- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Brian Cleary, Michigan’s current backup quarterback, was extremely close to not being in Ann Arbor at all.
How close? He was admitted -- and planned on attending -- another school when Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges called then-University of Detroit Jesuit coach Jeff Putnam in the late spring and early summer of 2012 inquiring about Cleary’s availability.
Putnam said Cleary was going to Notre Dame. Not to play or walk on, but as a regular college student.
Maybe he’d quarterback the football team at Dillon Hall since they play tackle football as dorms at the school. Now the redshirt freshman is potentially one snap away from being the starting quarterback at Michigan.
Borges called Putnam and explained the Wolverines were lacking quarterback depth and could be in the position through 2014. Plus, Michigan liked Cleary’s film.
He’d be given a chance to compete and maybe play if injuries happened. Once Russell Bellomy tore his ACL last month in spring practice, Cleary’s opportunity showed up earlier than he might have even thought.
“He didn’t want to go there to just be on the roster,” Putnam said. “He wanted to be able to compete. He really believed, had to believe, they were going to give him a legitimate shot. I assured him they are and believed there was no reason to doubt that.
“That’s exactly what happened. It worked out as well as it could for him.”
So far. Cleary’s big public debut will be in Saturday’s spring scrimmage, where the newly anointed No. 2 quarterback will likely see a lot of snaps behind starter Devin Gardner. How he feels, though, is unknown. He has not been made available to the media this spring and a request to speak with him was denied by Michigan.
What people will see is a 6-foot-3 quarterback whose hair matches the orange jersey he’ll likely be wearing as a don’t-hit-me sign. They’ll see a guy who was a four-year starter at Jesuit and who went into his senior year of high school with the potential for scholarship offers that never materialized.
They’ll also see a guy who Putnam said actually called all the plays during a Jesuit game against De La Salle either his sophomore or junior year of high school. Jesuit didn’t win that game, but Putnam learned how talented his quarterback was that day.
“They had a really good team. We decided to let Brian call the plays at the line of scrimmage. We let him call it,” Putnam said. “We coached him and we were throwing 99 percent of the time so it was just a matter of calling the pass routes. We did not beat them, but we gave them a hell of a game.
“In the end, he proved that day the caliber of athlete he was. Threw the ball extremely well, made very good decisions.”
Those decisions caught the attention of some of the Michigan players recently. Not surprisingly, there were issues early on. Receiver Jeremy Gallon said Cleary was “a little overwhelmed by everything” during the first scrimmage where he saw a lot of snaps in place of Bellomy.
Considering his prior status on the team, that makes sense. But Cleary is calming down. He is making correct decisions and smart reads. He is starting to look like a potential college quarterback and a viable option as a backup if Gardner were to go down and as a competitor for incoming freshman Shane Morris as a backup this fall.
“He’s able to calm down and take control,” Gallon said. “Being a younger guy, that’s hard because you’re looking at upperclassmen and you don’t feel like you have that control over them because they are upperclassmen.
“I feel he is able to go in there, settle down and take control of the offense.”
The one area where there is a difference is in Cleary’s velocity. Gallon said the difference between Gardner and Cleary is noticeable, but not a big deal. Gardner gets the ball to receivers faster and harder.
That shouldn’t be a surprise considering Gardner is older and more experienced. But the physical things Borges saw in watching Cleary’s film are starting to show, too.
“He’s a very good student,” Borges said. “His deal was just to get him football smart, get him out there, get him some reps, get him some experience and let him learn a little bit through trial and error.
“But as far as understanding, coachability, throwing ability, if you just watched Brian throw the ball, you’d think he’s a scholarship player.”
On Saturday, Michigan will see exactly how true that statement might be.
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