When Jim Harbaugh returned to coach his alma mater, he brought with him the reputation of being somewhat of a quarterback whisperer. A former quarterback himself, the 15-year NFL veteran and former Pro Bowler seemed to get the best out of his quarterbacks wherever he coached. From Josh Johnson at San Diego to Andrew Luck at Stanford to Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick with the 49ers, Harbaugh seemed to have a knack for elevating his quarterback’s play. If there was one thing that Michigan wouldn’t have to worry about with Harbaugh at the helm, it was quarterback play. Or so was the thought.
In Harbaugh’s inaugural season at Michigan, he turned to grad transfer Jake Rudock to lead his team. After a rocky start, Rudock finished strong, and played as well as any quarterback in the conference over the second half of the season. The Quarterback Whisperer, it seemed, had not lost his touch. If Harbaugh could do this in one season with a transfer, what could he do with a quarterback he recruited and had years with which to work? Well, the jury is still out on that.
Since arriving in Ann Arbor, Harbaugh has made great strides. He re-stocked Michigan’s cupboard and instilled a toughness in his team that had been missing. And he hasn’t been afraid to make changes. Harbaugh brought in an experienced, accomplished defensive coordinator in Don Brown and a young, up-and-coming offensive coordinator in Josh Gattis to lead his offense. But in the four years since Rudock left, he’s yet to find his quarterback.
This season Harbaugh has a chance to change that narrative. He’s got his quarterback. One he recruited, one who’s been in Michigan’s system for multiple years. The only question is – who is that quarterback?
When Dylan McCaffrey committed to Michigan, it looked like Michigan had its quarterback of the future. McCaffrey had the press clippings and the bloodlines. One of the top prep signal callers in the country, McCaffrey’s father spent 13 years in the NFL and his mother played college soccer. And you might have heard of his brother, Christian.
At 6’5”, McCaffrey is an athletic, pro-style quarterback. A pocket passer with the mobility and speed to make something happen with his feet. The question wasn’t if the torch would be passed to McCaffrey, but when.
Three years into his career, however, and the Colorado native has yet to see much meaningful action. Heading into last season, Harbaugh said that the competition between McCaffrey and returning starter Shea Patterson was so close that he planned on playing both quarterbacks. That vision never materialized, but with each errant Patterson pass, Michigan fans called louder and louder for McCaffrey to get his chance. This year, finally, McCaffrey will get his chance.
Or will he?
As ESPN’s Lee Corso might say, not so fast. Because like last season, there’s another quarterback battle brewing in Ann Arbor. This time between McCaffrey and redshirt sophomore Joe Milton. And much like last season, the coaches are saying the race is too close to call.
McCaffrey may be more athletic, but Milton is more physically imposing. At 6’5” and nearly 250 sculped pounds, Milton has an arm to match his physique. The term “rocket arm” is probably used a little too liberally to describe strong-armed quarterbacks, but in Milton’s case, it’s appropriate. Milton can throw the ball 80 yards in the air, something even McCaffrey has noticed. “It looks pretty easy for him,” admitted McCaffrey. Last year, cornerback Lavert Hill talked about going up against Milton in practice. “If I’m going against him,” Hill said, “ I just try and bat the ball down.” It’s a strategy that’s undoubtedly saved Hill a finger or two.
But to be successful, a quarterback needs more than just a fastball, something Milton acknowledges. One of the hardest workers on the team according to teammates, Milton has been working on his off-speed pitches. His control and touch. He’s even worked with a quarterback coach this offseason. “I’ve just been getting better day by day,” Milton said. “That’s all you can do.”
But will it be enough?
Two talented quarterbacks. Two worthy options. Which player will be the face of the program going forward? A fanbase awaits the decision.