Speight embracing new leadership role as spring practice moves forward

Redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight already has the starting spot on lock, a stark contrast to last season.

Redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight already has the starting spot on lock, a stark contrast to last season. Buy this photo
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Friday, March 24, 2017 - 11:08pm

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Wilton Speight is the guy, and he knows it.

It has been a long time since a Michigan quarterback could say the same. For the first time since 2014, the Wolverines know who will be taking their snaps behind center come next fall prior to spring practice.

With that certainty has come new confidence for Speight. Last year, the redshirt sophomore quarterback stepped into an offense laden with veterans like senior wide receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson and senior tight end Jake Butt.

They were established playmakers, and that allowed Speight to come along slower than he may have had he stepped into a starting position on a more inexperienced offense.

Even beyond that, Speight had the fortune of playing behind an offensive line that featured four returning starters and could easily alleviate the pressure placed on Speights’ shoulders — especially in the opening slate that featured Hawaii and Central Florida.  

But this year, Speight is the one running the show, expected to contribute on the same level that his veteran teammates once did. No longer is Speight the one benefitting from the experience around him — he’s the man expected to provide that experience.

Still, Speight is already embracing the leadership role commonly associated with his position.

“I wouldn’t say (he’s) more vocal, you can just tell,” said senior center Mason Cole. “You know, if you watch him last year during practice and watch him this year during practice he’s just got so much more confidence coming into the huddle. Just watching him as an individual and watching him run on and off the field, he’s got a little swagger to him — I know he doesn’t seem like that — but he’s got a little swagger to him.”

The changes have come in dimensions other than his approach to leadership, though.

In Michigan’s season-ending 33-32 loss to Florida State in the Orange Bowl, Speight played at 254 pounds. Since then, Speight has lost 20 pounds through conditioning and diet. Cutting weight was a collective decision made between Speight and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.

“More speed, quicker feet in the pocket, I just feel healthier — feel like I’ve got a little more pep in my step,” Speight said. “I feel like — I just did a four hour practice — I could probably do another four hour practice right now. That was not the case toward the end of the season.”

What’s more, after playing the final two games of the 2015-16 season injured, Speight is feeling 100 percent healthy for the first time since taking the field against Iowa on Nov. 12.

Still, there are going to be plenty of obstacles as Speight moves forward through spring practice and into Michigan’s season opener.

As Michigan’s quarterback described, toward the end of last year, he constantly knew where Darboh, Chesson or Butt would be on certain routes. Now, with the three biggest contributors of the receiving corps headed to the NFL, Speight is tasked with catalyzing an offense full of fresh faces. He’s not afraid to rely on the veterans that are left to help reduce that learning curve — and he certainly has ample young talent in Donovan Peoples-Jones, Eddie McDoom, Kekoa Crawford and Tarik Black — but Speight’s new desire to lead will be a significant determinant of the Wolverines’ success.

“It’s not like a, ‘Oh I hope we can mature and get to the point where we need to be,’ ” Speight said. “It’s more so, ‘OK I’ve got to make sure that we get to the point that we need to be.’

“And lead these guys on the field, and in the classroom, up in (Schembechler Hall), and up on campus — and just doing all the right things to show this is the way we do things.”