John O'Korn is down to his last shot as a college quarterback, and oddly enough, this time it feels like the pressure is off.
O'Korn will lead No. 7 Michigan this weekend against Michigan State and, it appears, for at least a couple of weekends after that as Wilton Speight recovers from an injury. O'Korn has the luxury of having the nation's most statistically stifling defense on his side. He has the benefit of taking over an offense that has been underwhelming when it comes to finishing drives through the first third of the season. His description of a job well done is as simple as it's been through four-plus eventful years of college football: win games.
When it became clear that O'Korn would take the reins at Michigan for the time being, his father, a former high school head coach in central Pennsylvania, had a question for him.
"What's your juice? What's your long-term juice?" he asked. In other words, what's going to keep you focused and motivated during a prolonged stretch on the field?
O'Korn's juice when he stepped in for Speight to finish the Wolverines' last win against Purdue with 270 passing yards was abundantly clear to anyone who saw him play. He followed up several big plays and touchdown drives by spinning toward the Purdue sideline, locating co-offensive coordinator Tony Levine and hollering. After the game, he said head coach Jim Harbaugh had to calm him down a couple of times and that beating his old coach was a gratifying, redemptive moment even if he didn't get another shot to play this season.
Levine and O'Korn met at Houston in 2013. O'Korn threw for more than 3,000 yards and won his league's rookie of the year award while leading the Cougars to an 8-5 record. His numbers deteriorated as a sophomore as Levine worked future starter Greg Ward into the lineup more often. Within a couple of months, O'Korn went from watch lists for national postseason awards to a seat on the bench. It shattered his confidence and later made him feel that the blame for the end of Levine's tenure in Houston was wrongly put on his shoulders.
"I felt at times like I was the scapegoat at Houston for a lot of things that were going on within the program," he said this summer. "That will shake an 18-year-old kid, you know?"
O'Korn transferred to Michigan for a second chance and sat out a year while learning from his old friend and fellow St. Thomas Aquinas graduate Jake Rudock before hitting his next setback. O'Korn lost a battle for the starting job he was expected to win in 2016. Confidence was still an issue. So was the idea that he had to prove he was good, rather than proving he could run a good offense.
The next chance came last November when Speight was sidelined with a shoulder injury. His "juice" that day was what he saw as his "Cardale Jones moment." He had watched the Ohio State quarterback come off the bench the previous year and show off a big arm en route to a national title. O'Korn was now in the middle of a team clinging to College Football Playoff hopes and wanted to make a big splash.
The pressure hurt him. The weather didn't help either on a snowy day in Ann Arbor. He broke one long, momentum-shifting run in the second half that helped Michigan beat Indiana, but to most his performance through the air served as a reminder of why Speight won the job in training camp.
"I would've liked to get a few throws back from that game," O'Korn said with almost a full year of hindsight. "I think maybe I pressed a little too much, tried to make the big play a little too much instead of just letting things come to me."
It didn't seem then that he'd get another shot at being remembered as more of the quarterback who showed great promise as a freshman than the guy who eventually lost his job the following year. But he managed to hang on to his No. 2 spot on the depth chart this summer and now has one more opening to prove himself.
There are plenty of motivational narratives for O'Korn in the coming weeks -- plenty of ways that he can put himself in the protagonist role of a comeback story. Michigan State is a heated rival. After that he gets another shot at Indiana, the team that robbed him of his Cardale Jones moment. Then comes a trip to Penn State, a half-hour down the road from his childhood home. The O'Korns grew up cheering for the Nittany Lions, and John was considering playing there before Penn State's former staff decided to go with Christian Hackenberg in that recruiting class.
Those storylines would have filled O'Korn's head and heaped pressure on him in past years. They wormed their way into his thinking against Purdue as well. Now he has to show that he can move beyond that. With time and maturation behind him -- and the bonus of a bit of breathing room in front of him thanks to Speight's extended time on the sideline -- he has a chance to keep his focus elsewhere. His job is simple: win games.
This time it's not about him. If this time is going to be different, that'll have to be his juice.