One of Jim Harbaugh's very first directives to his new players when he arrived at Michigan was to seek a "battle rhythm." Like many coaches, Harbaugh wanted his players to develop routines that made the grinding demands of college football into daily habits.
"Basically just eat, sleep, football, school, repeat," junior quarterback Wilton Speight said. "It gets repetitive to where your body builds a callus to it, and you get really good at becoming numb to the pain of it."
Speight left out at least one element of the rhythm that he and his fellow quarterbacks especially have developed in the past three years. One that, under the close supervision of their head coach, has become ingrained or implied enough in their daily lives not to really register anymore: constant pressure.
"That’s Coach Harbaugh’s mission, I think," Speight said. "To make sure we feel uncomfortable at all times."
Speight is in the midst of his third preseason quarterback battle under Harbaugh. He was an afterthought in the first, before moving up the depth chart enough to secure a backup position behind Jake Rudock. He was a surprise front-runner alongside John O'Korn the second time through -- ultimately winning the job and his first nine starts in 2016 before a shoulder injury precipitated the Wolverines’ 1-3 finish in their final four games.
This time around O’Korn is the surprise contender. The fifth-year senior has moved past promising youngster Brandon Peters as the primary competition for Speight, according to the only update Harbaugh plans to give before the week of Michigan’s season opener. O’Korn said he has no idea when the coach will declare a winner in this August’s QB competition rematch. At both the macro level of depth chart determinations and the micro level of blitzes and obstacles during passing drills, there aren't many opportunities for either to relax. For now, he and Speight have both seemingly found their bearings while operating in a system designed to keep them guessing.
O’Korn’s college career started far from discomfort. As a true freshman at Houston in 2013, he threw for 3,117 yards and 25 touchdowns en route to winning his league’s Freshman of the Year award. He thrived with the confidence that comes alongside security. The following summer his name landed on lists and in conversations about the sport’s top honors.
Five weeks into his sophomore year, though, he found himself out of the Cougars' lineup and searching for a new home.
“You’re getting talked about for the Heisman Trophy, Davey O’Brien [Award] and a few weeks later you’re benched,” he said. “I felt at times like I was a scapegoat at Houston for a lot of things that were going on in that program. That’ll shake an 18-year-old kid.”
In a season-and-a-half at Michigan -- the first as a scout team transfer and assumed heir to the quarterbacking throne and the second as Speight’s backup -- O’Korn says he rehabbed his confidence. Enough so that he saw Speight’s injury in November as a shot at his Cardale Jones moment, the more contemporary version of the classic Wally Pipp scenario. While O’Korn made a couple of big plays to help Michigan beat Indiana, it was hardly the bombs-away performance Jones had while taking the baton in the final leg of Ohio State’s 2014 national championship season.
Speight took back the reins the following week, and in the spring O’Korn looked to be a distant third on the quarterback depth chart.
“In the spring game I was wondering if I was going to get a chance or not,” he said. “... It was what it was.”
With only one year of eligibility remaining and without an undergraduate degree yet, O’Korn had no FBS football options but to remain at Michigan and try again to unseat Speight. He said he didn’t consider leaving.
O’Korn credited the arrival of new passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton with helping him find a comfort level he hasn’t felt since things fell apart at Houston. He says he’s scrambling less, relying less on his athletic ability to get the offense out of sticky situations, and feeling more in command of the Wolverines' playbook and what’s going on at the line of scrimmage in front of him.
Speight, in one sense, is moving in the opposite direction. He dropped 23 pounds this offseason by eating only "animals and things that grew from the ground" to make himself more mobile. He said he feels lighter on his feet in the pocket and also hopes to be able to pick up more than two or three yards at a clip when he’s forced to improvise. In another sense, he and O’Korn are both charting a similar course: head first into elements of the game that don’t come naturally.
The first two quarterback decisions Harbaugh made at Michigan turned out to be less dramatic than they seemed at the time. Iowa transfer Jake Rudock elevated himself in the original group earlier than anyone in Ann Arbor let on in 2015. Speight admitted last fall that he had a good sense that he’d be under center -- or that someone was going to have to rip the job from his hands -- through most of last year’s training camp.
It’s hard to say if this year’s contest is more earnest than those or another machination of Harbaugh’s core coaching pillar to create competition and unease at every possible opportunity. The participants may not even know for sure.
Speight said Wednesday night that he felt good about the work he’s put in so far this camp, just as he did a year ago at this time. Then again, after a few years in Ann Arbor all of Michigan’s quarterbacks are feeling good in uncomfortable, uncertain territory.