- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- As Michigan moves its camp into padded practices the rest of the way, the Wolverines will be able to start to really discern which position battles are actually competitions and which are going to be wrapped up rather quickly.
Of a lengthy list of position competitions for a team still finishing its rebuilding stages in its third year under Brady Hoke, perhaps the second most-important battle lies between two players who might see less than 25 snaps combined this season.
The backup quarterback.
When Russell Bellomy tore his ACL in the spring, Michigan’s quarterback depth turned into junior starter Devin Gardner and then a morass of inexperience. Competitors either were not on campus yet (freshman Shane Morris) or had never played a meaningful snap (walk-ons Brian Cleary and, less so, Alex Swieca). And once Michigan declined to sign a junior college or fifth-year transfer, that became the lot behind Gardner.
An open competition with no player really having any advantage over the other. Four days in, it's still neck-and-neck between Cleary and Morris.
“They are both doing really well, splitting the two reps,” Gardner said. “If one guy made a great pass, the next guy will make a great pass again so I’m glad I’m not the coach. I can’t really decide which one.”
The decision will eventually come to Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges. Coming out of the spring, Cleary established himself as the backup, but Morris had been around the program even as a high school recruit at nearby De La Salle High in Warren, Mich. He didn’t enroll early but had been prepping for this moment since he committed almost two years ago.
The long-term commitment, plus his locale, allowed him be on campus often to pick up things from his coaches. He isn’t the first Michigan quarterback to do this. Gardner enrolled early in 2010. Drew Henson, perhaps Michigan’s most famous quarterback recruit in history, spent his afternoons in the spring of 1998 on campus trying to learn the playbook before his freshman year.
So Morris is not the typical freshman. He understands things a bit more.
“I would say he is (ahead of the curve),” Hoke said. “It’s great to have a smart quarterback. Being a smart quarterback and being a wise quarterback under heat time with guys chasing you around and decisions you make, that’s two different things.
“That’s what we’ll see more of from this point on.”
Thus far, Michigan has seen fairly accurate passers. Gardner said the three quarterbacks -- himself, Cleary and Morris -- completed almost every pass in a recent 7-on-7 drill. And while defenders can pick up obvious differences between Gardner and the two backups, the difference between Morris and Cleary is negligible.
“Devin has really come into his role, playing with the game experience he had last year,” middle linebacker Desmond Morgan said. “Shane’s just a freshman coming in. Brian’s a guy who didn’t play in any games or anything last year.
“So just the comfortableness of being in and seeing the defense, things like that.”
This is Michigan’s situation right now. In one aspect, it is good for the Wolverines because two inexperienced quarterbacks are forced to receive more of a chance than they would have if Bellomy had not torn up his knee in the spring.
It forced Michigan into an uncomfortable position -- but one which will give two unknowns more reps than they ever would have received before. Plus, with Gardner as the entrenched starter with no chance of movement unless there is an injury, Michigan can take its time making its decision of who would go in if Gardner ever has to go out.
“I would say because you do know the guy who you are expecting to start the season with,” Hoke said. “You in some ways can give a few more snaps to that competition area where who is number two.”