Four sessions into its quarterback derby the Michigan coaching staff has a better idea of the raw ability on the roster and what the eventual starter will have to do to win the job. So far, none of the three main competitors has separated himself from the pack.
Passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch said the four-hour spring practices have provided enough reps for all three scholarship quarterbacks on campus -- junior Shane Morris, redshirt freshman Wilton Speight and early enrollee Alex Malzone -- to get a feel for the new offense. Fisch is happy with their early progress and believes there’s enough talent in the group to find a suitable starter.
“Right now I’m just going ahead every day and coaching the guys that we have and coaching them as hard as we possibly can. I’m comfortable [with who we have] for sure,” he said after Tuesday’s practice. “There will be more guys that come in, and it will be a constant battle. It’ll be a constant battle of competition and a constant battle of trying to get better.”
Getting better, Fisch said, starts with completing more passes and pushing to erase all turnovers during practice. Those are the top two priorities during spring practice, two factors that will weigh heavily on who heads into the summer workouts with a leg up on the competition. They were also both major issues for Michigan’s offense in 2014.
Only six teams threw more interceptions last fall than the Wolverines. Former head coach Brady Hoke regularly pointed to his team’s 18 interceptions and eight fumbles as the biggest difference-maker in its 5-7 season. The team finished with a respectable, middle-of-the pack 58 percent completion rate, but most of that success came from graduated starter Devin Gardner. Morris, the only returner who has played, completed only 35 percent of his throws in five appearances.
Fisch said he has been impressed with Morris’ well-advertised arm strength, but the junior needs to learn that throwing perfect spirals is only a small piece of the puzzle.
“He spins it well,” Fisch said. “He just has to understand that that’s really not the most important thing. If you have a really strong arm, you have a really strong arm. That’s what you have. So now it’s about what can you do with it. How do you utilize it?”
Morris holds an edge over Speight and Malzone in his command of the huddle and at the line of scrimmage -- likely a byproduct of extra reps last fall and his experience in games. Gaining experience will be one of the biggest mountains to climb for whoever wins the starting job.
Speight’s biggest asset so far is his size. The 6-foot-6, 235-pound freshman can see the field well from the line of scrimmage and physically get the job done, but he’s playing catch-up in the experience column.
Malzone is overloaded with information during his first months as a college student, which is the norm for players who enroll early. Fisch has been impressed with how unfazed the would-be high school senior has been while learning from his mistakes.
“He’s unbelievable in terms of his ability to not let things bother him, to be consistent and to jump right back in and play the game,” the coach said. “If a play doesn’t go right, he’s right back in ready for the next one. That short-term memory is phenomenal for a quarterback.”
Fisch said he’d love for one of the three to move ahead of the group by the end of spring practice, but there doesn’t appear to be any rush to solidify the depth chart. Michigan has nearly six months before kicking off the 2015 season, and Fisch said the staff plans to use as much of that time as possible to keep the competition going. Freshman Zach Gentry will arrive on campus this summer and jump into the mix as well.
For now, the three quarterbacks on campus are splitting reps. Each has nearly the same amount of attempts through four practices. The staff is intentionally rotating them through different groups of receivers and linemen to keep the opportunities as equal as possible.
“We just continue to mix them around,” Fisch said. “Every day (we) rotate who is playing with who. I don’t want to hear anybody saying, ‘Well I played with this center. I played with this guard. I threw to this wideout.’ They all have everybody. It’s even.”