Shea Patterson can play for Michigan this year. Don’t assume that means the former Ole Miss quarterback will solve all of the offensive woes that have plagued the Wolverines the past two seasons.
While this hasn’t been the case inside Schembechler Hall—where the members of Jim Harbaugh’s significantly retooled offensive staff understand the issues run deeper than one position—it feels as if the prevailing logic outside the building is that Patterson is a panacea capable of curing everything if the NCAA would just let him play this season. Now, the NCAA is going to let Patterson play this season. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Patterson can be the savior of a team fighting to get out of fourth place in one of college football’s deepest divisions. He’s going to need help. (If he wins the job over incumbent Brandon Peters and redshirt freshman Dylan McCaffrey, which is not guaranteed.)
Patterson’s eligibility fight has been such a juicy story that it may have obscured some of the realities of this situation. So first, let’s explain why he’s now eligible to play immediately. Aided by the attorney who brought down former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, Patterson accused Freeze and Ole Miss of deceiving him and other players during the recruiting process in the final months of 2015 and early in ’16. He claimed Freeze—who had hired Patterson’s brother Sean to the Rebels’ staff in March ’15—of soft-pedaling the seriousness of the NCAA’s case against Ole Miss. Later, Freeze’s phone records from early ’16 would be matched against tweets and stories from various media members reporting that the NCAA’s accusations mostly involved members of former coach Houston Nutt’s staff. While some serious allegations were leveled against members of Nutt’s staff, Freeze’s staff was accused of several Level I violations in the Notice of Allegations Ole Miss received in January 2016*.
*This is not to be confused with the more serious second Notice of Allegations Ole Miss received in February 2017. The NCAA reopened its investigation into Ole Miss after the draft night shenanigans aimed at harming the draft stock of former Rebels offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil in 2016.
Patterson’s attorney Thomas Mars—who also represents five other former Rebels seeking immediate eligibility from the NCAA following their transfers—made these accusations on Patterson’s behalf because at the time, “egregious behavior” by someone at the previous school was one of the few ways an undergraduate transfer could be granted a waiver to play immediately instead of sitting out one year. Ole Miss officials objected to the waiver, claiming the accusations within Patterson’s Mars-authored appeal weren’t true.
But earlier this month, the situation changed. The NCAA Division I Council—somewhat out of the blue—issued new guidance regarding transfer waivers. No longer was something as extreme as “egregious behavior” required. Now, a waiver could be granted if the following conditions were met:
a. The transfer is due to documented mitigating circumstances that are outside the student-athlete’s control and directly impact the health, safety and well-being of the student-athlete;
b. At the time of transfer to the certifying institution, the student-athlete would have been athletically and academically eligible and in good standing on the team had he or she remained at the previous institution;
c. The certifying institution must certify that the student-athlete meets percentage-of-degree requirements; and
d. The previous institution’s athletics administration does not oppose the transfer.
“As soon as we saw that, we called Michigan,” Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork told SI.com Friday afternoon. A joint statement from Michigan and Ole Miss released Friday also credited the NCAA change as the impetus for the tidy conclusion of this case.
No longer did the transfer need to be contentious. If you consider the fact that Ole Miss is banned from playing for championships this season to be something that would affect Patterson’s well-being, then he fit sections A through C. And Bjork’s department was willing to remove its objection and satisfy section D if the accusations of egregious behavior were removed from Patterson’s application. “We’ve admitted all along that our NCAA case changed,” Bjork said. “Our head coach had to step down. Things changed. If someone was impacted by that, that’s up to them.”
There are five other Ole Miss players—also represented by Mars—who also are fighting to get eligible for the 2018 season. Bjork said Ole Miss would be happy to work with the compliance departments at the players’ new schools to help produce a similar result. That choice of wording seemed deliberate. It sounds as if the Rebels are willing to work with the other schools but not with Mars in this case.
While that soap opera has been fascinating to follow, it didn’t include the more likely reason for Patterson’s transfer. Had he stayed at Ole Miss, Patterson might not have been able to win the job back from Jordan Ta’amu. Ta’amu, a junior college transfer who starred in high school in Hawaii around the same time as Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton, took over for Patterson following Patterson’s knee injury last season and averaged 9.7 yards per pass attempt while completing 66.5% of his throws. Before his injury, Patterson averaged 8.7 yards per attempt while completing 63.8% of his throws. Patterson’s numbers were good, but Ta’amu’s numbers were outstanding. Had Patterson stayed, Ole Miss coach Matt Luke would have faced a tough decision.
The Wolverines are hoping they get the Patterson who came in as a freshman in place of injured Chad Kelly and looked like a new incarnation of Johnny Manziel. On Manziel’s old home field, Patterson ripped off the redshirt and threw for 338 yards and two touchdowns in a 29–28 win over Texas A&M in 2016. Patterson can be electric, dodging tacklers before uncorking bombs.
He also can be human. Last season, he completed 14 of 25 passes for 135 yards and two interceptions in a 66–3 loss to Alabama. He did throw for 346 yards and two touchdowns in a 44–23 loss to Auburn, but much of that came after the Tigers built a 38–3 third-quarter lead.
This is why Michigan fans should not assume Patterson’s mere presence will suddenly make the Wolverines’ offense move against the best defenses on the schedule. While the Rebels were porous on defense, Ole Miss had one of college football’s best receiving corps last season. The Rebels’ offensive line wasn’t perfect, but it did have a future NFL player at left tackle (Greg Little). Patterson couldn’t make a difference against the teams with elite talent on defense. Guess who also has elite talent on defense? Ohio State. Michigan State and Penn State aren’t as stocked, but they’re close and they’re coached well on that side of the ball.
Patterson absolutely can make Michigan’s offense better, but he’ll need assistance. One of the more telling sequences from Amazon’s behind-the-scenes look at Michigan’s 2017 season came during the Wolverines’ 42–13 loss at Penn State. After another failed drive, Michigan quarterback John O’Korn came to the sideline. “No blocking,” O’Korn told Harbaugh. “There’s no blocking.”
This, not quarterback, has been Michigan’s biggest issue the past two seasons. And it isn’t just a problem with pass protection. Against good teams, the Wolverines have failed to establish a run game. Last season, they averaged 2.6 yards a carry against Michigan State, 2.5 yards a carry against Penn State, 1.5 yards a carry against Wisconsin, 2.8 yards a carry against Ohio State and 2.2 yards a carry against South Carolina. That places even more pressure on the quarterback, figuratively (because he’s expected to do it all) and literally (because blocking poorly leads to large humans in the quarterback’s face and the lack of a run game means defenses can dedicate more bodies to covering potential targets).
Harbaugh parted ways this offseason with longtime offensive line coach and run-game consigliere Tim Drevno. He brought in Ed Warinner, who built Urban Meyer’s best lines at Ohio State before he was run off to Minnesota for deficiencies as a co-coordinator (not as a line coach). If Warinner’s group gets better, then whoever wins Michigan’s quarterback job has a chance to look much better than the trio of Wilton Speight, O’Korn and Peters did last season. If that line can finally open holes for the backs, an offense led by Patterson could be especially dangerous because of Patterson’s ability to run. Remember, while Harbaugh favors a West Coast offense, he also led the San Francisco 49ers to a Super Bowl with quarterback Colin Kaepernick occasionally running the read option. Harbaugh is not opposed to making his quarterback a run threat, and Patterson has the arm and legs to make the prospect of a quarterback keeper a nightmare for defenses.
But that’s true only if the Wolverines also can open holes for the backs, because the read option doesn’t work if the defense isn’t worried about both potential ballcarriers. Meanwhile, play-action doesn’t work if defenses aren’t afraid of the handoff.
Until that issue is addressed, it doesn’t matter who plays quarterback at Michigan. But if it can be, then Patterson and the Wolverines could have some fun.