The Wolverine

October 2016

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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22 THE WOLVERINE OCTOBER 2016 BY JOHN BORTON W ilton Speight never took his foot off the gas pedal. That's how U-M quar- terbacks coach and pass- ing game coordinator Jedd Fisch characterizes it. Fisch insists the 6-6 redshirt sophomore quarterback sim- ply refused to throttle back in a tire- squealing surge for the most coveted spot in Michigan football. "It went down to the end," Fisch assured. "The way I described it to the quarterbacks was, Wilton kind of had the pole position after spring. He had a little bit of an edge. "The race started and the green flag was waved, and people were trying to pass people. He just never got passed. He just continued to play better." Speight did so even when quar- terback challeng- ers John O'Korn and Shane Morris — a pair of redshirt juniors with more starting experience — upped their game. " C o a c h [ J i m ] Harbaugh always says iron sharpens iron. John and Shane started playing better, but so did Wilton," Fisch noted. "Nobody lost the job. Wilton, going into the opening day, won the job." Speight stepping under center in the season opener marked the beginning of a journey, but also a major mile- stone in an already stunning voyage. The third-year Wolverine appeared, at times, to be an afterthought holdover from the Brady Hoke era, sure to be quickly surpassed by the quarterbacks Harbaugh was importing via transfer and recruiting. Prior to Speight's entrance into the Minnesota game on the road last year, his most notable Michigan moment might have been the practice-time dressing down by Harbaugh, caught by HBO cameras during the new coach's first spring back in Ann Arbor. Even after Speight helped pull out the 29-26 victory over the Gophers with a deft touchdown drive and two-point conversion, he appeared no lock for the job in 2016. Harbaugh readily admits he wasn't. "It was not by a wide margin, re- ally," Harbaugh said. "Because all the quarterbacks were playing really well from the first day of camp — first day, first week, second week, all the way good, consistently good. "Good in practice usually means good in the games. Accurate in practice as a quarterback, accurate in games. It's always good. All three of our quar- terbacks [played well], Wilton was just a little better. It was convincing in that he was the best guy." Speight has to certify the "best guy" tag, of course, week after week. He put his best foot forward in Michigan's non-conference season, completing 51 of 80 passes (63.8 percent) for 686 yards with eight touchdowns. He also guided a U-M offense that, entering the Big Ten season, ranked No. 4 nationally in scoring offense, av- eraging 53.0 points per game. The bottom line for Harbaugh in- volves moving the football effectively, getting it into the end zone and win- ning. So far, so good, in that regard. ROCKY START, RAGING REBOUND Speight will likely remember his first pass as a starter with a rueful grin. It ranked on the Auspicious Meter along- side trying to christen a ship with a champagne bottle and instead knock- ing the captain unconscious. Speight rolled right on Michigan's first offensive play, looking to float a bootleg pass to All-American tight end Jake Butt. Instead, the rookie starter fluttered it right to Hawai'i defensive back Damien Packer. Instead of rumbling down the field in a glorious game-opening march, Speight rambled off the field, hoping the Michigan defense could negate the gaffe. He wasn't in horrible company — Tom Brady fired an interception in his first appearance as a Michigan quarterback — but it obviously wasn't what he'd dreamed about. Speight's momentum carried him off the field, right into Harbaugh. The Michigan head coach, rather than get- ting on him over the mistake, almost "laughed it off" according to the young QB, delivering encouragement for the next possession. "Really, my approach was I wanted to see what he did on the next series," Harbaugh shared. "It's very difficult for a quarterback to throw an intercep- tion on a series and then come back and lead a touchdown drive the fol- lowing series. "It's something I've always been fas- cinated over in watching quarterbacks, and the really good ones can do that. [Some] think about, 'I'm not going to make another bad mistake.' That's what some do, but good ones don't." Instead of worrying about making mistakes, Speight made plays. His 16- yard strike to fifth- year senior wide- out Jehu Chesson from his own end zone spurred the Wolverines on a 98- yard touchdown drive. E i g h t t o u c h - downs later, they were all laughing off the first-toss troubles and cel- ebrating a 63-3 win. Speight wound up 10-of-13 passing for 145 yards with three touchdowns and a nod of ap- proval by the head coach. "He had total command, and I think it speaks volumes and bodes really well for our team and his career as a quarterback to have done that … to have come back off an interception and then the very next drive go on a 98-yard touchdown drive," Harbaugh said. "Now he knows he can do it, and now we can expect him to do it." The expectations didn't decline any the following week, when Speight tore apart a run-conscious University of Central Florida defense. UCF and head coach Scott Frost basically dared the rookie starter to win it through the air, and Speight smilingly obliged. A 25-of-37 passing effort for 312 yards with four touchdowns ensued, ushering Speight into Big Ten Offen- sive Player of the Week honors. Suddenly, the new sheriff behind center looked completely in control, STANDING TALL Wilton Speight Wins The Fight To Lead In Battle Speight, a redshirt sophomore, has built on his brief 2015 appearances with a strong start to the 2016 campaign. PHOTO BY LON HORWEDEL

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