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September 11, 2008

Michigan quarterback derby should continue

Former NFL quarterback Shaun King learned plenty about his position over the years. But some of his most vital lessons came from Michigan's new head coach, Rich Rodriguez, when he was King's offensive coordinatorat Tulane. Given what he knows, King is ceratin U-M's quarterbacks are just beginning to learn what's expected of them.

Another certainty? One needs to pick it up quickly if he wants to separate himself from the other.

Redshirt freshman Steven Threet showed some flashes of improvement against Miami (Ohio), especially on an opening touchdown drive. But until he starts connecting on the throws he needs to make, King said, the battle with redshirt sophomore Nick Sheridan will continue - and he believes it should.

"The hope is one will settle down and come into his own. You've seen it happen before … I'm not saying Threet is Vince Young, but look at how Vince improved his passing between his sophomore and junior years," said King. "It seems to me Rich is more comfortable with Sheridan's decision making, but Threet is the more physically talented of the two. I probably think he wishes he could combine the two.

"Threet to some extent seems to play with a little more swagger. I don't know if it's necessarily justified yet, but from an athletic standpoint, I like Threet. He seems to be a decent runner, seems to have a strong arm … he's just inaccurate with the football."

That inaccuracy showed against Miami in missing a number of open targets. The quarterbacks didn't complete a single downfield pass for a significant gain, with Threet getting more of the opportunity. Had he hit a couple, what was a tight game in the fourth quarter could have been a laugher.

But there is hope, King said, insisting quarterbacks coach Rod Smith would continue to work on Threet's mechanics and confidence.

"One thing Threet needs to do, and I'm sure Rod is telling him ... one thing I'd have him do is every practice, every throw, he should be aiming for something," said King. "When I coach young quarterbacks, that's one thing I make them do because it helps them improve their accuracy.

"What happens is, you get in a game, and I saw this in the opener ... [Threet] threw a touchdown on the fade (to sophomore Junior Hemingway), and when he throws the football, his head goes up and he follows the ball. Guys that are really on and accurate, they stay focused on what they are throwing at.

"He had a route maybe in the second or third quarter on the left sideline [against Miami] and the guy was running up the field open and he threw it out of bounds. He's got to learn, 'I've got to find something on the man and hit that spot.' At least he knows where to go with the football; now he just needs to get it there."

The rest of the team showed at least some improvement against a solid opponent, King noted, especially the defense. "I thought they played with a lot more emotion, especially on run defense," he said. "I thought they really took it upon themselves to elevate their play."

On offense, Rodriguez's play calling indicates he's becoming more familiar with what kids can - and can't - do, and adjusting his calls as such.

Though he's no Pat White, Threet showed some ability to gain yardage with his feet against Miami. That might be a way to ease him in a bit when he travels to South Bend for his first big road game against Notre Dame, King noted.

"I think that's a good way for a young quarterback to get acclimated on game day. So much emphasis is put on physically making plays, but that position is such a mental position," he said. "Physically, a lot of guys can do it, but mentally, being confident about what you're doing or not being confident ... maybe a way to get him in a groove early in the game is to design some runs for him. Let him pick up a first down running.

"I think an example of what Threet can become is Matt Grothe from South Florida. Look how much he's improved from last year to this year throwing the football. But right now, I don't think Threet's focus and concentration is what it should be in the game. He's got to hone in on the play that's at hand and the throw that's at hand. I'm sure Rod and his staff are preaching it to him."

Rodriguez doesn't have any choice but to be patient because he has no alternatives, but he does feel good about his running backs and his receivers, King said. Though much of the yardage in the passing game has come on yards after the catch on short throws, the outside players have the talent - it's just a matter of getting them the ball.

"I think he's trying to find out what will work," King said of Rodriguez. "He wants to throw the football, but I think he's hesitant because his quarterbacks aren't ready, so he's trying to utilize that stable of backs."

Until he finds a quarterback who is, King concluded, expect more of the two-quarterback rotation, and more growing pains. There will likely be more offensive performances like the one we've seen in the first two weeks, so fans will need to exercise patience.

"The easiest way to learn is to know that every play counts," said King. "If there's a wide-open play and I have a chance, I have to make it. Rich isn't pulling him out of the game for nothing. He is trying to find out who can play, because he wants a kid who is mentally tough."

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