Michigan Football QBs Spring Preview: Milton, McCaffrey Set To Battle
In 2019, Shea Patterson ranked 53rd nationally in pass efficiency or 31st according to ESPN's QBR. College football's four playoff quarterbacks on the other hand ranked first, second, third and sixth in pass efficiency this year, and second, third, fourth and fifth in QBR.
Whether it's the chicken or the egg, one thing is certain, elite quarterback play can carry a team to great things. In fact, the top 10 signal-callers in college football - by NCAA passer rating - led their team, on average, to 11 victories this season. The five quarterbacks on either side of Patterson's 53rd ranking (the five better than him and the five worse) played for teams that averaged 6.1 wins per team.
In the Jim Harbaugh era, Michigan's signal-callers have been good but never great.
In 2020, Michigan's starting quarterback has to be better than good. For the Wolverines to make a big jump, potentially even beating Ohio State, they need to feature one of the nation's Top 10 QBs. Does that player exist?
Redshirt junior Dylan McCaffrey and redshirt sophomore Joe Milton are the presumed favorites, with redshirt freshman Cade McNamara and true freshman Dan Villari assumed to be in need of further development. (I say assumed because none of us gets access to practice to assess their readiness).
McCaffrey has appeared in 10 career contests, and has completed 18 of 35 attempts (51.4 percent) for 242 yards and three touchdowns. He has also rushed for 166 yards and two scores on 23 carries (7.2-yard average).
McCaffrey was supposedly going to be used as an in-game complement to Patterson throughout the entire 2019 campaign, but after a brief dalliance in Week 1, Michigan coaches played McCaffrey a single snap in Week 2 against Army.
He only saw the field as a replacement for an ineffective Patterson against Wisconsin in Week 3, and after suffering a head injury in the second half that sidelined him for four games, McCaffrey was used as a traditional No. 2 the rest of the year.
Milton was promoted to backup in McCaffrey's absence but despite the fact that Michigan was out of the running for the Big Ten title as it entered November, neither QB saw the field in meaningful time, splitting a handful of second-string reps in the Notre Dame, Maryland and Michigan State games.
U-M will enter its 2020 season opener at Washington with a relatively inexperienced quarterback whoever gets the nod, but predicting success or struggles is foolhardy because none of us really know what to expect from McCaffrey or Milton.
The best-case scenario is McCaffrey is the mentally-strong, natural-born-leader he appeared to be as an injury-replacement for Patterson at Notre Dame in 2018.
McCaffrey has shown to be an effective read-option runner and has made a few highlight-reel throws. But there's a reason he has completed barely better than 50.0 percent of his Michigan attempts, as he has forced throws, been inaccurate or misread coverages. He has also been injury prone, suffering serious injuries as a runner both in 2018 and 2019.
Who is the real McCaffrey? With the starting job, can he smooth out the throwing ineffectiveness, rally the team around him with his swagger, make big plays with his arm and his legs, and stay healthy for an entire 13-game slate? Or is he an injury-prone, inaccurate quarterback that is best served as an energy, small-doses backup off the bench?
The best case for Milton is that arm cannon he owns and fearlessness throwing into any tight window makes for an uber-confident signal-caller that pushes the ball down the field, creating the big pass plays that college football thrives on, while learning on the job to limit mistakes.
The 6-5, 245-pounder is a much more reluctant runner than McCaffrey - he has 12 carries for 47 yards (3.9 yards per rush) and two touchdowns, albeit in fewer opportunities - but with his frame and athleticism, he could be a 600-yard rusher as a starter, adding the ground-game element necessary to keep defenses from keying on the Wolverines' running backs, like they did in 2019.
Unfortunately, Milton could also be the quarterback he was in high school, a highly inefficient signal-caller that didn't complete 50 percent of his attempts, a player that takes too many risks because of his big arm, committing turnovers U-M cannot afford; his arm strength is canceled out by his mistakes.
So who is the real Milton? We're about to find out because there is no five-star transfer quarterback blocking his ascent. Milton and McCaffrey find themselves on equal footing, each afforded the chance to compete for the starting job.
It will be the most interesting QB battle Michigan has had in the Harbaugh era and the most important too. U-M needs a difference-making quarterback, someone that can raise the Wolverines capabilities offensively and give the Maize and Blue a true threat to counter Ohio State's Justin Fields.
Way Too Early Prediction: McCaffrey wins the starting job in fall camp but after a strong start, injuries take their toll, opening the door for Milton by mid October. He is up and down in early outings but makes gains exponentially and finishes the 2020 season Michigan's clear starter.
What do you think will happen with the quarterback position in 2020?
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