ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Mark Palyo trusted Wilton Speight enough to make the call. To make several critical calls, in fact. That’s what coaches do with their quarterback.
Even their ninth-grade quarterback.
Speight, Michigan’s new starting quarterback, played for Palyo at The Collegiate School in Richmond, Va. He didn’t regard Speight simply as another ninth-grader taking snaps. He saw something special in Speight.
Palyo saw a quarterback who went with his instincts, and exhibited an unusual maturity and poise for an athlete still more than two years away from earning his driver’s license.
Six years ago, Palyo was so confident in the 15-year-old Speight that he played him during a varsity preseason scrimmage. In the back of his mind, Palyo feared that Speight, a lanky freshman, would be broken in two by linemen who weighed twice as much as he did.
“I needed to put him in,” Palyo said recently. “He needed to go against the other team’s ones. But his poise in the pocket, from that very young age, it was there. He stood there, he delivered the ball, he took some great hits — but his poise, that was great, especially for a freshman.”
This fall, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh saw that same poise in his redshirt sophomore, and Speight was rewarded for it.
Announced as Michigan’s starting quarterback the second before he stepped on the field Sept. 3 at Michigan Stadium, Speight recovered from getting his first pass intercepted to lead Michigan to a 63-3 win over Hawaii.
“There was never a time heading into the game or after that first interception where I was looking over my shoulder,” Speight said after the win over Hawaii. “Coach has played the position. He knows that if a quarterback doesn’t perform at a high level, he’s worried about being replaced after one bad play. I knew he was going to be cool about it and he was just really happy (after the interception), big smile on his face, which gave me more confidence.”
Speight’s start ended an offseason of speculation surrounding the position. It went right down to the 11th hour. Michigan didn’t announce its starting lineups prior to a noon kickoff against Hawaii and didn’t even distribute a depth chart in the days leading up to the season opener. Even a few Michigan players said they were in the dark about whether Speight or Houston transfer John O’Korn would start.
“Up to a few days ago, maybe a week ago, they were splitting reps,” Michigan center Mason Cole said Saturday. “You never know, things can change so fast. But going into this game knowing he was going to be the quarterback, we were all confident in him.”
After that interception, Speight could have folded under the instant pressure. But like a seasoned golfer — and Speight gave up his hobby of golf to concentrate on being a quarterback — simply moved onto the next opportunity. On Michigan’s next offensive series, he guided the Wolverines to an 11-play, 98-yard touchdown drive. Speight finished 10-for-13 passing for 145 yards and three touchdowns.
“Wilton’s a brush-it-off kind of guy,” said Michigan wide receiver Grant Perry, who caught a 12-yard touchdown from Speight to give the Wolverines a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter.
“Honestly, we didn’t give him a hard time. We just said, ‘Come on, let’s go, next drive, let’s get it.’ He wasn’t distraught by that at all. He came right back on the field and you saw that 98-yard drive. That was all good. That’s a good sign.”
Watch Speight’s first touchdown pass, courtesy of the Big Ten Network and ESPN:
When Speight was a backup to Jake Rudock in 2015, Perry also saw that Speight didn’t go his own way in pursuit of becoming a better quarterback.
“He went under Jake Rudock’s wing,” Perry said. “He really watched what Rudock did and studied a lot of film. He was always in the film room, trying to get better, asking him to throw every day, so his preparation, leading up to the season through camp, is really what set him apart.”
The night before his first collegiate start, Speight prepared, just as he did to earn the job of starting quarterback. The pregame jitters didn’t keep Speight awake.
“I went in to the hotel (Friday) night thinking, ‘Wow, I’m not gonna sleep until 1 or 2 a.m,’ ” Speight said. “I was just chilling in the room, going over game plan stuff with (John) O’Korn. He left at like 9:30 and then I just knocked out a little bit before 10.”
Speight got a good night’s sleep, then woke up early, a few hours before the noon kickoff against Hawaii.
Then, like he did a few years ago as a fresh-faced high schooler in central Virginia, Speight simply remained poised.
“Wilton wants to see his team succeed,” Palyo said. “He wants to do what he needs to do for his team to be first.”
Rachel Lenzi covers Michigan sports for Landof10.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @RLenziCMG