Heir apparent? O'Korn finds new home at Michigan; Pitt's Narduzzi shows loyalty
A year ago, John O'Korn could have never imagined the telephone call he received this past winter. Coming off American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year honors, he entered last season well on his way to being Houston's latest star quarterback. Then things started to fall apart.
First came the Cougars' stunning season-opening defeat to Texas-San Antonio in his team's new $128 million stadium on national television. A month later, O'Korn's struggles cost him his starting job. After the regular season, Houston coach Tony Levine was fired, and shortly thereafter O'Korn asked for and was granted his transfer release.
But as soon as O'Korn heard the voice of newly minted Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh on the phone last January, he knew he had found his new coach. "He's intense on the field, but to me he's just a competitive guy," O'Korn told The Inside Read. "He loves to win. On or off the field, he just wants to have fun. He's just a great guy to be around. He always has a smile on his face. That positive energy is something I needed."
When Harbaugh finally makes his much-anticipated Michigan debut Thursday night at Utah, O'Korn will be on the sideline soaking up all he can. The 6' 4", 220-pound pro-style passer will sit out this season because of NCAA transfer rules, but will have two years of eligibility left starting in 2016.
Next season O'Korn is expected to vie for the starting spot in what should be a wide-open Wolverines' quarterback competition. "I never really thought this would happen," O'Korn said. "I had plans to do great things in Houston, but I think God had better things in mind and I couldn't be happier."
Until Harbaugh called, O'Korn had only considered Texas and Florida as possible transfer destinations. The conduit between O'Korn and Harbaugh was Michigan offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch. While Fisch was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Miami from 2011-12, he recruited O'Korn out of nationally renowned St. Thomas Aquinas High in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. O'Korn and Harbaugh have bonded quickly over the last three months. "I want to be with somebody that's walked in my footsteps," O'Korn said. "He's been where I'm at and can give me advice about the different steps along the way."
At Harbaugh's request, O'Korn has reverted back to how he used to throw the ball before he got to Houston and the coaches there changed his mechanics. "There was a lot of stuff just from top to bottom in the program that my family and I didn't agree with," O'Korn said of his final year at Houston.
O'Korn is completely onboard with the high-energy Harbaugh, though. He has come to expect the unexpected from his new coach, including a phone call at 6 a.m. to ask what jersey number he wanted. O'Korn has also gotten used to Harbaugh's relentless competitiveness. O'Korn still laughs recalling Harbaugh's demonstration of a drop-back drill during a workout this summer.
Harbaugh did eight to 10 repetitions, while each of his quarterbacks only got one or two. "He was going to make sure he got his reps," O'Korn said. "That just shows you what type of competitor he still is. His footwork is phenomenal. He can still play you know."
So can O'Korn, who threw for 3,117 yards with 28 touchdowns during his stellar freshman year. In true Harbaugh-style, he has designated himself as Michigan's "biggest cheerleader" this season.
He has also put last season's disaster behind him for good. "I definitely feel like Michigan's just more my type of culture," he said. "I just feel like I fit in a lot more."
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi making sure to take care of assistants
First-year Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi has a reputation for being beloved by his players. When he was Michigan State's hyper-aggressive defensive coordinator over the previous eight seasons, the Spartans fed off his physical scheme that became a hallmark of the program's blue-collar toughness.
But since being hired at Pittsburgh in late December, Narduzzi has carved out another reputation entering his debut Saturday against Youngstown State. He has quickly become known in coaching circles as one of the best FBS head coaches for which to work.
Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter often tops that informal list, but Narduzzi's willingness to fight to get the specifics of his assistants' contracts changed has made waves.
"Narduzzi was willing to go to bat for those guys in multiple rounds," a source familiar with the negotiations told The Inside Read. "The school made some improvements the first time, but not on everything, of course. Narduzzi was like, 'Well, let's go to bat again and take another stab at it.'"
The result was that Narduzzi was able to broaden the initial exemptions under which some of his assistants could leave to take other jobs and not pay their $100,000 buyout that goes down incrementally over two years, according to the source. Those assistants have two-year contracts, but initially the agreements specified that if Narduzzi left to take another a job or was fired, they could be immediately terminated. Narduzzi also got those terms changed and, in the event that he takes another job or is fired, the assistants would still be paid until the following June, per the source.
"It's a credit to Narduzzi," the source said. "His guys are really happy where it ended up."
Veteran assistant Mike DeBord back calling plays at Tennessee
It has been eight years since new Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike DeBord last called a play. Back then, Tim Tebow was a starting quarterback, spread offenses still weren't mainstream and Baylor was the Big 12's doormat. The 59-year-old DeBord realizes his last stint as Michigan's play-caller in 2007 was light years ago in college football.
"It was more of a vertical game then," DeBord told The Inside Read. "Now it's more of a horizontal and vertical game. Everybody's stretching you the entire width of the field."
But when DeBord calls his first play Saturday for the Volunteers against Bowling Green, it will mark the culmination of a two-year journey to return to the sideline. "I really did think I'd be back in football," DeBord said.
When DeBord wasn't working as a sports administrator for Michigan the past two years, he was busy watching tape. He supplemented that preparation with weekly telephone conversations with former St. Louis Rams coach and offensive guru Mike Martz.
There were also conversations with other coaches he worked with as an NFL assistant from 2008-12. He spoke regularly with his mentor, former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr, whom DeBord helped win a national championship in 1997. "He didn't think I should have been out of coaching," DeBord said of Carr.
DeBord's desire to return to coaching was fueled even further when he spent last season as Michigan's football liaison, a job in which he attended coaching meetings, practices and games. It has all changed his offensive philosophy, which centered on I-formation schemes during his two stints as the Wolverines' offensive coordinator.
"I believe in the way that college football is being played right now with the matchups and horizontal game and the vertical game and all the run adjustments with the ability to throw," DeBord said. "It's great football, it's smart football and I like it a lot."
It has helped that DeBord is reunited with Tennessee coach Butch Jones, a former assistant under DeBord at Central Michigan from 2000-03. DeBord also previously coached with a majority of the members of the Volunteers staff. "I'm having fun," DeBord said. "I'm coaching with great guys and great young men. It's a lot of fun."
And as long as it has been since DeBord last called a play, he points out that he coached four future NFL quarterbacks at Michigan. One is Chad Henne, and another is three-time Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady. "I've been around football," DeBord said with a chuckle.
Now, DeBord is making up for lost time.
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