ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight heard the calls from the stands when he was a high school quarterback in central Virginia.
“You’re not Russell!” fans shouted at him.
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson was one of Speight’s predecessors at The Collegiate School, a private school in Richmond.
“You’re not Jake!” others cried.
Jake McGee, a quarterback-turned-tight end who is now with the San Diego Chargers, was another one of Speight’s predecessors.
To a teenager with only a driver’s license, friends and football, those words could have stung. But Speight chose to shield himself early. Yet Speight had to prove that he wasn’t Russell Wilson. Or Jake McGee. He had to prove that he was Wilton Speight.
“There were articles, too, saying, ‘he can’t do this or that,’” Speight said Tuesday. “And that’s kind of where I developed it and got good at it. And then here as a redshirt, and then kind of written off as being the guy by everyone, I’m just kind of natural at it now.”
By placing an emphasis on consistency, preparation and structure, Speight has become Michigan’s starting quarterback. Speight may not be the flashiest quarterback in the Big Ten, but he is one of the most efficient. Entering Saturday’s game at Michigan State, Michigan’s redshirt sophomore is tied for second in the conference in pass efficiency with Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett at 150.8 (Maryland’s Perry Hills is first at 151.8).
That efficiency, explained Fox Sports 1 college football analyst Joel Klatt, is also a benefit of being a quarterback who is malleable and athletic enough to play in a certain system — without the crutch of being labeled a “system quarterback.”
“I see room for growth for him,” Klatt, a quarterback at Colorado from 2002-05, told Landof10.com on Wednesday. “I don’t see Wilton Speight as a guy where you say, ‘we have to put the game plan on his shoulders.’ As he develops, incrementally, everything else will develop. He’s going to play better and better and better, and the quarterback, more than any other position in sports, is 100 percent about reps.
“And he’s an athletic player, a very good player. I don’t know if Michigan will require him to be more than a role player in the system, but that’s not a knock on Speight at all. That’s about what’s required of being a quarterback in Jim Harbaugh’s system.”
That goal of consistency, and learning from patterns, doesn’t just permeate Speight’s approach to football. It’s become a part of his life, too. From what time he wakes up in the morning to when he schedules his classes and even to when he goes to bed, Speight is a creature of habit.
“It really starts from off the field and kind of moves onto the field,” Michigan passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch said. “He’s a guy that does, really, everything you want him to do. He’s told me that weekends haven’t really changed his schedule anymore. He’s kind of programmed his body and himself, starting in training camp. What time he woke up in training camp is still the same time he wakes up now.
“He probably lives a very clean, consistent life and because of that, it’s parlayed into his football.”
Along with his remarkable consistency, Speight’s ability to protect the ball, Klatt said, also helped him win the starting job at Michigan. He has a minuscule 2 interceptions in 182 pass attempts while throwing for 1,447 yards and 13 scores in seven games.
“In today’s college football, we get too enthralled with yards and touchdowns, and we forget about interception percentage and turnover-to-touchdown ratio,” Klatt said. “When I looked, last year, what made Jake Rudock so effective, outside of that game at Utah, was that he took care of the ball, and that’s why he won that job. And when people thought this year would go in a different direction, it’s why Wilton won the job.”
Speight points to another factor that’s helped him develop consistency on the field: Chemistry with the offense, in particular his receivers and teammates.
“Knowing where they’re going to be at all times and knowing what I’m doing, pre-snap, every play,” Speight said. “I can’t go into a game unsure of a play here or there. There’s no room for that.”
But that chemistry wasn’t just something that magically appeared. Speight had to work to create it and to sustain it as part of the offense. That took some critical thinking and some elbow grease.
During Michigan’s bye week in the middle of this month, Speight said he watched every throw he made in Michigan’s first six games. All 159 of them. As he watched, he took notes by hand, first on his own throws, and then on patterns and routes and schemes.
He wanted to play better within the offense. He wanted to stop aiming the ball and wanted to become better at throwing instinctively.
“That’s a quarterback’s worst nightmare, when you’re sitting back there with guys collapsing around you and you’re worried about aiming where the ball goes,” Speight said.
“You just drop back and you don’t say, ‘I need to put it right here or else it’s going to be incomplete. You just let it rip. No college quarterback is in college playing because they aimed the ball growing up. They let it rip, and that’s my focus. The more starts I got under my belt, the more comfortable I was getting.”
And he certainly looked comfortable the following game, completing 16 of 23 passes for 253 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions in last week’s 41-8 win over Illinois.
Instead of quarterbacking on a high school field, Speight is doing his work at Michigan Stadium, which holds more than 100,000 people — roughly the size of college towns such as Berkeley, Calif., or South Bend, Ind. Speight’s the quarterback for the No. 2 team on the country, and success like his could become a distraction or swell someone’s ego.
But when he heard those taunts as a teenager in Virginia, it taught him to do something else. To phase out the noise.
Earlier this season, when addressing his Michigan teammates, he chose a word: Blinders. Like what a racehorse wears as it rounds a dirt-track oval.
“The racehorse, they’ve got the blinders on; they don’t worry about what’s going on in the outside world, what the media’s saying, what other coaches or other players are saying on Twitter,” Speight said. “They just worry about their own lane. That was my message.”
2016: Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight, by the numbers
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