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Michigan's Jim Harbaugh said QBs Shea Patterson, Dylan McCaffrey could split time

Is Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson's job on the line with head coach Jim Harbaugh? (Getty Images)

CHICAGO — We’re not quite sure what to make of Michigan QB Shea Patterson. As a college football player or an NFL draft prospect.

First, there’s the inconsistent play. The hype outpacing the production to this point. Two college stops — Ole Miss and Michigan. And several more stops before that at multiple high schools. The whispers about his coachability. And more.

Yes, the NFL is somewhat intrigued with the former top-10 high-school recruit. But there needs to be more — quite a bit more — to get NFL scouts lathered up about his projection at the next level.

“There are some concerns there,” one long-time college scouting director said about Patterson, not wanting to give too many specifics. “His last year will be big for us to figure all that out. Figure out how he operates.”

But the question is: Will that even happen at Michigan? Well, we’re less certain after hearing his coach’s comments this week.

The most interesting and newsworthy nugget of Friday’s session with Harbaugh at Big Ten Media Days was the coach suggesting that Patterson, the current starter, and highly recruited No. 2 QB Dylan McCaffrey could split time this season.

"Yeah, I do [envision scenarios where both play],” Harbaugh said. “Where it stands right now — and that could change later or not — is I see them both playing.

“Where it stands right now, I see it as maybe redefining what a starter is. I see that; that's where it is now. They're both — you just see that you want to get both on the field."

Some observers were surprised when Michigan did not bring Patterson, its returning senior QB starter, to the event at the Chicago Hilton. Now perhaps we have some perspective why.

Harbaugh hasn’t been a big two-QB coach in the past. He trickled in some Colin Kaepernick packages as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers and eventually benched starter Alex Smith for Kaepernick, a move that landed his team in the Super Bowl. But there have not been too many other instances where Harbaugh has had his quarterbacks alternate series in games; he’s typically had his guy most seasons.

And, mind you, Harbaugh is not talking about playing Patterson and McCaffrey on the field at the same time.

“When I say both [playing] in games, it'd be [that] they're both playing quarterback during the same game,” he said.

What Jim Harbaugh’s two-QB comments mean for Shea Patterson

That’s good for McCaffrey. But certainly less so for Patterson. His senior season will be his final chance to impress after what has been a less-than-fulfilling college experience. There was some real strong play at times last season from Patterson, who started all 13 games for the Wolverines had turned in an impressive 22-7 TD-INT ratio. His passer rating of 149.9 ranked No. 2 in the Big Ten.

But there clearly have been limitations and unmet expectations for his career to date, and Harbaugh might just be challenging his incumbent starter. And the highly regarded McCaffrey certainly might be making some real strides.

This adds another layer for NFL scouts to dissect with the complex Patterson. He lacks elite physical traits and has put out some uneven tape at times. Some of his best performances have not come against elite competition.

There also are some character questions, we’ve been told, that scouts want to dig on more — perhaps nothing too frightening, but it could be a case of the scouting community getting a better feel for whether Patterson has the grit, commitment and determination that it requires most mortals to give in the NFL at that position. On top of his other shortcomings.

We asked Harbaugh what Patterson needed to do this season to take the next step in his development. The coach’s answer was ... interesting.

“Oh yeah, there’s things you’re working on all the time as a quarterback,” he said. “Not just one thing.”

Uh, yeah ... anything specific, coach?

“I mean, there’s … it’s like a toolbox,” Harbaugh said in a rather monotone voice. “There’s not one thing more important than the other. He’s developed fine. He’s doing great. We love him. I like his … I like everything about him, I really do.”

At this point, there was a long pause. We feared this might be all Harbaugh would give for our question. But we were wrong. And despite the lack of specifics, his answer might actually have hit on some of Patterson’s concerns.

“I think, just like all of us, we’re all working on that focus,” Harbaugh said. “That focus on being a disciplined thinker and the task at hand. What we’re doing right now. You can really only be thinking about one thing.

“Can’t necessarily be thinking about the end of the game before you get to the end of the game. Practice — what you’re doing at the moment. So that’s something we’re all trying to do as good a job as we can.”

And perhaps that lack of focus, even if Patterson isn’t the only one guilty of it, is why the head coach — who by the way is facing immense pressure this season — is considering such a dramatic adjustment to his quarterback rotation.

How will this two-QB thing work?

New offensive coordinator Josh Gattis arrives with high hopes and plenty of hype as the man who can perhaps modernize this offense from Harbaugh’s older-school system. So we have to consider the possibility that McCaffrey has shown a bit more proficiency this offseason running a system that will be heavier on the RPOs (run-pass options) and more shotgun-dependent.

“We found that Shea was better in the shotgun,” Harbaugh said. “We went more to it as the season went on last year. Also, Dylan’s ability to get out and go and run — there’s a tremendous running ability there that he has.

“I think Shea is also comfortable in that up-tempo offense, and being spread out just a little bit more helps the quarterbacks. It’s really driven by that.”

McCaffrey, who is the younger brother of Carolina Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey, won the Michigan backup job last season and completed 8-of-15 passes for 126 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 99 yards and one TD in six mop-up performances in 2018.

He’s also far more of an impressive physical specimen at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds than the 6-1, 205-pound Patterson. A broken collarbone in the win over Penn State ended McCaffrey’s season early, but he was a full participant in spring practice. No. 3 QB Joe Milton — whom Harbaugh also name-dropped more than once Friday — also got spring reps.

It will be fascinating to see how Harbaugh handles the reps — first in camp and then when Middle Tennessee State comes to town for the opener in Ann Arbor come Aug. 31. They face a plucky Army team the next week before an early bye.

Is it possible Harbaugh will use the first two games to split reps nearly evenly between Patterson and McCaffrey and turn it into an audition for the conference opener at Wisconsin on Sept. 21? Possibly, which could have major effects on Michigan’s season and also Patterson’s seemingly unstable NFL draft status.

Let’s put it this way: As things stand now, you likely won’t see Patterson landing in any of our mock drafts anytime soon.

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