Michigan football quarterback battle: Who should start?

Jim Harbaugh says Wolverines have 3-player quarterback battle

Michigan quarterbacks Wilton Speight and John O'Korn at the Orange Bowl (Chris Trotman/Getty Images).
Michigan quarterbacks Wilton Speight and John O'Korn at the Orange Bowl (Chris Trotman/Getty Images).

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – As the start of the Michigan football season draws near, Jim Harbaugh surprised fans with an update on the quarterback battle.

Harbaugh said Tuesday that returning starter Wilton Speight is "in a good spot," but it's a three-way tie with fifth-year senior John O'Korn and redshirt freshman Brandon Peters.

It's not unusual for Harbaugh to play up the race in order to encourage offseason competition, but does Speight deserve the job after leading Michigan to a 10-3 record last season, or is it time to pass the torch?

Here's the case for all three candidates in the quarterback race.

Wilton Speight

Despite Harbaugh's comments that the race is a three-way tie, it's likely that Speight has an inside track to the job after starting 12 of 13 games last season.

Speight came out of nowhere to win the job during the offseason of 2016. After O'Korn transferred to Michigan from Houston with two years of eligibility remaining, he figured to be in line for the starting job. Instead, Speight beat him out in fall camp and took the field for the opener against Hawaii, never looking back.

Speight had his struggles as a first-year starter, but overall he did a solid job as a redshirt sophomore.

His first pass attempt of the season was picked off in the opener, but he then went on to throw nine touchdowns without an interception through the first four games.

For three quarters of the season, Speight did a nice job limiting turnovers. In his first nine games, he threw 15 touchdown passes to only three interceptions. He improved throughout the Big Ten season, with his peak coming against Maryland, when he threw for 362 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

But the last three games were a struggle for Speight, as he had just three touchdown passes and four interceptions. In the team's first loss against Iowa, Speight completed just 11 of 26 passes for 103 yards.

Speight's two interceptions against Ohio State proved to be deadly, as the Wolverines lost in overtime and saw their College Football Playoff hopes evaporate. One of Speight's picks were returned for Ohio State's first touchdown, and the other came as Michigan was driving to put the game away.

In the Orange Bowl, Speight threw the ball a season high of 38 times, completing just 21 passes for 163 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

It's no surprise that Michigan went 9-0 with Speight during his strong stretch, and 0-3 down the stretch when he struggled.

With another year of work under Harbaugh, Speight has likely improved since last season. There were more positives than negatives to take out of his first season, though his ceiling isn't as high as that of some younger players on the team.

If Speight wins the job, Michigan will have a veteran quarterback at the helm who will take care of the ball and run the offense effectively. He's not great on the run, but he can move around the pocket and make the short throws.

The deep ball was a major issue for Speight at times last season, and Harbaugh has brought in a group of fast, athletic wide receivers who should be able to make plays downfield. Connecting with those young weapons will be the most important improvement for Speight going into the season.

Brandon Peters

In terms of upside, Peters is the player in this race with the best chance to become a star.

Harbaugh's first true quarterback commit at Michigan, Peters came to Ann Arbor as a four-star recruit and the No. 6 overall pro-style quarterback in his class, according to 247 Sports.

Peters showcased his elite arm strength during the spring game, when he stole the show and led his team to a win over Speight's squad. He completed nine of 17 pass attempts for 160 yards a touchdown and an interception, while also setting up the game-winning field goal that just beat the final horn.

There are plenty of reasons to believe Speight has an edge on Peters going into the season, especially since Peters hasn't run the offense or dealt with the pressure of national championship expectations.

The nonconference schedule might also be working against Peters. While many teams play light schedules to ease into the conference season, Michigan is facing a major test right from the start, traveling to Dallas to take on Florida. Speight has played in East Lansing, Columbus and a BCS bowl, while Peters has never entered a college game.

But if he's the best quarterback in camp, Harbaugh won't be afraid to send him out there.

In two seasons at the helm in Ann Arbor, Harbaugh has made it clear he'll put the best players on the field, regardless of seniority. Speight beating out O'Korn last year is a perfect example.

If Peters earns the starting job, he and the young receivers will have a chance to grow together, which would be great for the future. It's possible that Harbaugh will see this season as a transition year and use it to prepare Peters for the years ahead.

John O'Korn

When O'Korn lost his starting job at Houston and transferred to Ann Arbor, he likely had dreams of recapturing the magic from his freshman year, when he threw for 3,117 yards, 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. 

O'Korn was one of the most promising young arms in the Group of Five conferences, leading Houston to an 8-4 record and a trip to the BBVA Compass Bowl.

But his sophomore year was a struggle from the very start. He threw four interceptions against UT San Antonio in the team's opener and was stuck on six touchdown passes and eight picks through five games when he lost his job to Greg Ward. When Harbaugh signed with the Wolverines, O'Korn made the leap.

He proved to be a valuable backup last season when he stepped in against Indiana after Speight suffered an injury against Iowa. O'Korn wasn't at his sharpest, completing just seven of 16 passes and rushing for 19 yards, but he made a couple of big plays in the second half to save the Wolverines from a crushing upset.

Of the three candidates, O'Korn provides the best threat on the run. His scramble on a broken play against Indiana turned the tide for an offense that couldn't get out of its own way.

Despite the added dimension of a mobile quarterback, it's unlikely O'Korn will beat out the two other options, no matter what Harbaugh is saying in late July. He's shown his value as a backup quarterback, and there's no reason to move him out of that role with such a young roster.