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How the newly eligible Shea Patterson fits Jim Harbaugh’s offense

Michigan’s latest transfer QB is changing offensive styles, but it could work nicely.

Mississippi v Auburn Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Former Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson will receive a transfer waiver to allow him to play immediately at Michigan this season. Michigan and Ole Miss released a joint statement to announce Patterson’s eligibility.

The main reason Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan hasn’t been regarded as a success yet is found in “1-5.” That’s Michigan’s record in games against Michigan State and Ohio State. The Wolverines have been agonizingly close, losing to Michigan State on “the punt” in 2015, to Ohio State in overtime in 2016, by four points to Sparty in 2017, and to 2017 Ohio State in another game Michigan led late.

In those last two games, Michigan had to rely on backup QB John O’Korn, who threw 5.87 yards per pass with one TD pass and four interceptions. The running back tandem of Chris Evans and Karan Higdon ran for 4.65 per carry in those two games, but the Wolverines were stymied by their inability to pick up gains passing (against Ohio State) or avoid turnovers (three INTs vs Michigan State).

When Harbaugh went to Michigan, he made two moves to ensure this wouldn’t be an issue, taking transfers from O’Korn (Houston) and Jake Rudock (Iowa). Rudock had a strong 2015. O’Korn became a backup as Wilton Speight took the reins from Rudock. What Harbaugh didn’t secure was enough tackles to guarantee pass protection, and so despite a 6’6, 230-pound frame, Speight incurred injuries in both 2016 and in 2017.

Speight transferred to UCLA, and O’Korn is out of eligibility, leaving Harbaugh with the junior Patterson, redshirt sophomore Brandon Peters and redshirt freshman Dylan McCaffrey. Save for Patterson, these are touted recruits but inexperienced players, heading into a season when Harbaugh really needs to beat Michigan’s rivals and make some headway in the Big Ten.

Fortunately for Michigan, the QB transfer market had Patterson to offer from the wreckage of Ole Miss. Now there’s an opportunity for the Wolverines to capitalize again with an experienced collegiate QB, as it appears Patterson is good to go.

Patterson is a different kind of QB for Harbaugh’s Michigan

Patterson was a big prospect out of high school, a five-star with the skill set to run the Ole Miss spread offense. He hasn’t really been the pro-style passer that he was projected to be, but he has shown the capacity for quick reads and accurate throws and some option running or scrambling. He thrived while throwing RPOs off inside zone and counter run plays:

Vanderbilt was stacking the line with five defenders and sneaking the nickel into the box, so Ole Miss gave Patterson the option to pull the ball and throw the slant over that guy’s head if he bit too hard. The result was a touchdown.

Patterson’s ability to make these reads, and more importantly, to set his feet and make accurate throws, made the Rebels’ RPO game pretty dangerous. Where they got into trouble was against teams that could match up in man coverage to take away the easy reads and force Patterson to check through progressions from the pocket.

LSU was able to cloud up the reads and mess up the timing by playing press-man coverage outside on Ole Miss’ RPO targets:

Patterson is clearly affected here by LSU’s coverage and pressure. He averaged only 5.04 yards per pass against the Tigers and was forced to try and convert passing downs with the dropback game, in which Ole Miss’ protection issues and his struggles to get through progressions were exacerbated:

Patterson’s three interceptions against the Tigers doomed the Rebels. It’s hard to know how much cleaner he might play if not trying to perform in the midst of a turbulent program, but 2017’s Patterson was a great constraint QB without being a great pocket passer.

So how does this translate?

Michigan has a very different offense. Harbaugh doesn’t prefer RPOs to account for extra defenders in the box. He uses TEs and FBs to knock them the **** outta the way. (Though he’s said he’s studying the Philadelphia Eagles’ RPO game.)

The QB duties revolve less around identifying conflicted defenders to throw pass options against and more on directing traffic or landing play-action shots.

Harbaugh has a reputation for setting up varied QBs for success, thriving in the NFL with college spread QBs Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick and making good use of Rudock and Speight at Michigan. The way he tends to do it is with big formations that force defenses to fill the field with big, coverage-inept defenders, then motion to create matchups for his better receivers:

The RB motions out wide, and Michigan State matches him with the CB in a double A-gap zone blitz. The result is easy matchups for TE Ian Bunting and slot WR Grant Perry on the slants, and O’Korn picks up some gain. But a faster read and throw would have done more to discourage aggressive pressures like this.

Michigan often just lacked a QB who could get his feet set and deliver a quick, catchable ball to make the most of conflicted defenders:

Patterson’s ability to process defenses before the snap and punish them with quick-hitters in the RPO game figures to translate in some of Michigan’s precision calls. His ability to escape pressure and hit guys on the move when protection breaks down might also come in handy, playing behind an OL that has struggled.

Patterson represents, at worst, another good chance for Michigan to field a signal-caller who can execute the play-action back-breakers that Harbaugh’s run game regularly creates. Going from RPOs to Michigan will be an adjustment, but much of the technique will be similar. If Harbaugh and his staff also can unlock Patterson’s ability to navigate the pocket and check through progressions, we could finally see the big breakthrough.