Editor’s Note: With the Michigan football team’s 2016 regular season in the books, the Daily looks back at the performance of each unit this year and looks ahead to the future in 2017. In this edition: quarterbacks.
With 2015 starting quarterback Jake Rudock departing after an impressive single-season leap from unproven graduate transfer to NFL Draft pick, the Michigan football team had a huge question mark at quarterback at the beginning of 2016.
It turned out that question was all but answered in the spring, and that answer might be the key to the Wolverines’ offense for the next two seasons.
The year started with an open competition between redshirt sophomore Wilton Speight and redshirt juniors John O’Korn and Shane Morris, but Speight emerged as the frontrunner for the starting job before the Spring Game in April. He never relinquished his lead, and he embarked on a remarkable first starting season that, in many ways, mirrored his predecessor’s.
Despite throwing an interception on his first pass this season, Speight came back to throw seven touchdowns in his first two games, tying a school record to start a season.
He overcame an elbow injury to beat eventual Pac-12 runner-up Colorado, put up 49 points in a win over eventual Big Ten champion Penn State and uncorked a 45-yard touchdown to fifth-year senior wide receiver Amara Darboh to seal the deal against eventual Big Ten West champion Wisconsin. And that wasn’t even his best three-game stretch of the season (more on that later).
If it wasn’t abundantly clear that Speight deserved the starting job early on, a late-season shoulder injury proved it. Speight missed the Indiana game on Nov. 19 after sustaining an injury late in Michigan’s loss to Iowa, and O’Korn turned in a season-low 56 passing yards in his place despite still picking up the win.
Of course, Speight returned for the Wolverines’ thrilling regular-season finale against Ohio State, throwing for two touchdowns and leaving his team just three points shy of a chance at the Big Ten Championship.
The first-time starter finished the year with 2,375 passing yards and 17 touchdowns against six interceptions. He not only answered one of Michigan’s more pressing preseason questions, but he established himself as a potential face of the offense for years to come.
HIGH POINT: Over one stretch starting in late October, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said in three straight postgame press conferences that Speight had just completed his best game yet. During that run — which included wins against Illinois, Michigan State and Maryland — Speight completed 70.8 percent of his passes for 859 yards and four touchdowns, with his passer rating reaching levels of well over 200 during the games.
To cap it off, Speight added his first career rushing touchdown against Maryland, leaping over the goal line after a 10-yard scramble — an image now immortalized on his Twitter account as a parody of the Jordan Brand’s Jumpman logo. It was the icing on the cake for a quarterback not known for his running ability. (As fifth-year senior defensive end Chris Wormley once quipped, “You see Wilton try and scramble and it looks like it hurts.”)
LOW POINT: One could argue that Speight’s two interceptions and the fumble on the one-yard line against Ohio State were his three biggest mistakes of the season, but his command of the offense still put the Wolverines in position to win that game. His true low point came two weeks earlier in Iowa City, when Michigan mustered just one offensive touchdown in a 14-13 upset loss to the Hawkeyes.
Speight completed 11 of 26 passes for just 103 yards, finishing with a season-worst 67.9 passer rating, zero touchdowns and an interception. His inability to keep the offense on the field late in the game proved fatal, as the Wolverines went three and out despite needing to kill less than two minutes of game time in the fourth quarter. A face-mask penalty on the ensuing punt set up Iowa’s game-winning field goal.
THE FUTURE: Harbaugh does love his quarterback competitions — and he’ll have plenty of capable bodies next season — but Speight’s performance this season likely cemented his place as the starter going forward.
O’Korn and Morris each have a year of eligibility remaining, but Harbaugh has said that fifth years aren’t guaranteed, and if this year is any indication, playing time should be hard to come by for the two veterans.
The more intriguing name, however, is Brandon Peters — a soon-to-be redshirt freshman who has enough talent to be touted by some as Harbaugh’s next Andrew Luck. And highly coveted 2017 recruit Dylan McCaffrey will be on campus next fall as well, making for a gifted and crowded quarterback room no matter who the starter is.
It seems likely that Speight will hang onto his job, but Michigan’s quarterback storyline will surely be heavily scrutinized for years to come.