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Wilton Speight keeps steady hand in first year as Michigan's starting QB

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Wilton Speight sat between Michigan teammates Taco Charlton and Jabrill Peppers on Saturday night listening to them field questions about a dominant defensive performance and an electric homecoming for Peppers.

Speight didn't need to add much.

The first-year starting quarterback for the Wolverines had thrown a touchdown pass (a well-placed lob to the end zone in the first quarter) and compiled 100 yards through the air before watching the second half of a 78-0 blowout over Rutgers from the sideline. He was more or less an afterthought in the shadow of Peppers' two touchdowns and a defense that didn't surrender a first down until long after the starters had departed.

"Not much was asked from the passing game," Speight said. "We were able to get a couple touchdown passes up on the board, but not really needed today."

Speight could hardly have hoped for a smoother start to his career as a starter at Michigan. He's the pilot of a souped-up, undefeated offense averaging 50 points per game through the first half of the season. His biggest contribution to date was the 312 yards and four touchdowns he posted against a Central Florida team that decided it wasn't going to let the Wolverines beat them on the ground.

The redshirt sophomore has had time to develop, and he has been there when his team needed him. History would lead Michigan to believe the future is bright as Speight and his team pause for a bye week at the season's halfway point.

"He's making really good decisions, which is obviously the first thing you look for in a guy who's in his first year starting," passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch said a week ago. "So far, so good. But the next half of the season will be another test."

Breaking in the new guy has become old hat for Fisch. He has worked with a different starter at quarterback in each of the last seven seasons at various stops in college and the NFL. Most of them have either been first-year starters or quarterbacks learning a new offensive system. Most of them improved steadily while learning on the fly.

A year ago at this time, Fisch and graduate transfer Jake Rudock were just finding their rhythm together. Rudock threw more interceptions than touchdowns in his first seven games in a Wolverines uniform before getting an off week. After the bye, he threw 15 touchdowns and three interceptions while passing for 1,714 yards.

Former Miami quarterback Stephen Morris may be the most analogous to Speight on Fisch's recent list. He was a third-year player when he took over the Hurricanes' offense from Jacory Harris during Fisch's second season with the program. Morris' touchdown-to-interception ratio jumped from 9-to-4 in the first half of the year to 12-to-3 in the second.

Michigan's coaches have said consistently this season that all of their quarterbacks are ahead of the pace the group set last fall. Speight has thrown 11 touchdowns so far this season and only two interceptions, one of which came on the first attempt of the year.

Fisch said no two players during this seven-year stretch have followed the same template, but he has found ways to proficiently adjust to new guys and help them develop throughout the course of a year.

"Everyone's mentally at a different place, everyone's physically a little bit different, so [we] just try to continue to find what the quarterback for the year can do and try to build off that," he said.

One byproduct of the regular turnover is that Fisch now has a well-indexed library of clips from NFL quarterbacks organized by certain issues that can crop up for a developing quarterback. He splices together 10 to 15 veteran examples of a particular point of emphasis each week for Speight and the rest of Michigan's quarterbacks.

Speight turns to clips from the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger frequently because of their similar ability to buy time thanks to their size. Both are at least 6-foot-5 and over 240 pounds. He said he has been happy so far this season with his ability to extend plays and take shots down the field, but he'd like to be more efficient in the second half of the season.

With more road trips and a slightly more challenging slate in the coming months, not all weeks will be like the trip to Rutgers for Speight. If No. 4 Michigan is going to continue chasing a championship or remain unbeaten, there's a good chance it will need to call on Speight for a few big plays at some point. He said he's looking forward to that chance with the same focus on steady improvement he has had for the past year.

"It's how I've been the whole time," he said. "From last spring when no one really thought I was going to be the starter to going into camp as the No. 1 guy. Then here at 5-0; never too high, never too low and just kind of keep moving on in the journey."