Wilton Speight began this season as an unexpected starting quarterback for one of the top teams in the nation, but he could be one of the most important players on any roster in the country in 2017.
Speight had a solid first season for Michigan, improving as the year progressed before a rough night in Iowa City and a shoulder injury. He missed a game against Indiana, but returned, likely at less than 100 percent, to face Ohio State. Speight is expected to be ready Dec. 30 to face Florida State in the Orange Bowl.
While he was a new face on a team loaded with seniors and returning starters, the opposite will be true next season. Speight’s development and ability to guide a relatively young team could be a huge part of helping keep the Wolverines among the national title contenders in 2017.
“I know what he is capable of,” said Steve Clarkson, one of the top personal quarterback coaches in the country, who has worked with Speight since he was 15 years old. “I think it was more of a surprise for people to watch him play on a regular basis for the first time and see all of the little nuances that he provides.
“He moves really well. He make all the throws. The thing that really gravitated me toward thinking he’s going to be a top pick some day is just how he carries himself. Everyone talks about the ‘it’ factor, and he has that. If you ever hear him doing interviews, for an older guy like myself, he sounds like a young Jack Kemp. He’s so charismatic. He just has a way of making people around him feel better about themselves.”
After Michigan won 10 games in Jim Harbaugh’s first season with Iowa transfer Jake Rudock at quarterback, there was a competition between Speight, Houston transfer John O’Korn and former 5-star recruit Shane Morris leading into 2016.
O’Korn had started for Houston, and Morris was a prep superstar, but Speight won the job and didn’t have a bad game until Iowa. He threw an interception on his first pass against Hawaii, but then had 15 touchdowns and just two more picks in the first nine games.
As the season progressed, Michigan added more formations and more opportunities for Speight to show off his big arm. The offensive line’s protection sagged at times, but he showed off his ability to shrug off defenders and still make throws downfield.
“I feel like he’s always been deceptively fast to people,” said Mark Palyo, Speight’s high school coach in Richmond, Va. Palyo was also Russell Wilson’s high school offensive coordinator. “Maybe in high school, his first couple of steps weren’t as quick, but once he got going, he always had good running ability, an ability to make people miss. Defenders just sort of roll off him.
“I had always thought, ‘Wait until he starts using his legs. He’s going to surprise people.’ When I was at the Colorado game, I said that to someone there. I said, ‘He hasn’t even started using his legs yet. Just wait.’ I love seeing him be able to do that.”
He’s not going to be a dual-threat quarterback, and Michigan isn’t going to start running option plays for Speight. But his athleticism is a huge plus and helps him prolong broken plays. That might happen a lot more in 2017, because Michigan will be younger on the offensive line and could be a lot younger if Mason Cole leaves for the NFL.
Big Ben, Version 2.0
Clarkson started comparing Speight to Ben Roethlisberger when he was a high school sophomore in Richmond. The physical comparisons are obvious. Roethlisberger is also well-known for extending plays and finding creative ways to avoid defenders without being particularly quick or fast. Palyo grew up in Pittsburgh, and remains a big Steelers fan, so he enjoys the comparison.
Speight doesn’t duck it, either. His confidence has served him well. Since Speight arrived at Michigan as a 3-star prospect and the No. 22 pro-style quarterback in the Class of 2014, according to the 247Sports composite, the Wolverines have added three 4-star quarterbacks to the roster and a fourth will join in 2017.
If Speight plays well against Florida State, there will be no question about who plays quarterback for the Wolverines next year. Anyone who thought he might just be a placeholder until Brandon Peters or Dylan McCaffrey is ready might end up being mistaken.
“His intellect is so great, and what coach Harbaugh runs is not easy,” Clarkson said. “The terminology is NFL-caliber, and he’s an NFL coach. It’s not the flashcards and what not. It’s not an easy task, especially for someone who came into the season with not a whole lot of experience at that level. But he’s come in and every week he’s gotten better and better. It also takes a guy like coach Harbaugh, who has coached and played the position better than most. He understands all of the nuances and he saw that Wilton was picking all of those things up.”
Several veteran teammates praised Speight for his leadership skills. Obviously every team wants the quarterback to be a leader. This team has 43 seniors on the roster, and multiyear, impact players like Jabrill Peppers and Cole who aren’t.
Transitioning from the mindset of “Will I win the starting job?” to “leader for a bunch of kids that are older than me,’ isn’t easy, but it doesn’t seem to have been much of a problem for Speight.
“Once the spotlight hit me. it wasn’t like, ‘OK, have to change who I am now,’ ” Speight said. “I was going to be who I was. I wanted to be ready for it. That’s something that parents always told me and reiterated to me. In high school, there was a spotlight, but it wasn’t like this. I always told myself, ‘I can’t change who I am once I’m here, talk to (the media). It’s gotta be who I am. I tried to be the best person I could be when I was a fifth-string quarterback. And now that I’m a starter, it’s the same thing.”
As Clarkson indicated, Speight is a charismatic guy, engaging and candid. Just this season, Speight has detailed the story of how he almost transferred from Michigan and gave a thoughtful response on his future teammate’s older brother, Christian McCaffrey, skipping his bowl game.
While many players and coaches will say they don’t read what the media writes about them or their team, Speight playfully called out a beat writer during a discussion late in the season about his journey from fifth-string and near-transfer to starter.
“You were on the John O’Korn train in the spring,” he said. “That’s alright.”
Take 2 with Harbaugh
Clarkson believes Speight will be a high pick in the NFL draft at some point. Between Clarkson and Harbaugh, it’s hard to argue anyone in the country provides better quarterback tutelage. Speight speaks with Clarkson once or twice a week, and visits with him 5-6 times per year.
Speight could become the fourth college quarterback (fifth overall, counting Colin Kaepernick in the NFL) to start more than one season with Harbaugh as his head coach. They all improved in Year 2.
Andrew Luck became a Heisman Trophy runner-up in his second season with Harbaugh. Kaepernick took over the middle of the previous season with the 49ers, but became an NFL star in his first full year playing for Harbaugh. Speight had a better first season than Luck, though he had plenty more talent around him.
Speight was clearly getting more comfortable later in the season until the injury. Next season he’ll start the campaign without his top three receiving targets, and a much younger group will look to him for guidance and leadership.
“I’m not surprised because Wilton was always I guy who wanted to understand everything that is going on,” Palyo said. “Once he understood everything in terms of your own system — what you want, the defense, coverages they’re in and understanding his reads and go-tos — the better he understands all of that, the better he was able to perform. I think he always prepares with that mindset.”