Saturday, March 17, 2007

Michigan's backup quarterbacks: Always at the ready

Freshman sensation Ryan Mallett will likely fill the #2 spot on the depth chart for the Wolverines at quarterback in 2007. Being the backup QB is a difficult job for an athlete as the player has to mentally prepare for each game as if he is going to play because he may be called upon to enter the game at anytime in case of an emergency with the starter. The test for the backup QB is to be able to keep himself sharp mentally even though he knows that the chances are great that he might not see a single snap of action in the particular game for which he is preparing. Even when a backup QB is finally inserted into the game, the player is limited by the coaches in what he is supposed to do perform because of the circumstances of the game. Often, the backup QB is just supposed to "run out the clock" and is not supposed to run the full offensive scheme. Thus, even when the backup QB finally sees the field, he is not able to show his true capabilities. Such is the plight of the men who fill the #2 spot on the depth chart at quarterback. As Ryan Mallett toils as the backup QB during his freshman season, he will be following a grand tradition of Wolverine quarterbacks who have filled that slot. Following are some of the more interesting stories of Michigan's backup quarterbacks from the modern era (1969-present):

Jim Betts (1969)
In only his second game as head coach of Michigan, Coach Schembechler's Wolverines hosted Pac-8 conference foe the University of Washington Huskies in Ann Arbor. Michigan opened up a huge 45-7 lead by the fourth quarter and Coach Schembechler pulled the first unit including starting quarterback Don Moorehead. Backup quarterback Jim Betts entered the game and was instructed to run out the clock. However, on an option run/pass play Betts spotted an open Bill Harris streaking down the field and Betts hit him with a perfect strike for a 59-yard gain. The only problem was that Coach Schembechler wanted Betts to run out the clock not run up the score. Coach Schembechler was so infuriated that when Betts returned to the sideline, Coach Schembechler benched the entire second unit for the rest of the game. As legend has it, Reggie McKenzie and the rest of the second unit offensive lineman were mad at Betts because it cost them playing time. This story illustrates part of the plight of the backup quarterback. The player should do well but not to well. If he does, he risks getting in trouble.

Dave Hall (1982)
In 1982, quarterback Steve Smith led the Wolverines to their fifth Rose Bowl game in seven years. Smith led Michigan to an 8-1 Big 10 Conference record and the Big 10 title that season. Backup quarterback Dave Hall saw very limited action during the course of the year as he threw only 14 passes (completing seven). In the second quarter of the 1983 Rose Bowl game versus UCLA, the Wolverines were trailing 7-0 when Smith suffered a separated shoulder while being tackled on an option play that went for eight yards and a first down. Smith's injury forced him to miss the remainder of the game and Coach Schembechler called upon Dave Hall to lead the Wolverines. Hall was thrust into the line-up in front of a national TV audience in "The Granddaddy of Them All" and had the task of guiding the Wolverines to victory over the Bruins. Despite playing reasonably well (13/24, 155 yds., 2 tds., 2 int.), Hall and the Wolverines came up short as Michigan lost the '83 Rose Bowl by the score of 24-14. Hall's story illustrates how a backup quarterback always has to be ready to enter a game (especially the most important game of the season) in case of an emergency.

Chris Zurbrugg & Russ Rein (1984)
Whereas Dave Hall had to step in and assume the quarterback duties on a short-term basis (one game) due to an injury, the backups in 1984 were forced to assume the starter's role for the final seven games of the 1984 season after Jim Harbaugh broke his arm in the Michigan State game. Chris Zurbrugg (63/113, 691 yds., 6 tds., 7 int.) and Russ Rein (17/31, 142 yds., 1 td., 3 int.) split the duties for the rest of the season while leading Michigan to a 3-4 record. It should be noted, however, that Zurbrugg did throw four touchdown passes in the Purdue game that season which tied him for the Michigan record for most touchdown passes thrown in a single game. Nonetheless, 1984 is an example of what can happen if the starter goes down with an injury and there is not a big-time recruit waiting in the wings to fill-in for the rest of the season. Fortunately for Coach Carr, the 2007 team does not have that problem as it has Ryan Mallett waiting in the wings as the #2 quarterback on the depth chart. Go Blue!

*Note: Photo of Jim Betts from TK Legacy Michigan Signature Series card.
*Note 2: Photo of David Hall from TK Legacy Michigan Quarterback Collection card.
*Note 3: Photo of Coach Schembechler and Chris Zurbrugg (12) from dust cover of 1994 book "A Dynasty in Blue: 25 Years of Michigan Football Glory (1969-1994)" edited by Francis Fitzgerald.

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