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Michigan needs Jim Harbaugh to rediscover his QB pixie dust

Jim Harbaugh was the quarterback whisperer. Do you remember? There was a time where that defined him as a coach much more than his idiosyncrasies, his recruiting antics or his record against Ohio State. The reputation wasn’t some media creation. It was well-earned, curated with recruiting wins, evaluation acumen, developmental success and results.

When Michigan heads into its season opener against Minnesota on Saturday night, the Wolverines will be embarking on a new quarterback regime as Joe Milton makes his first start. It’s a fresh start for Harbaugh too, resetting the clock on the quarterback position that has been limiting in Ann Arbor in a way that would have never seemed reasonable when he arrived back in 2015.

Before we get to Milton, it’s worth recalling the substance that built Harbaugh’s quarterback reputation.

  • Harbaugh’s first head coaching gig was at the University of San Diego, an FCS lightweight. In his first recruiting class, he signed Josh Johnson out of Oakland, a player that would help Harbaugh post a 22-2 record in his last two seasons in San Diego before playing 11 years in the NFL.
  • Harbaugh moved on to Stanford in 2007 and in his first full recruiting cycle, he signed a four-star quarterback out of Houston named Andrew Luck. Luck was ranked as a top 50 prospect by the 247Sports Composite so whether you want to give Harbaugh credit for the recruiting win, the evaluation or the development, Luck’s signing and his subsequent selection as the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2012 NFL Draft is another Harbaugh bullet point. Notably, Harbaugh added another strong find to his resume that often goes unmentioned. In the 2009 class, immediately following Luck’s signing, Harbaugh signed Taysom Hill before Hill embarked on an LDS church mission. He would later enroll at BYU.
  • By the time Hill returned from his mission, Harbaugh was gone. With Luck’s help, he would go 12-1 at Stanford in 2010 before accepting the head coaching job with the San Francisco 49ers. The Harbaugh magic touch continued there.
  • First he revitalized the career of Alex Smith en route to an appearance in the NFC Championship Game in 2011. Next he ignited the career of Colin Kaepernick en route to a Super Bowl appearance in 2012.
  • In 2015, Harbaugh accepted the head coaching position at Michigan and at that point in his coaching career, he was essentially pitching a perfect game at the quarterback position. His first year in Ann Arbor only furthered his strong quarterback reputation. Needing a quick fix at the position on a new roster, Harbaugh turned to Iowa graduate transfer Jake Rudock. In one year under Harbaugh, Rudock set career bests in touchdowns, completion percentage and passing yards and earned a selection in the sixth round of the NFL Draft the following spring.

That’s the last time Harbaugh has produced an NFL quarterback. In 2016, Wilton Speight put limitations on the Michigan offense. In 2017, Speight, John O’Korn and Brandon Peters all took turns at mediocrity. He turned to the transfer portal in 2018, producing two years of Shea Patterson, a promising talent who never quite seized on that promise.

Four years without an NFL product at the quarterback position is no stain on a coaching reputation, particularly one as robust as Harbaugh’s. But the game changes and evolves and the renewal process for your quarterback whisperer membership card is constant. Lincoln Riley, Dabo Swinney and even Nick Saban are the ones delivering at quarterback and unsurprisingly they’re the ones showing up in the playoffs every year. That’s a place Harbaugh hasn’t yet arrived. Harbaugh’s quarterback track record is dipping at a time when teams are more dependent than ever on quarterback success.

In six recruiting classes at Michigan, Harbaugh’s roster of quarterback signees consist of Zach Gentry, Alex Malzone, Brandon Peters, Dylan McCaffrey, Joe Milton, Cade McNamara and Dan Villari. It’s an underwhelming group but it just takes one to flip the slump narrative on its head. Is Milton that one?

The new Michigan starting quarterback has already run former four-star Dylan McCaffrey into the transfer portal. He’s big. He’s got a cannon for an arm. He’s talented. He enters the second year of a new offensive system implemented by offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. He loses some talented receivers with Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins off to the NFL and NFL prep, respectively. But thanks in part to Gattis, the wide receiver room is stacked with other, speedy options.

But Milton needs coaching and development. He arrived at Michigan as your quintessential big, raw, immensely talented quarterback. He never had a season in high school where he completed more than 50 percent of his passes. He never had a season where he topped 1,600 yards.

According to the 247Sports Team Talent Composite, Michigan has the 18th most talented roster in college football. It’s the lowest ranking using that metric of Harbaugh’s tenure, continuing a slide from 11th in 2019 after peaking at No. 7 in 2017. Michigan’s roster is less equipped than it has ever been under Harbaugh to mask average quarterback play — and yet the expectations haven’t changed at Michigan.

In Saturday’s season-opener, Minnesota will trot out Tanner Morgan at quarterback. In the season finale, Ohio State will trot out Justin Fields. In between, there will be good teams with good quarterbacks like Michael Penix at Indiana and Sean Clifford at Penn State. If Michigan is to contend in the Big Ten East, average quarterback play isn’t going to cut it. It’s time for Harbaugh to find some of that quarterback pixie dust again.

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