Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight doesn’t need to be told who will start under center for the Wolverines this weekend. He said last week that, in time, the answer becomes easy to see.
“You just kind of read body language and how practice is going and stuff like that,” Speight said a week ago as he casually and confidently fielded questions about a months-long competition for the job. “I think guys will have a certain mindset going into the game. You just kind of feel it out.”
The 6-foot-6 redshirt sophomore has grown from not much more than an afterthought at the start of Jim Harbaugh’s tenure to his spot at the forefront of the battle to lead Michigan’s offense this season. Speight’s path has been a steady, step-by-step climb toward what seems more and more like the apparent answer at quarterback, even if Harbaugh and Michigan plan to keep their decision under their lids until Saturday’s first snap against Hawaii.
Speight’s whole quarterbacking career has been marked by milestones of trial, error and a growing confidence.
Let’s go way back. During his freshman year at the Collegiate School in Richmond, Virginia, Speight was called up to the varsity squad to serve as a backup. Mark Palyo, the school’s football coach and dean of students, remembers trying to get his rookie a little experience during garbage time of a well in-hand game. It didn’t begin will.
The gangly freshman took over with his offense pinned inside its own 20. On his second snap, he tripped over an offensive lineman, stumbled backwards and came within a few inches of falling into the end zone for a safety. Palyo called for four hook routes on the following play to get some punting room. Speight threw to the right. The receiver slipped a tackle and ran free for a school-record 99-yard touchdown receptoin.
“I absolutely think [it sparked a new level of confidence],” Palyo said. “You could see him grow and mature each and every year.”
One step back. A big step forward.
Speight struggled to gain traction during his first season at Michigan. A groin injury kept him from doing much at all during the spring, Harbaugh's first at Michigan. As the semester wrapped up, Speight started to wonder if Ann Arbor was the right place for him, according to California-based quarterback trainer Steve Clarkson, who has worked with Speight since his high school days.
“There was a time when he was contemplating leaving,” Clarkson said. “He had a conversation with Coach Harbaugh and Coach just said, ‘Hell, why are you thinking of leaving? You didn’t even get a chance to compete all spring. That essentially gave him confidence that he just needed to show what he can do. Since that conversation Wilton has taken that to heart and he sort of ran with it.”
Another rung closer to his current comfort level, Speight returned in August for fall camp and climbed his way up to No. 2 on the depth chart behind Jake Rudock. He appeared in six games last season, but none more pivotal than the second half of a dramatic win in Minnesota on Halloween night.
There, he connected with Jehu Chesson for a 12-yard touchdown pass to give Michigan a 29-26 lead in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. He and passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch have both pointed to the fourth-quarter drive as a turning point in Speight’s belief that he can be a big-time college quarterback.
“He’s taken on the maturity, he’s taken on a lot of responsibility,” Fisch said this August. “The obvious game against Minnesota gave him a kind of confidence. He’s excited that that’s not going to be the only touchdown he ever throws for Michigan, and I think that’s his mindset, that that’s not going to be my last touchdown.”
Speight set about creating more opportunities for touchdown passes by taking football more seriously this summer. He tucked away the golf clubs (he’s a three or four handicap and still managed to shoot a 74 in a rare round in late July) he used to take out almost daily a year ago. He instead spent his summer splitting time between the film room in Schembechler Hall and Southern California, where he worked out with Clarkson and several other major college quarterbacks.
The extra worked helped Speight slow down the offense when he got back onto the field in training camp. He said last week that he could run plays that were a blur to him last fall and now figure out where the ball needed to be before a receiver came open. The difference was clear to him and to his teammates.
“Him coming into his own truly happened during this camp, I think,” All-America tight end Jake Butt said. “After week one or week two he really started to take ownership of his job, his assignment and really the whole entire offense. He’s able to make guys right when they’re wrong. That’s part of being a quarterback.”
Everyone who knows Speight seems to point to a different watershed moment for the young quarterback. They all add up to a guy who looked and sounded like he was ready to lead a top 10-ranked team as Michigan’s camp wound to a close last week. After a while, you don’t need anyone to tell you who will be starting at quarterback. It becomes easy to see.