Rare quarterback uncertainty for rivals Michigan and Ohio State

Sports

Will Howard‘s first exit from the Ohio Stadium turf following Ohio State‘s spring game took a detour. Hundreds of Buckeye fans, who had gathered by the home tunnel, waved him over, eager to give the Kansas State transfer the starter treatment — even though Ohio State has yet to name its starting quarterback.

Howard signed mini helmets, footballs, hats and even offered a few high-fives. Finally, after several minutes, he escaped to the locker room with fans still shouting “Go, Will!” as he jogged away.

Howard arrived in Columbus hoping to win the quarterback competition heading into one of the most pivotal seasons in recent Ohio State history. An aggressive offseason in the portal landed the Buckeyes a series of notable transfers, including Howard, loading an already-talented Ohio State team with the players it hopes can wrest back control of the Big Ten from rival Michigan. The reigning national champion Wolverines have rolled to three straight conference titles, highlighted by three consecutive victories over the Buckeyes.

Michigan, however, has its own quarterback battle to settle in 2024. The Wolverines face the enormous task of replacing J.J. McCarthy, the 10th overall pick of the Minnesota Vikings in this year’s NFL draft who went 27-1 as Michigan’s starter.

How these Big Ten bluebloods answer their quarterback quandaries figures to have major implications for the College Football Playoff, the Big Ten race and, of course, “The Game” on Nov. 30 in Columbus. Not since 2015 have the two schools had high-profile quarterback battles in the same year.

“We want to win, and the goal is to do the same thing we did last year,” said Michigan senior quarterback Davis Warren, the star of the Wolverines’ spring game. “The quarterback is a really important part of that.”

Beginning with McCarthy, the Wolverines had 13 players selected in the draft, two more than any other school.

In a year of transition in Ann Arbor, Michigan also has a new head coach in 38-year-old Sherrone Moore. He takes over for Jim Harbaugh, who is now coaching the Los Angeles Chargers.

But the Wolverines still boast plenty of leftover talent, with several intriguing options at quarterback.

Jack Tuttle, who was McCarthy’s backup last year, was approved for a seventh college season in February. Tuttle did not play in the spring game due to an undisclosed injury. But the 25-year-old easily brings the most experience. Before transferring to Michigan last year, he started five games at Indiana while playing behind another top 10 NFL draft pick in 2024.

“We talked about this as a team, as a staff — the dudes that he backed up are Michael Penix (before Penix transferred to Washington) and J.J. McCarthy,” Moore said of Tuttle, who’s expected to be cleared to resume throwing this summer. “So he’s got talent. … He’ll be in it.”

Tuttle isn’t the only one in it, though.

Junior Alex Orji brings a compelling dual-threat skill set to the competition. On the opening drive of Michigan’s spring game, he led the Wolverines down the field before dashing in for an 18-yard touchdown. After the score, Orji rolled the ball into his offensive teammates, mimicking a bowling strike knocking over pins.

“I think as a QB group,” Orji said, “we’ve all taken the necessary steps to put ourselves in a position, to be in position.”

Warren took a big step himself in Michigan’s spring game, taking over in the fourth quarter. Off play-action, he launched a pass that hit Kendrick Bell in stride for a 42-yard touchdown. On his next drive, Warren scrambled outside of the pocket to his right, then threw another strike across his body to Fredrick Moore, who scampered the other way for a 48-yard score to give the Maize the 17-7 comeback victory.

“Grateful that [new offensive coordinator Kirk Campbell] and Coach Moore and the whole team believes in me, feels like I have an opportunity to be the guy for this team and win games in the fall,” Warren said. “I’m just grateful for the opportunity and I don’t take it lightly.”

Junior Jayden Denegal and true freshman Jadyn Davis, who was the fourth-ranked dual-threat quarterback recruit in the country before enrolling early, both also had moments in the spring game. Both will have their opportunities to win the job, too.

“Everybody’s getting better,” Moore said of his quarterbacks. “Think that will go into the summer, the fall. We’ll see when we get to fall camp.”

The Buckeyes are taking a patient approach with their quarterback competition, as well.

Though Howard passed for 5,786 yards and totaled 67 touchdowns over 34 games playing for K-State, the Buckeyes haven’t just handed him the job.

“Not trying to get ahead of myself and look at the end goal,” Howard admitted to reporters during Ohio State’s pro day. “Just trying to get better. … Every single day, it’s just getting more comfortable. It’s a process.”

Howard completed 9 of 13 passes for 77 yards in the Buckeyes’ spring game, while rotating with five other quarterbacks. Junior Devin Brown, a former four-star recruit, threw the scrimmage’s only touchdown pass. Last preseason, Brown lost the starting job to Kyle McCord, who transferred to Syracuse in December. Still, Brown has already declared that he has no plans to transfer himself, even if he loses the competition again.

“I’m a Buckeye, and I’m here to compete, no matter what,” he told reporters in March.

Five-star freshman Julian Sayin, sophomore Lincoln Kienholz and freshman Air Noland all got snaps in the spring game.

Sayin, who originally signed with Alabama before enrolling at Ohio State, completed 10 of 17 passes for a scrimmage-high 85 yards, but he also threw a pick-six.

It won’t be easy for Sayin to win the job as a true freshman, at least immediately. But similar to Davis at Michigan, Sayin has already impressed in just a few weeks on campus and could be Ohio State’s eventual successor under center.

“Julian is a very fast processor,” said offensive coordinator Chip Kelly, who left his job as UCLA’s head coach in February to call plays for the Buckeyes. “He really thinks very, very quickly on his feet. He makes really quick decisions. He doesn’t stick on [receivers] in reads. He can progress and he sees things really well for a young player.”

Ohio State coach Ryan Day didn’t have much to say about his quarterback battle after the spring game, only that he would have to “look at the film.” But Kelly noted when the Buckeyes are finally ready to decide on a starter, there won’t be much of a decision to make.

“You always want to do it earlier, but I also believe every time I’ve been involved in this, it kind of happens organically and authentically because the players know,” Kelly said. “Players understand who they feel is the guy. And most of the time the decision is very obvious.”

The last time the Buckeyes and Wolverines had quarterback battles seemingly this wide open in the same summer was 2015. And both Urban Meyer and Harbaugh waited until opening drives of the openers to publicly reveal their starters.

In Columbus, Cardale Jones had just led the Buckeyes to a pair of playoff wins, including the 2014 national championship. But J.T. Barrett was having an All-Big Ten season before suffering a season-ending ankle injury against Michigan, opening the door for Jones to take over. Jones ended up starting the 2015 opener against Virginia Tech, but ultimately split time with Barrett.

Harbaugh, meanwhile, kept his quarterback plans a secret during his first preseason in Ann Arbor. Iowa transfer Jake Rudock got the start over Shane Morris against Utah. Despite losing that first game, Rudock led the Big Ten in completion rate (64.0%). But Barrett totaled four touchdowns in Ohio State’s 42-13 win over the Wolverines to end their regular seasons.

Neither the Buckeyes nor the Wolverines reached the playoff in 2015, with Michigan State claiming a spot instead. With the start of the 12-team playoff era, Ohio State and Michigan both missing the playoff again seems unlikely. And so, two of college football’s most consequential quarterback competitions will continue into the summer. With the rivalry, the Big Ten title and, likely, a playoff berth all firmly on the line.

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