This was originally posted on March 17, 2017. It has been updated following the 2022 season.
Sports fans love to debate the greatness of players and rank them in order from most revered to most despised. And while despised probably doesn't fit any of these players, since they played for the University of Michigan, we all have our favorites. I have endeavored to achieve the un-possible: Rank all of Michigan's starting quarterbacks.
Okay, that's too tall of a task for me right now. I'm working up to it. So I'm only going back to 1995, which was the beginning of the Lloyd Carr era. That's the earliest full coaching tenure where I can count on my recollections of Michigan football. I was a big fan of Bo Schembechler, Gary Moeller, and the Michigan Wolverines before then, but I'll be damned if I say I was aware enough to understand what was happening on the field.
This ranking only takes into account what the quarterbacks achieved wearing the winged helmet. High school highlight tapes and NFL performance aren't taken into account. (After all, we can agree that Tom Brady is far and away the best quarterback who ever played the game of football, and that includes Uncle Rico.)
So if you were starting a season with your pick of any Michigan QB since 1995, which one would you take?
On with the show:
1. TOM BRADY
Record as starter: 20-5 from 1995-1999
Career statistics: 443/711 (62.3%), 5351 yards, 35 TDs, 19 INTs
Biggest win: In the Orange Bowl against Alabama in 1999, Brady led a second-half comeback win and finished 34/46 for 369 yards, 4 TDs, and 0 INTs.
Why the ranking? People might say that Michigan fans are only huge Brady fans in retrospect, but his senior year saw him throw 20 TDs and just 6 INTs while completing 62.8% of his throws. Sure, there were some growing pains along the way, but he ultimately went 20-5 and made Michigan fans proud. Michigan fans like me were anxious to see Drew Henson, but we also were confused when Henson was taking time away from a stellar Tom Brady in 1999.
2. DREW HENSON
Record as starter: 6-2 from 1998-2000
Career statistics: 214/374 (57.2%), 2946 yards, 24 TDs, 7 INTs; 67 carries for 46 yards, 4 TDs
Biggest win: Henson led the Wolverines to a 38-26 win over the Ohio State Buckeyes in November of 2000. He didn't complete a high percentage of his passes (14/25 or 56%), but he did throw for 303 yards, 3 TDs, and 1 INT, along with a 1-yard touchdown run.
Why the ranking? Henson's numbers and winning percentage aren't exemplary, but the trajectory of his career was headed in a positive direction when he decided to quit football in favor of a baseball career. His completion percentage improved from 45% as a freshman to 52% as a sophomore to 62% as a junior. He also threw for 18 TDs and just 4 INTs in his final season. During his junior year, he was outstanding.
3. J.J. MCCARTHY
Record as starter: 12-1 from 2021-2022
Career statistics: 242/381 (63.5%), 3235 yards, 27 TDs, 7 INTs; 97 carries for 430 yards, 7 TDs
Biggest win: Though his completion percentage was nothing special, McCarthy had some signature plays in the 2022 game against Ohio State, completing 12/24 throws for 263 yards and 3 touchdowns, while also running 6 times for 27 yards and 1 score. Michigan beat the Buckeyes by a score of 45-23.
Why the ranking? McCarthy played second fiddle to Cade McNamara as a freshman, but he won the starting job outright in 2022. Despite leading the country in yards per attempt and passing efficiency for a good chunk of the early part of the season, he then went on a cold streak toward the end of the regular season, completing just 51% of his passes (51/102) against the likes of Rutgers, Nebraska, Illinois, and Ohio State. He also threw two critical pick-sixes in the playoff game against TCU. With another solid showing in 2023, he could potentially leap to #2 or even #1 on this list.
4. JAKE RUDOCK
Record as starter: 10-3 in 2015
Career statistics: 249/389 (64.0%), 3017 yards, 20 TDs, 9 INTs; 58 carries for 166 yards, 4 TDs
Biggest win: Michigan had a ballyhooed matchup with the Florida Gators in the Gator Bowl, and that resulted in a 41-7 victory for the Wolverines. Rudock completed 20/31 passes for 278 yards and 3 TDs, and he ran 4 times for 29 yards.
Why the ranking? Rudock only spent one season in Ann Arbor after transferring from Iowa. He started off with mediocre performances since he didn't arrive on campus until August, but as his chemistry built with his receivers, he turned in one of the best passing seasons in Michigan history.
5. CADE MCNAMARA
Record as starter: 12-3 from 2019-2022
Career statistics: 267/423 (63.1%), 3181 yards, 21 TDs, 7 INTs; 46 carries for 3 yards, 2 TDs
Biggest win: Michigan's 42-27 win over Ohio State - the first victory over OSU in a decade - was the most important Michigan win in years, it not decades. Not only did it propel Michigan to its first Big Ten Championship game appearance, but it also set the stage for the Wolverines to make the College Football Playoff for the first time. McNamara completed 13/19 passes for 159 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 1 interception, and he ran 1 time for 9 yards. Those aren't stellar numbers, but he mostly kept the ball out of harm's way and managed the team to victory.
Why the ranking? McNamara and Rudock are neck-and-neck and their stats are extremely close, but I give the edge to Rudock for having to adjust on the fly in his one season at Michigan and for having less offensive talent around him. McNamara benefited from a superior run game and more receiving talent overall, but he was an accurate thrower who generally made good decisions.
6. BRIAN GRIESE
Record as starter: 17-5 from 1993-1997
Career statistics: 355/606 (58.6%), 4383 yards, 33 TDs, 18 INTs
Biggest win: It's tough not to pick an Ohio State victory, but Griese wasn't the savior on that day in 1997. He did, however, play an excellent game in the "national championship game," the Rose Bowl victory over Washington State that sealed a share of the title. He threw a touchdown pass in each of the final quarters to lead Michigan to a 21-16 win, ending up 18/30 for 251 yards, the 3 TDs, and 1 INT.
Why the ranking? Griese deserves a lot of credit for managing the 1997 team to 13 victories and 0 losses. He didn't make backbreaking mistakes, and he got the ball to the right people. He also didn't have a great backfield or a truly elite wide receiver. What he did have was a great offensive line and a great defense. Michigan's 2016 defense was often compared to the 1997 version, but one huge difference between 13-0 and 10-3 is the offensive line. Regardless, Griese wasn't a great quarterback, but he was the right guy for the job at the time.
7. CHAD HENNE
Record as starter: 34-13 from 2004-2007
Career statistics: 828/1387 (59.7%), 9715 yards, 87 TDs, 37 INTs
Biggest win: Michigan State finished 5-7 in 2004, but there's never any love lost between MSU and Michigan. In Henne's freshman year, he helped Braylon Edwards put on an epic performance in a 45-37, triple-overtime win over the Spartans. Henne was 24/35 for 273 yards and 4 TDs, including the game-winning 24-yarder to Edwards.
Why the ranking? Much like John Navarre, Henne put up some very good numbers, but those were buoyed by the fact that he was a four-year starter. He was 0-4 against Ohio State, and he consistently struggled with his accuracy. Moreso than any other QB on this list except for Shane Morris (see below), Henne seemed unable to take any velocity off his throws, and those bullets often glanced off someone's hands or didn't give receivers enough time to adjust. He had some gutsy performances when dealing with injury, but ultimately, his performance was good but not great.
8. SHEA PATTERSON
Record as starter: 19-7 from 2018-2019
Career statistics: 424/706 (60.1%), 5661 yards, 45 TDs, 15 INTs; 163 carries for 323 yards (2.0 YPC), 7 TDs
Biggest win: The 45-14 win over Notre Dame in 2019 probably ranks as his biggest victory, even if the running game paved the way to victory. Patterson was just 6/12 for 100 yards and 2 touchdowns, and his 11 carries for 2 yards didn't move the needle much. But it was a huge win over a team that finished #12 in the country. Oh, and it was Notre Dame.
Why the ranking? Patterson was ranked #5 going into the 2019 season, but his performance as a senior was somewhat lackluster. A more wide open offense should have helped, but he got flustered under pressure, something that shouldn't happen so much to a seasoned veteran. He also did not run the ball as well as he should have, and while some of that falls on the coaches, Patterson also carries some of the blame. Still, he was a talented QB who could throw and run.
9. DEVIN GARDNER
Record as starter: 15-13 from 2010-2014
Career statistics: 475/787 (60.4%), 6336 yards, 44 TDs, 32 INTs; 342 carries for 916 yards, 24 TDs
Biggest win: The 2013 win over Indiana had eye-popping numbers (503 passing yards, for example), but Notre Dame was coming off of a national championship game appearance and got beaten down by Gardner and company in 2013. In the 41-30 victory, Gardner was 21/33 for 4 TDs and 1 INT while also running 13 times for 82 yards and 1 TD.
Why the ranking? I love Devin Gardner's physical abilities and leadership qualities, and I'm in agreement with many Michigan fans: What would Gardner have achieved under the coaching of Jim Harbaugh? We'll never know, and that makes it difficult to place Gardner on this list. I want to rank him higher, but ultimately, he made some really ugly turnovers and didn't win enough games. He was doomed by a coach whose career was going into a tailspin and the worst offensive line performance in decades. I know people will get upset with me for placing him above Robinson, and Gardner didn't have the same abilities to run; but Gardner was a superior passer and very effective with his legs.
10. DENARD ROBINSON
Record as starter: 23-11 from 2009-2012
Career statistics: 427/747 (57.2%), 6250 yards, 49 TDs, 39 INTs; 723 carries for 4495 yards, 42 TDs
Biggest win: Robinson's performances went up and down as a passer, even though he was always a dangerous runner. He didn't have a great night against Notre Dame in 2011, but the team ultimately came out with a win in the initial Under the Lights matchup. Robinson (and Jeremy Gallon) had some late-game heroics that led to a 35-31 win. Robinson was 11/24 for 338 yards, 4 TDs, and 3 INTs, and he also ran 16 times for 108 yards and 1 TD.
Why the ranking? Okay, I'm on the record as saying that Denard Robinson wasn't a great quarterback, though he was an excellent runner. With all the talk about how a running quarterback changes the game, Robinson's win-loss record wasn't great - despite Brady Hoke's inaugural 11-2 season. He also turned over the ball too much (39 INTs, plus too many fumbles) and had a career completion percentage of just over 57%. He did some great things while at Michigan, but his throwing abilities were lacking.
11. JOHN NAVARRE
Record as starter: 31-11 from 1999-2003
Career statistics: 765/1366 (56.0%), 9254 yards, 72 TDs, 31 INTs
Biggest win: Navarre's 2003 win against Ohio State was significant. It propelled Michigan to a Rose Bowl appearance, and it gave the Wolverines a victory over the previously 10-1 Buckeyes. But that's not the game I think of when it comes to Navarre. He led Michigan's all-time best comeback on the road at Minnesota. This is one of those games where I remember exactly where I was and who I was with when watching that game on TV. Michigan was down 28-7 against the Gophers before Navarre turned on the jets - (almost) literally. In addition to completing 33/47 passes for 353 yards, 2 TDs, and 1 INT, he also caught a 36-yard TD pass from Steve Breaston on a "Transcontinental" throwback to the QB. The Wolverines won, 38-35.
Why the ranking? Despite setting a bunch of records at Michigan - largely because he started for three full seasons and part of a fourth - Navarre had an uncanny knack for getting his passes batted down at the line of scrimmage, an impressive feat for a 6'6" quarterback. He was slow and rather inaccurate, and he even had a good supporting cast around him that included the likes of Chris Perry, Anthony Thomas, Braylon Edwards, Jason Avant, and Marquise Walker.
12. WILTON SPEIGHT
Record as starter: 13-3 from 2014-2017
Career statistics: 257/437 (58.8%), 3192 yards, 22 TDs, 10 INTs
Biggest win: Michigan State was terrible (3-9) in 2016, but that doesn't change the fact that they had dominated the series against Michigan in recent years. Speight was 16/25 for 244 yards, 0 TDs, and 1 INT, so it wasn't a great game, but he did well enough to end the losing streak against the Spartans.
Why the ranking? Speight had a chance to move up (or down) in 2017, but he struggled early in the year against mediocre teams (54.3% completions, 3 TD, 2 INT) before getting injured. That leaves him right where he was previously, though I strongly considered placing him below Dreisbach.
13. SCOTT DREISBACH
Record as starter: 12-3 from 1994-1998
Career statistics: 208/380 (54.7%), 2920 yards, 15 TDs, 12 INTs; 81 carries, 51 yards, 2 TDs
Biggest win: In Lloyd Carr's first game as head coach, Dreisbach brought the Wolverines back from a 17-0 deficit against the Virginia Cavaliers, culminating in a late, game-winning touchdown pass to Mercury Hayes. In that game he was 27/52 for 372 yards, 2 TDs, and 2 INTs; those passing attempts and passing yardage were records for Michigan at the time.
Why the ranking? Dreisbach didn't put up great numbers and played for a run-heavy team that didn't count on him a ton, but he had a solid record and made some big plays - including a memorable 72-yard run against Illinois. Injuries and other talented quarterbacks shortened his career, and he came off the bench for the final two years of his career. But some people forget that when he went 4-0 in 1995, he was just a redshirt freshman.
14. TATE FORCIER
Record as starter: 5-7 from 2009-2010
Career statistics: 219/365 (60.0%), 2647 yards, 17 TDs, 14 INTs; 140 carries for 291 yards, 4 TDs
Biggest win: The Notre Dame game was the biggest game in 2009. Michigan pulled off a 38-34 upset that included a 31-yard TD run by Forcier and then the game-winning touchdown pass to wideout Greg Mathews with just 11 seconds remaining in the game. On that day Forcier was 23/33 for 240 yards, 2 TDs, and 1 INT, and he ran the ball 13 times for 70 yards and the 1 TD. He looked like Rich Rodriguez's next big thing at the time, though his star faded after that point.
Why the ranking? There's no doubt that Forcier was a talented player, but he was a risk-taker and gunslinger without the necessary arm strength, judgment, and supporting cast to make that work. Attitude and off-the-field issues seemed to contribute to his demise, since he was academically ineligible after 2010.
15. BRANDON PETERS
Record as starter: 2-2 in 2017
Career statistics: 57/108 (52.8%), 672 yards, 4 TDs, 2 INTs
Biggest win: Choices are limited so far, but Peters took his team on the road at Maryland, averaged 8.1 yards per attempt, and threw 2 touchdowns with 0 turnovers. That's more impressive than the Minnesota win when Chris Evans and Karan Higdon ran roughshod over the Gophers on a rainy night.
Why the ranking? Peters showed flashes of great play, combined with some silly mistakes. If Michigan's offensive line play were on par with the 2007 group for Mallett below, then I think Peters would have played pretty well. Peters can put more touch on the ball, and he's more athletic than Mallett. Peters transferred to Illinois after the 2018 season.
16. RYAN MALLETT
Record as starter: 3-0 in 2007
Career statistics: 61/141 (43.3%), 892 yards, 7 TDs, 5 INTs
Biggest win: In his second career start, Mallett was 16/29 for 170 yards, 0 TDs, and 1 INT against Penn State. But he helped the Wolverines to a 14-9 win over the Nittany Lions, who finished the year with a 9-4 record, and that game included a seemingly unlikely touchdown scramble from the 6'7", 252-pounder. It wasn't as dominant of a win as the 38-0 victory over Notre Dame the previous week, but the Fighting Irish finished 3-9 that year.
Why the ranking? Mallett's numbers weren't great, and he had the advantage of handing off to Mike Hart and throwing to the likes of Mario Manningham. So he had a better supporting cast than many of the quarterbacks on this list, but quarterbacks are measured by wins, and he found a way to help the Wolverines to that 3-0 record during his time.
17. STEVE THREET
Record as starter: 2-6 from 2007-2008
Career statistics: 102/200 (51%), 1105 yards, 9 TDs, 7 INTs; 76 carries for 201 yards, 2 TDs
Biggest win: Michigan stunned Wisconsin with a 27-25 victory over the Badgers in 2008. Threet struggled throwing the ball (12/31 for 96 yards, 1 TD, and 2 INTs), but the 6'6" Threet stunned everyone with a 58-yard run and ended the game with 9 carries for 89 yards.
Why the ranking? Threet had some potential, but he was unlucky throughout his career. He enrolled early at Georgia Tech just before they moved to a triple-option offense, so he dodged a bullet in order fall into the arms of pro-style QB haven Michigan . . . and then Lloyd Carr retired to be replaced by a spread option coach in Rich Rodriguez. After one season of not working out, he transferred to Arizona State and then retired from football due to concussions. Maybe he could have carved out a more lasting legacy if he had graduated from high school 5-10 years earlier, but that's the way things go sometimes.
18. JOE MILTON
Record as starter: 2-3 from 2018-2020
Career statistics: 86/152 (56.6%), 1194 yards, 5 TDs, 6 INTs; 50 carries for 156 yards, 3 TDs
Biggest win: Michigan began Milton's first season as a starter with a good looking win over the Minnesota Gophers, a 49-24 victory that saw Milton get a lot of hype. He completed 15/22 passes for 225 yards and 1 touchdown; he also ran 8 times for 52 yards and 1 touchdown.
Why the ranking? Though technically 2-3 as a starter, that Minnesota victory was really the only one for Milton. He was yanked in Michigan's only other 2020 victory - the Rutgers game - after completing 5/12 passes and recording 2 rushing attempts for -16 yards. Backup Cade McNamara brought the Wolverines back in what turned out to be a shootout to win the game. Milton was inaccurate and frequently made poor decisions, which negated his size, considerable arm strength, and above average speed.
19. JOHN O'KORN
Record as starter: 3-3 from 2015-2017
Career statistics: 104/191 (54.4%), 1146 yards, 4 TDs, 6 INTs
Biggest win: In his only start for an injured Wilton Speight in 2016, O'Korn didn't play well but sparked a late surge with a 30-yard scramble. While he won two more games in 2017, neither was a significant performance. In a non-starting experience, O'Korn played very well against Purdue in 2017 coming in for Speight; O'Korn finished 18/26 for 270 yards, 1 TD, and 1 INT.
Why the ranking? O'Korn played fairly well when he was inserted as a backup late in games, but he didn't play so well in his starts. He struggled mightily against Michigan State and Penn State, and he made some very frustrating plays against Ohio State in 2017. Unlike the guys below him, you saw his potential.
20. NICK SHERIDAN
Record as starter: 1-3 from 2007-2010
Career statistics: 70/148 (47.3%), 701 yards, 2 TDs, 6 INTs; 45 carries for 103 yards, 1 TD
Biggest win: Naturally, it's his only win, but he also played a good game. He was 18/30 for 203 yards, 1 TD, and 0 INTs. He also ran 8 times or 33 yards in the 29-6 win over the Minnesota Gophers at the Metrodome.
Why the ranking? Sheridan did not have a good career, but as a walk-on from Saline, he wasn't expected to do much in college. He fell into a situation where Michigan was lacking quarterbacks and he happened to be somewhat mobile for Rich Rodriguez's offense, so Sheridan made the best of it.
21. SHANE MORRIS
Record as starter: 0-2 from 2013-2016
Career statistics: 47/92 (51.1%), 434 yards, 0 TD, 5 INT; 18 carries for 87 yards (4.8 YPC)
Biggest win: N/A
Why the ranking? Morris arrived at Michigan when Brady Hoke's regime was on a downward slide, but Morris did nothing to stem the tide. Even with two years of Jim Harbaugh's coaching, he rose no higher than third on the depth chart and never accounted for a touchdown during his four years on campus.
Let the arguments begin.