Meet Wilton Speight: The Man Holding the Keys to the Michigan Offense

Ben AxelrodBig Ten Lead WriterSeptember 7, 2016

Sep 3, 2016; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines quarterback Wilton Speight (3) passes in the first quarter against the Hawaii Warriors at Michigan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

It took all of one play for Wilton Speight to get Michigan fans to do the impossible: question Jim Harbaugh.

Taking over at the Wolverines' own 29-yard line less than two minutes into their season opener against Hawaii on Saturday, Speight jogged out to the field with the first-team offense for a moment he's been waiting more than two years for.

Finally a starting quarterback at the college level, the redshirt sophomore's first duty—after receiving some pregame slaps from his head coach—would be to execute a play-action pass to his right in an attempt to find tight end Jake Butt for a short gain.

He executed the fake and ensuing rollout to near perfection, but when it came time to lob the pass to his All-American target, he didn't quite get enough air under the ball.

Intercepted.

"Obviously [that] wasn't the start I was imagining," Speight said after the game.

Perhaps at that moment, Michigan fans, so desperate to maintain the momentum of last year's 10-win season and with quarterback as the Wolverines' biggest question mark entering the 2016 campaign, found themselves wondering whether Harbaugh had made the right call under center.

After all, dating back to even last season, Houston transfer John O'Korn always appeared to be the front-runner to succeed Jake Rudock under center in Ann Arbor. For all the attention that's been bestowed upon Michigan since Harbaugh arrived 20 months ago, Speight has remained a relative unknown.

With an ensuing Rainbow Warriors three-and-out ending with a punt that would land the Wolverines at the 2-yard line, Speight wouldn't have to wait long to get back on the field. If Michigan fans were wondering what their new starting quarterback was made of, they were about to find out.

Heck, even Harbaugh was curious about his look-alike QB.

"I wanted to see what he did on the next series," Harbaugh said afterward. "To see him the next drive on the 2-yard line, that's as much adversity you can have as a quarterback starting a drive."

Who is Wilton Speight? The Wolverines faithful were about to find out.

Perhaps little did they know it wasn't the first time the man now charged with leading the Michigan offense has faced such a situation.                 

ANN ARBOR, MI - SEPTEMBER 03: Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines congratulates Wilton Speight #3 on a first quarter touchdown pass on September 3, 2016 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

            

'He knows he can do it'

When Speight was a freshman in high school at the Collegiate School in Richmond, Virginia, Cougars head coach Mark Palyo inserted the then-backup quarterback into an early-season game with the outcome already in hand. On the second play of the drive, Speight tripped over an offensive lineman, landing inside the 1-yard line to create a 3rd-and-19.

Palyo's solution was simple: gain some ground to create breathing room for a punt while instilling confidence in his quarterback of the future.

"Simple route package, all four receivers are running hooks. Use your reads, pick the guy and deliver the ball," Palyo recalls telling Speight. "He drops back, delivers the ball to the right inside receiver right in about the 11-yard range, and the defender comes up, and the receiver causes the defender to roll off, and he goes 99 yards for a touchdown.

"He did exactly what I wanted him to do. To step in there, in that situation knowing he was up against it and deliver a good ball—he was able to do that."

So perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that when facing similar adversity in Michigan Stadium years later, the 6'6", 243-pounder calmly engineered a 98-yard drive, which he capped with a 12-yard touchdown toss to wide receiver Grant Perry. In what was ultimately a 63-3 defeat handed to Hawaii, Speight completed 10 of his 13 attempts for 145 yards and three scores—and yes, one pesky interception.

"To have come back off an interception and then very next drive go on a 98-yard touchdown drive, now he knows he can do it," Harbaugh said. "And now we'll expect him to do it."

For the Richmond native, overcoming adversity has been a common theme throughout his football career.

         

Reclassification

Two years after his 99-yard touchdown pass served as the highlight of a freshman year where playing time predominately came by way of mop-up duty, Speight was entering his second season as the starter at the Collegiate School.

He was a rising junior in the recruiting ranks who was receiving attention from the likes of nearby Virginia Tech. But with one dive toward the end zone in the season opener of his junior season, Speight's hopes of playing big-time college football came to a sudden halt after a broken collarbone.

"That junior year, when your goals are the larger types of schools and to get that quality scholarship offer and that happens, you kind of feel like that's all sort of crumbling in front of you," Palyo told Bleacher Report. "That was one of those moments where you've kind of got to pause a bit, and you have to look at it and figure out exactly what happened."

247Sports

"He hadn't had a chance at any of these exposure camps that a lot of kids do at that recruiting stage or phase," California-based quarterbacks coach Steve Clarkson, who Speight has been working with since 2010, told Bleacher Report. "He was just sort of getting that started, and then he got injured and missed the majority of his junior season."

The injury ended up being a blessing in disguise.

Speight began to look like his old self, particularly down the stretch of the second half of the 2012 season. But having missed practically all of his junior year—the most crucial season for a prospect—Speight's recruitment began to look like a lost cause. That was until he opted to reclassify to the 2014 class, creating an additional year of development before the start of his college career.

"That probably jump-started his recruitment as much as anything because now people are looking at him in a completely different light," Clarkson said. "With his ability and his size and his arm strength and sneaky athleticism, he really began to jump off the charts."

             

'That's not going to be my last touchdown'

Michigan was the first school to offer Speight a scholarship, doing so on what should have initially been his signing day in 2013. He didn't take long to accept.

Arriving in Ann Arbor as a 3-star prospect and early enrollee, the No. 22 pro-style passer in the 2014 class began his college career with a redshirt season behind Devin Gardner and Shane Morris. It wouldn't take long for his journey to hit another speed bump.

With the Wolverines enduring a 5-7 record in his freshman year, Speight would only spend one season on campus with head coach Brady Hoke and the staff that lured him to Michigan. Enter Harbaugh, whose arrival was promising for Speight's potential as a pro-style passer but, as is the case with most coaching changes, brought no guarantees of immediate or future playing time.

"I know when the change was happening, we talked a few times," Palyo said. "I knew what his skill set was, but the biggest thing we talked about was his understanding of a new coach and a new system coming in."

That was going to be tough to do from the sideline, as a torn groin kept Speight out of the majority of Michigan's first spring with Harbaugh on campus. Rudock arrived in the summer, Morris was experienced and O'Korn was eligible to play in 2016—Speight was in danger of being the odd man out.

ANN ARBOR, MI - APRIL 01: Wilton Speight #3 of the Michigan Wolverines throws a pass during the Michigan Football Spring Game on April 1, 2016 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

"He wasn't able to go through a lot of the drills," Clarkson said. "So any of the contact stuff where other guys were competing, he didn't have a chance."

Yet as the 2015 season approached, Speight had suddenly edged out Morris to be Rudock's top understudy, doing so in what was essentially a three-week window. While playing time was sparse as Rudock thrived in Harbaugh's offense, Speight shined in injury relief during a Halloween matchup with Minnesota. He threw the game-winning, 12-yard touchdown to Jehu Chesson with less than five minutes remaining in the Wolverines' 29-26 victory.

"The game against Minnesota gave him a ton of confidence," Michigan passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch said. "He just is excited about it. He's excited about that that's not going to be the only touchdown he ever throws for Michigan. I think that's his mindset. 'That's not going to be my last touchdown.'"

         

The next Big Ben?

That mindset manifested itself in a strong spring for Speight, who entered summer workouts as the top quarterback on Harbaugh's depth chart, despite O'Korn's presence. Throughout fall camp, Speight never relinquished that status, leading to the second-year Wolverines head coach privately naming him his team's starter days in advance of its clash with the Rainbow Warriors.

"I was told going into camp that I would start [atop the depth chart] and it was my job to lose," Speight said. "I made sure to stay there."

As his early-game gaffe showed, he's still a work in progress. Against an undermanned opponent such as Hawaii, it's tough to read too much into one game.

But between his 6'6" frame and his knack for making the big play, it's easy to see how Speight makes for a natural fit in Harbaugh's NFL-friendly offense. He may not be where Rudock—a sixth-round pick of the Detroit Lions—was a year ago just yet, but the upside is apparent as a redshirt sophomore.

"From the first time I looked at him, I thought he was the second coming of Ben Roethlisberger," said Clarkson, who's worked with Roethlisberger, as well as NFL quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater, Nick Foles, EJ Manuel and Matt Cassel, among others.

ANN ARBOR, MI - SEPTEMBER 03: Wilton Speight #3 of the Michigan Wolverines celebrates a first quarter touchdown pass to Grant Perry #9 while playing the Hawaii Warriors on September 3, 2016 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Sha
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

"He has the same athleticism. At this stage, he has a stronger arm than Ben had at that time. This is a kid that in the right systemand he's playing at the University of Michigan, where he's getting all the pro concepts and terminology from Coach Harbaugh—he's built for the NFL."

For now, Speight's focus remains on the present, improving his leadership skills and making the most of a Michigan offense with no shortage of talent around him, as evidenced by Saturday's 512-yard output.

As was the case with his game-opening interception, it may not always be easy, especially with the rigors of a loaded Big Ten schedule that will take the Wolverines to Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State.

But as he showed Saturday and throughout his high school career before that, even when his back is against the wall—or goal line, for that matter—Speight can't be counted out.

           

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod.

Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. Recruiting and class ratings courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings.