University of Michigan football has a long, storied history. Some of the most famous college football players have been Wolverines, and no position draws more attention in Ann Arbor than the quarterback slot.

Let us now take a look back in time to determine the 10 greatest QBs who played in the Big House. This includes a few names fans will know very well -- including a certain seven-time Super Bowl champion – as well as current Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh.

While some of these names will be familiar, others might have flown under the radar. In any case, it’s time to determine the best quarterbacks ever to represent Big Blue.

Who is the starting quarterback for Michigan in 2023?

J.J. McCarthy is one of the best quarterbacks that Michigan’s football program has had in recent years. He emerged as a starter in 2022 with 21 passing touchdowns and over 2,700 passing yards. He also put up 402 rushing yards and another five TDs on the ground.

The Wolverines are extremely excited about what McCarthy might do for the team this season, as Michigan hopes to build on its 2022 College Football Playoff appearance.

Who are the Michigan Wolverines’ backup quarterbacks in 2023?

Graduate student Jack Tuttle came in from Indiana via the transfer portal, but he faces strong competition on the roster when it comes to serving as the main backup to J.J. McCarthy.

Among the available backup quarterbacks for the 2023 Wolverines, redshirt sophomore Davis Warren is the most experienced in terms of time at Michigan. He’s a former walk-on who has impressed and ascended through the ranks since joining the team.

Warren is followed on the depth chart by two redshirt freshmen in Jayden Denegal and Alex Orji. Both are former three-star recruits looking to work their way into a future starting job.

History of Michigan Quarterbacks

The Michigan Wolverines football program has produced some great quarterbacks during its history, including Heisman trophy finalists and First Team All-Americans.

Of course, Tom Brady is the most famous former Wolverines QB, but there have been several who performed just as well as he did in a Michigan uniform and some who were even better. Let’s not forget that Brady was only picked in the NFL Draft’s sixth round and was often overlooked until he started his rapid ascension in the NFL.

Beyond Brady, you’ll find that great players such as current Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, legendary two-sport star Rick Leach, and long-term starter Chad Henne have all played major roles through the years as Michigan’s QB

Active Michigan Quarterbacks in the NFL

There are currently no former Michigan quarterbacks on active rosters or practice squads in the NFL. Of course, that only recently became the case as a result of Tom Brady’s retirement.

Until he waved goodbye to the game this year, Brady represented the Wolverines for two decades at the very top of the NFL game. He needs no introduction and will be spoken of as one of the greatest players in the history of football for as long as the game is played.

Ranking the Top 10 Greatest Michigan Quarterbacks of All Time

  1. Dennis Franklin

Seasons with Michigan: 1971 to 1974

The first former Michigan quarterback on this list is Dennis Franklin -- a fantastic operator in the Michigan offense who compiled an impressive 30-2-1 record. With only two losses to his name, Franklin’s years with the team involved a ton of success. The Wolverines tied Ohio State for the Big Ten Conference championship in three consecutive seasons between 1972 and 1974. Franklin led the team in passing and total offense in each year of that run.

Despite his record of success, Franklin’s only standout collegiate honor came in 1974, when he made the All-Big Ten First Team. The Detroit Lions selected Franklin with a sixth-round pick in the 1975 NFL Draft. He played as a wide receiver in the NFL but only managed to see nine games of action, finishing his career with 125 receiving yards.

  1. Bob Timberlake

Seasons with Michigan: 1962 to 1964

Assessing football players who competed in the middle of the 20th century is no easy task, since the game has become almost an entirely different sport. Bob Timberlake makes this list, however, thanks to his successful years as a starter for the Wolverines between 1962 and 1964. Timberlake was not like many others on this list, because he doesn’t rank among the top 10 in any of Michigan’s career passing categories. He is also the only one who can claim to have won games with his foot.

Timberlake wasn’t just a quarterback. He was also a placekicker who hit six field goals and 36 extra points during his Michigan career. Those kicking totals live alongside his career numbers of 1,507 passing yards, 19 touchdowns and 315 rushing yards. Timberlake could do it all, which was a great help to the Wolverines team he led to a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl championship in 1964. His final season ended with his being named to the All-America First Team, being voted the Big Ten MVP, and placing fourth in Heisman Trophy voting.

Sadly, there was not much joy for the former Michigan football quarterback in the NFL. The New York Giants drafted him and used him as a kicker, but he underwhelmed at the pro level and was released just one year after he was drafted.

  1. Denard Robinson

Seasons with Michigan: 2009 to 2012

Denard Robinson began his college years with a bang -- taking his first-ever snap for a 43-yard rushing touchdown. He went on to have an incredible college career and is remembered as one of the most impressive offensive weapons a Michigan team ever had. Not only did Robinson throw for 6,336 yards – the fifth-best career passing total in school history -- but he also rushed for 4,495 career yards. His huge rushing numbers rank second in Michigan history and set an NCAA Division I career record for quarterbacks.

As a true star in both the passing and running game, Robinson unsurprisingly holds his fair share of records. His combined career total of 10,745 yards smashed the former Michigan record. During the 2010 season alone, he logged a Big Ten record of 4,272 total yards. Robinson had 2,570 passing yards and 1,702 rushing yards that year.

Robinson won Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year for his incredible 2010 season and was also honored as a First Team All-American. In 2011, he made the All-Big Ten Second Team.

Unfortunately, Robinson’s Michigan success did not translate to the pro level. He spent only four years as an NFL running back with the Jacksonville Jaguars, totaling 1,058 yards and five touchdowns.

  1. Elvis Grbac

Seasons with Michigan: 1989 to 1992

Elvis Grbac enjoyed a successful college career at Michigan, taking the team to three Big Ten titles and two Rose Bowl games (winning one). His success as a starter was evidenced by the team winning the Big Ten title in each of his three seasons in that role.

In addition to the team's overall success, Grbac was instrumental in helping wide receiver Desmond Howard win the Heisman Trophy in 1991. Howard didn’t break the 1,000-yard mark, but he did have an impressive 19 touchdown receptions that year. The best-known play involving the two came on Sept. 14, 1991, when Grbac’s fourth-and-1 pass was taken to the end zone by Howard, enabling the Wolverines to defeat Notre Dame.

By the time he ended his college career, Grbac held school records in most passing categories. As a senior, he set Michigan’s single-season record for touchdown passes with 25. He was also honored as a First Team All-Big Ten quarterback in each of his three years as a starter.

Selected by San Francisco in the eighth round of the 1993 NFL Draft, Grbac was a 49ers backup QB before spending four years as the Kansas City Chiefs’ starter. He had great success with the Chiefs, leading them to two playoff appearances and winning a division title.

  1. Tom Brady

Seasons with Michigan: 1996 to 1999

If this list only involved players’ performances at the professional level, Tom Brady would be right at the top. His incredible 23 NFL seasons yielded seven Super Bowl rings, five Super Bowl MVP awards, and three NFL MVP Awards -- making him one of the most successful pro athletes of all time. Brady’s college career was slightly more modest, which leads to a lower ranking here, but there is no doubt that he was the greatest Michigan alum to ever play quarterback in the NFL.

Brady began his time at Michigan as a backup to Brian Griese. After Griese’s departure, it was Brady’s turn to lead the Wolverines, and he did so in fine fashion. In his two seasons as a starter, Brady came close to breaking school records for single-season passing yards. His 2,636 yards in 1998 came closest and still sits as the ninth-highest one-season total by a Wolverine quarterback. He also ranks 10th in career touchdown passes and runs by a Wolverines player with 35.

Now the most famous former Michigan quarterback, Brady led the school to bowl game victories in both 1998 and 1999. In his first year as a starter, the Wolverines shared the Big Ten title before beating Arkansas in the Citrus Bowl. Brady’s college finale came in the 1999 Orange Bowl, where he helped Michigan to an overtime win against Alabama, throwing for 369 yards and four touchdowns.

  1. Chad Henne

Seasons with Michigan: 2004 to 2007

Chad Henne started a lot of games for the Michigan football program, performing as the team’s starting quarterback from 2004 to 2007. Any four-year college starter will generate big career numbers, which is exactly what Henne did. He still holds the Michigan record for career passing yards with 9,715. He also has the record for most career touchdown passes with 87. His touchdown total is 15 better than John Navarre, who comes in second, and demonstrates just how impressive Henne was during his time with the Wolverines.

Henne found himself playing in his first-ever game at Michigan as a result of injuries to the quarterbacks ahead of him on the depth chart. The Wolverines went on to win that game 43-10 with Henne throwing two touchdown passes. That made him just the second true freshman in Michigan history to start on opening day. He went on to pass for a very impressive 2,743 yards as a freshman, which would end up being his best statistical year.

The highlight of Henne’s college career came in 2007. That year, he led the Wolverines to the Capital One Bowl championship and was named to the All-Big Ten First Team. Henne went on to be picked by the Miami Dolphins in the second round of the 2008 NFL Draft. Although he could never quite make it work as an NFL starter, he has found success with the Kansas City Chiefs as the backup to Patrick Mahomes. It’s a nice supporting role that has enabled him to win two Super Bowl rings.

  1. Harry Newman

Seasons with Michigan: 1930 to 1932

We go back to the early 20th century for our No. 4 quarterback. Harry Newman led Michigan to one of its 11 national championships as a senior back in 1932.

Newman finished his three college seasons with a record of 24-1-2. Like most players in those days, he spent time playing other positions, including halfback. His most memorable season was the national-championship 1932 campaign, when he was honored as a unanimous First Team All-American. During that season, he was on the field for 437 of Michigan’s 480 total game minutes.

Newman went on to a successful professional career, taking the New York Giants to the NFL championship game in his rookie season. The Giants would lose to Chicago, but Newman wrote his name into the history books by throwing the first touchdown pass in a title game. He had even more success the following year -- leading the Giants in both passing and rushing as New York went on to win the NFL championship in 1934.

  1. Jim Harbaugh

Seasons with Michigan: 1983 to 1986

Jim Harbaugh is always one of the first names that comes up when discussing the Michigan Wolverines -- partly because he is their current head coach. However, his time as Michigan’s coach was preceded by a long career playing and coaching at both the college and professional levels.

After taking on a backup role during his first two college seasons, Harbaugh took over as Michigan’s starting QB in 1985. He got off to a fast start, leading the team to an upset victory over the defending national champion Miami Hurricanes. That win acted as a springboard for a celebrated college career that saw Harbaugh frequently break records. During his final season, Harbaugh became the first Michigan quarterback to throw for more than 300 yards in a game -- breaking his own single-game record at the same time.

Over his college career, Harbaugh passed for a total of 5,400 yards and 31 touchdowns. Some 2,557 of those yards came during a standout senior year that saw him finish third in Heisman voting after being chosen for the 1986 All-Big Ten First Team. Harbaugh was also named the 1986 Big Ten Player of the Year.

Harbaugh played for several teams in his NFL career, amassing 26,288 passing yards, 129 touchdowns, and a Pro Bowl appearance. He went on to a successful coaching career at Stanford and in the NFL before being named Michigan’s head coach on Dec. 30, 2014.

  1. Benny Friedman

Seasons with Michigan: 1925 To 1926

Benny Friedman is another early 20th century player on this list whose career stats pale in comparison to those put up by players from later eras. Nevertheless, his impact on the Wolverines program -- and his place in University of Michigan history -- cannot be underrated.

Friedman was part of a very successful period for the Wolverines, and his exceptional play even tempted legendary coach Fielding Yost to come out of retirement so he could work with him. After playing at halfback for part of the 1924 season, Friedman was named the team’s starting quarterback and kicker for 1925, while also playing some defensive positions.

After moving to quarterback, Friedman led Michigan to back-to-back Big Ten titles and became the first and only Wolverines quarterback ever named an All-American for two seasons.

Friedman’s impact on Michigan football can be perfectly summed up by the team’s Nov. 13, 1926, game at Ohio State, when Friedman threw two touchdown passes and kicked the game-winning extra point in a 17-16 victory.

A successful NFL career landed Friedman in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as well as the College Football Hall of Fame. He was a four-time First Team All-Pro who threw 66 touchdown passes and rushed for 18 more TDs during his pro career.

  1. Rick Leach

Seasons with Michigan: 1975 to 1978

Rick Leach was Michigan’s highest-achieving quarterback, because he led the Wolverines to three consecutive Big Ten titles from 1977 to 1979. A versatile athlete who also starred in baseball, Leach had 4,284 career passing yards and 2,176 career rushing yards.

Overall passing numbers were not as high in the 1970s as they are today, so Leach actually falls outside the top 10 on Michigan’s career passing-yardage list. That, however, only makes it more impressive that he ranks fifth all-time in career passing touchdowns. His 48 TD throws stand out among a group of other top 10 players who mostly competed after the 1990s. Leach also had 34 rushing touchdowns at Michigan.

His coach at Michigan was the legendary Bo Schembechler, who claimed that Leach was the greatest quarterback he ever had on one of his teams. Leach finished third in the 1976 Heisman Trophy voting and was named to the quarterback position on the All-Big Ten First Team three times. He was also named the Big Ten’s Most Valuable Player for 1978 after breaking almost all the existing Michigan football passing records.

Ironically, Leach never made it to the NFL because he instead opted to pursue a baseball career. He went on to play in 799 MLB games for the Tigers, Blue Jays, Rangers, and Giants.

Even though he chose to play baseball after college, he is a true football legend -- the greatest Michigan quarterback of all time.

Parameters for Ranking

These Michigan quarterbacks have been ranked based on their success in the program alone. Hall of Fame careers and success in the NFL have been mentioned to respect each player’s career journey, but these factors did not impact the final rankings.


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