Michigan has started four different quarterbacks during Jim Harbaugh's three seasons in Ann Arbor with varying levels of success. The only constant at Harbaugh's native position during that time has been quarterback competitions. And he just upped the ante in that department in a big way.
Former Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson declared Monday via Twitter that he intends to join the Wolverines for what remains of his college football career. Patterson was considered the top pro-style prospect in the nation two years ago when he joined the Rebels. If the NCAA grants him permission to play next fall at Michigan, he will immediately jump into the top tier of quarterback talent in the Big Ten, along with the likes of Trace McSorley at Penn State and Ohio State's heir apparent, Dwayne Haskins.
That won't, however, guarantee Patterson a starting job with Michigan. His decision doesn't immediately answer the biggest question facing Michigan this offseason.
Patterson will join rising redshirt sophomore Brandon Peters and redshirt freshman Dylan McCaffrey, among others, this offseason in the quarterback room -- competing at a position that troubled Michigan as much as any other during an 8-4 regular season this past fall. When he's inevitably asked who will lead the charge into spring practice, Harbaugh will almost certainly answer with some version of the response he has given every offseason since he returned to his childhood hometown.
"It will be a meritocracy at its best," Harbaugh said in 2015. The next year he added, "Roll the balls out there and let them play."
Harbaugh, throughout his coaching career, has been a fervent worshipper at the altar of competition. Pursuing Patterson and adding him to the current group of touted, yet largely unproven quarterbacks means that the coach is doubling down on one of his core principles in hopes of solving what has been maybe his team's most vexing issue in the last couple years.
Doubling down, of course, usually comes with the caveat that the next card you get had better be a good one. Michigan will once again have a championship-level defense in 2018. It will return most of its starters on offense. It remains a playmaking quarterback away from competing for championships. If Patterson isn't the guy to push Michigan over the considerable hump of winning at least a division title (or the guy who pushes Peters to do the same), the mountain of nitpicking that will come from Michigan's sizable fan base will make even Harbaugh's final year with the San Francisco 49ers seem like a friendly work environment.
The Wolverines could have stuck with Peters as their sure starter heading into this offseason -- although the outgoing transfers of former starter Wilton Speight and veteran reserve Alex Malzone create good reason to search for additional depth at the position. Peters showed promise in his four games leading the offense this November. He was trending upward when a head injury knocked him out of close game against then-undefeated Wisconsin.
Harbaugh's chief critique of the 6-foot-5, strong-armed Peters was that he was a bit too quiet to command authority under center. An offseason as the big man on campus could have aided his growing confidence and positioned him as an anchor on Michigan's burgeoning, talented roster. There are plenty of coaches who support the school of thought that having a solid and certain quarterback in place helps a team find its identity during a critical offseason.
That has never been Harbaugh's approach, and it's no surprise he's sticking to his guns this time around. Patterson threw for 2,259 yards and 17 touchdowns in seven games before injuring his leg this season at Ole Miss. Many believe the 2018 season -- as long as he's eligible to play -- will be a one-year pit stop en route to a bright NFL future for Patterson.
He could be an ideal one-and-done answer as the Michigan coaching staff continues to try to develop talents like Peters and McCaffrey. But Patterson isn't being presented as an anointed stopgap savior within Michigan's walls. This guy wants your job, Harbaugh will tell his quarterbacks, would any of you care to fight him for it?
Michigan needs an answer at quarterback in 2018. Patterson's decision to come to Ann Arbor isn't a definite answer, but it's a step toward one. It's a sign that Harbaugh is betting big on the one fundamental belief that has led to a lot of success in his football life: The better the competition, the better the results. And the competition just got a lot more talented at Michigan.