, which likely meant they would be a win away from a playoff berth. O’Korn had gone from fan base favorite to bust, and Speight was likely going to have to play hurt, which he did. Speight would not play well in the loss against Ohio State, and would finish the year with an Orange Bowl loss to Florida State. His final three games of the season, were three of his four worst games of the 2016 season according to QB rating. Still, going into the spring game, a healthy Speight returning to start for Michigan was the favorite, until the performance of Peters.
A couple of weeks into fall camp, something interesting was happening regarding the quarterback competition. Despite being in the submarine, as Harbaugh likes to say, he doesn’t shy way from giving specific comments regarding his players. When asked about the battle, Harbaugh made it clear it was now a two-man race, and it was Speight and O’Korn that had separated themselves. Of course, Michigan fans began to hypothesize what this all meant. Surely Harbaugh was just trying to encourage Peters, he had looked the best in the spring game. He was the prized recruit, the future, how could he have fallen behind Speight and O’Korn? Maybe Brandon Peters was learning what Speight and O’Korn already knew from their couple of seasons with Jim Harbaugh. It didn’t matter what star rating you had, this was a meritocracy, and the ones who performed best in practice, and showed they gave Michigan the best chance to win, would play. In a lot of ways, this was a huge edge for Speight and O’Korn over Peters, and may have been the difference.
For the third year in a row, Harbaugh would not announce the starter before the starting game. This year was a little different though, as it seemed widely known Speight had won the starting job. A lot of the banter this season seemed to circle around Jim McElwain’s attacks against Jim Harbaugh. Either way, when the game started against Florida, Wilton Speight was once again the starter for Michigan. After two interceptions were returned for touchdowns, Michigan fans lit up social media with calls for Brandon Peters. This fan base was not going to accept that Speight was the best quarterback Michigan had, and it would not accept that despite Peter’s talent, he simply wasn’t ready to start for Michigan. Much like the battle in 2015 with Rudock, Morris, and Speight, the question was where was Peters on the depth chart? Had he gone to third string like Morris, or was he still ahead of John O’Korn? Our question was answered after those pick sixes, when Harbaugh decided to give Speight a series to clear his head. It was O’Korn who took the field as backup, not Brandon Peters. O’Korn made a great throw to Tarik Black down the sideline, but mostly we saw all the bad things O’Korn had shown in his previous appearances for Michigan. He was too quick to give up on his reads, he panicked under pressure, and would run out of the pocket. Unlike Speight, when O’Korn was flushed out of the pocket he didn’t continue to look downfield to throw the ball, which lead to unnecessary sacks. Speight would come back into the game, and Michigan would defeat Florida 33-17. Speight and the offenses struggles have continued through the early part of the season, in underwhelming wins against Cincinnati and Air Force. Michigan headed into its game against Purdue, 1 for 10 in the red zone.
Wilton Speight was the starting quarterback for Michigan, and he hadn’t done anything to change that. Jobs are won for this team on the practice field, and you only lose your job if someone takes it from you, or if you don’t do your job on Saturday. Wilton Speight has consistently been the best quarterback in practice, this is a fact. You don’t have to look far to find articles quoting many sources saying as much. As Harbaugh said, Speight’s job is to win games, and he was doing that. Yes, there were mistakes, and frustrating drives, but that was as much a part of the entire offenses’ struggles, as it was Speight’s. Speight has been on quite the journey with Jim Harbaugh, and I can promise you that means something to his head coach. Wilton Speight wasn’t going to lose his job unless he stopped doing it, or if unfortunately like we saw against Purdue, he suffered an injury.
Sitting in the stands on the Michigan side, I was surrounded by fellow Wolverines. Half the stadium was maize and blue, and I could feel the energy sucked out of our group as John O’Korn marched onto the field to start Michigan’s fourth possession of the game. The conversation was about why are they even putting him out there? He’s a fifth year player, what is there to gain from giving him more time? Give the young guy a chance. Could Peters possibly be this bad? Then, John O’Korn led Michigan on a 13 play, 84 yard touchdown drive. O’Korn was a perfect 5 for 5 and 61 yards. His 5 passes were all for first downs, the last being a touchdown pass to former QB recruit Zach Gentry in the red zone. John O’Korn, and the offense looked great.
Except a tipped ball interception near the end of the first half, O’Korn would continue to play well. There were still signs of his instinct to run from pressure, but it seemed like every play he got better. He even escaped a sure sack, and spun around backwards, and delivered a spectacular throw for first down. It wasn’t just O’Korn who was looking good, the entire offense was looking better. There seemed to be flow to the game we hadn’t seen all season. All the calls for more tight end involvement were answered in this game, as Sean McKeon and Zach Gentry led the team in receiving with a combined 8 catches for 130 yards, and Gentry’s touchdown. The offensive line still showed some struggles, but took command as the game went on. The running game took advantage as Chris Evans had his best game of the season rushing for 97 yards, including a 49 yard touchdown. Michigan fans entered the game pessimistic about the offense, even more so after the Speight injury, but left the Purdue game optimistic. There is no doubt Michigan has an elite defense, possibly the best in the country, could the offense be good enough to make this a championship contender? And of course, the biggest question of all now, who is going to be the quarterback of that offense?
So, our story has brought us here. 4 years of rumors, battles, competition, big game wins, big game losses, and fans all the while knowing they had the correct answer. As terrible as I feel for Wilton Speight, I feel the exact opposite for John O’Korn. He has handled everything incredibly well while at Michigan, and it was great to see him have a game like that. As I sit here writing this, I have no idea what’s going to happen next. We don’t know the severity of Speight’s injury, or the timetable for his return. O’Korn didn’t want his opportunity to come from Wilton getting injured, but it did, and he took advantage. As I mentioned before, you only lose your job under Jim Harbaugh if you fail to do it, or someone takes it from you. It’s going to be up to Harbaugh to decide if John O’Korn took Speight’s job.
This performance by O’Korn doesn’t prove Harbaugh was wrong about anything. When he said this was a two-man race, and O’Korn was playing well, fans scoffed. There was no way O’Korn was better than Peters. Harbaugh said he was, and Harbaugh looks like he was right. Harbaugh’s obsession with competition, and getting better every day brought us here. There were no promises made, and these quarterbacks were always encouraged to compete for what they wanted. It appears this competition was as close as Harbaugh said it was, and now he is faced with a decision nearly four years in the making. We didn’t know it at the time, but John O’Korn and Wilton Speight have always been on this collision course. Both always competing under the coaching of Jim Harbaugh. Neither gave up or bailed when things didn’t go their way, when they got hurt, when they didn’t win the job, they just kept working. Regardless of what happens next, they deserve respect. They’ve earned it from each other, their head coach, and this fan base.
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