May 10, 2016
May 10, 2016
John O’Korn warms up before the 2016 spring game
By Steve Kornacki
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It’s a time of change and a time of excitement for all involved.
Last week Jake Rudock moved out of the house he rented near Briarwood Mall with John O’Korn, and wide receiver teammate Maurice Ways moved in as O’Korn’s new roommate. Rudock is embarking on his career opportunity with the Detroit Lions, who drafted him in the sixth round, and O’Korn hopes to replace him as the University of Michigan’s quarterback.
O’Korn threw for more yards and touchdowns as a freshman at the University of Houston than Rudock did in 2015 while sparking the Wolverines in a turnaround season. O’Korn sat out last season in compliance with NCAA transfer rules and served as the scout team quarterback in practices.
However, his time has come to compete for the starting job with Shane Morris and Wilton Speight, and O’Korn showed what he’s all about in the spring intrasquad game, leading the White team to touchdowns on his only two drives of the contest.
“I think we all play so differently,” said O’Korn. “We each have our own style, and they’re good styles. But whoever emerges from the group is going to do great things. The entire team, and especially our quarterback room, is going to support whoever emerges.
“And whoever does should find great confidence in knowing the rest of our room is going to support them. I’ve been in rooms where that’s not the case, and those teams haven’t been successful. When the quarterback room is united, the rest of the locker room is, too.
“Last year, we supported Jake. Even when people outside of this building wanted to see somebody else, the rest of us supported him, and you saw what happened. Jake got better every week and became one of the best, if not arguably the best, quarterback in the conference.”
O’Korn enjoys being back in the huddle.
“I hadn’t been in a huddle since high school,” he said. “I had to adjust to that, and I felt really comfortable and like I didn’t miss a beat at Houston, where we ran the no-huddle offense. I really enjoy walking into the huddle and looking guys in the eyes and saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do. This is the play.'”
Michigan passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch, who coaches quarterbacks, has emphasized the importance of selling a play.
“Coach Fisch stresses exuding confidence,” said O’Korn. “He says to tell every play to the team as if it’s a touchdown play and that we’re going to go score on this play, every single play, and I love that part of it. I love being in the huddle and looking at Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson and Mason Cole and across the board. It’s one of the coolest parts of it.
“This spring was the first time I took meaningful reps with our offense. I feel really good about how I played and got better every day. I made a lot of progress and I’m a lot more comfortable. That was the biggest thing I gained this spring, my knowledge and comfort in the offense.”
He’s back in a pro-style offense, where he had great success for the Cougars.
O’Korn led all true freshmen with 28 touchdown passes for Houston in 2013 and threw for 3,117 yards after taking over as the starter in game three. He passed for 364 yards and five touchdowns at Rutgers and 363 yards and three touchdowns against Brigham Young.
However, everything changed during his sophomore season, and O’Korn lost the starting job after five games to Greg Ward Jr., who last year ran for 1,108 yards and passed for 2,828 while accounting for 38 touchdowns.
“A lot of changes happened to our coaching staff after my freshman year,” said O’Korn. “I never thought I’d have left after a great freshman year, and I loved the city and felt at home. About halfway through my sophomore season, they just decided to change philosophies and switched to a read-option offense. Greg Ward is an amazing athlete, and they switched him back from receiver to quarterback.
“I wasn’t playing great, we were 2-3, and they decided to make a change to Greg, and I don’t blame them. I wasn’t playing up to my own standards, and it was a completely different offense.”
O’Korn, 6-foot-4, 209 pounds, looked for another pro-style offense that better suited his skills after 2014.
Rudock had lost the starting job at Iowa following the same season and was searching for a school where he could play one final season as a graduate transfer. O’Korn, who eventually replaced Rudock as the starting quarterback at St. Thomas Aquinas High in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, ended up beating Rudock to the punch by committing to Michigan.
“I remember it like it was yesterday, sitting in Coach Fisch’s office and hearing the rumors that Jake was coming here, too,” said O’Korn. “I thought, ‘I’m coming here; I don’t really want Jake coming here (laughter).’ But then I realized I had to sit out and it couldn’t have been set up more perfectly for the two of us.
“We’d been friends and had the same quarterbacks coach, Ken Mastrole, since we were in high school. But we hadn’t been close. When we got here is when we really got close. I learned so much from him last year that it was amazing. I benefited more than the other guys from rooming with him and seeing the time that he put in, the preparation, and how much it means to him. And the things that he didn’t say are the lessons I will remember the rest of my life.”
I asked O’Korn to expand on what Rudock “didn’t say.”
“Jake didn’t force the issue when we got here last June,” said O’Korn. “He didn’t try to be that rah-rah guy and just take over. As I am going through this quarterback competition right now, other guys might step up and try to be that rah-rah guy. But in the back of my mind, I know that’s not the way Jake did it. It’s not the way that it worked.
“The biggest thing was that Jake didn’t try to force guys to believe in him. He just let it happen.”
O’Korn learned from Rudock to lead in a way that came naturally and recalled how Rudock was careful not to push his way into reps during the summer seven-on-seven drills conducted without coaching supervision. What they both did at those drills was observe and await their chances.
Rudock earned the job, had the staunch backing of Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh through early-season struggles, and then took off. Rudock’s 3,017 yards passing rank second in Michigan history, and he threw 20 touchdowns.
“Jake let the other guys elevate him,” said O’Korn.
O’Korn has gone this route before, competing for and winning the starting job at Aquinas after Rudock graduated. He led Aquinas to the Florida Class 7A state title, earning MVP honors in the championship game, and was recruited by what was then his “dream school,” the University of Florida. Gators defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin was in contact, but they didn’t end up offering him a scholarship. Durkin became Harbaugh’s defensive coordinator last season at Michigan before leaving for the head coaching post at the University of Maryland.
With Florida out of the picture O’Korn committed to Houston, but said he was on the verge of switching to the University of Wisconsin. He probably would’ve gone there had Badgers coach Bret Bielema not opted for Arkansas that winter.
“That’s a little-known fact,” said O’Korn. “I was set to go to Wisconsin but didn’t want to make the announcement during the (state) playoffs and be a distraction. It’s funny how things turn out.”
When it came time to leave Houston after two seasons, former Wolverines offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier was wooing him in that same capacity at Florida.
“Florida offered me and I’d pretty much decided on going there,” said O’Korn. “I pretty much told Doug I was coming, but I kind of had a feeling Michigan was interested.”
O’Korn said he received a text from the Houston compliance office saying Michigan had requested permission to speak with him.
“I said, ‘Yeah of course,'” said O’Korn. “This was a few weeks after Coach (Harbaugh) got hired. A few days later, I got a call from Coach Harbaugh and we talked for a while that night. Within 10 minutes, I told him I was coming and committed.”
No visit was required.
O’Korn said, “Just talking on the phone, as a quarterback, it’s no secret you want to play for Jim Harbaugh. Within minutes, he told me Jedd Fisch was going to be the quarterbacks coach, and Jedd had recruited me and Jake for the University of Miami. So, I said, ‘I love Coach Fisch!’ The combination of those two brought me here because it was a no-brainer.
“Coach Harbaugh has done the things I want to do, and learning from him with the stories he’s taught us about his mistakes along the way so we don’t make the same mistakes, I feel at home here.”
Durkin commented during the 2015 season about how impressive O’Korn was in running the scout team offense to give Michigan’s defense an accurate portrayal of upcoming opponents.
“Playing scout team was challenging because my whole life I was in the spotlight,” said O’Korn. “But the scout team reps were the only ones I was going to get, and I was going to have to make the most of it.
“I competed my butt off every day and felt good about it. The defense played really well, and I felt I was helping in some way.”
O’Korn finally got to run Michigan’s offense in the spring, and in the intrasquad game he completed 6-of-14 passes for 93 yards and ran seven times for 28 yards. His six-yard touchdown run on the game’s final drive gave the White team a chance to win, but Henry Poggi‘s run on the two-point conversion play failed and the Blue won, 14-13.
Speight and Morris also were impressive in the game. Morris doubled as a wide receiver, and O’Korn hit him for a 25-yard pass on the final drive, saying that “it speaks volumes about Shane” that he would take on a dual role.
“I had two drives in the game,” said O’Korn, “and it was huge for my confidence that we scored on both of my drives. I hadn’t played in a game in two years, and we converted a lot of third downs (five) on the first drive to score to start the game.
“It was cool to see us execute as an offense and give our team a chance to win. And it was my first game in the Big House. I was in sweat pants there all last year for games, helping Jake warm up. It was a lot of fun.”
He had the feeling back.
“There was a time during my sophomore year at Houston that — and I don’t blame it on the coaches — but their philosophies didn’t match with mine,” said O’Korn. “I lost my love for it.
“But from the moment I got here, I fell in love with the game again, even things I didn’t love before, like sitting in a dark room for hours and watching film, drawing up plays on the white board, and everything that comes with it.”
O’Korn pulled out his cell phone and showed the photo of Schembechler Hall that is front and center on it.
“I can’t wait to get here every day,” he said. “That’s how we all feel. We’re going to do something special together.”