Just a few months ago, Wilton Speight was a relative nobody on the Michigan football team. He had arrived in Ann Arbor in the winter of 2014 as a highly touted quarterback, but one who had to bide his time.
Devin Gardner and then-sophomore Shane Morris were firmly entrenched as the team’s top two quarterbacks for the 2014 season under Brady Hoke.
But then, after the 2014 season, Hoke’s firing and Jim Harbaugh’s hiring shook things up at the position. Harbaugh declared the quarterback job would be won in an open competition. Speight, like everyone else, had a shot.
Things did not go according to plan. Speight, after his redshirt season, was injured during the spring and did not appear in the Wolverines’ Spring Game. Then, when summer rolled around, Jake Rudock arrived as a transfer student. The competition carried on, but Rudock and Morris were the leaders the entire way.
Speight noticed and took it as a little bit of a slight. He lived with junior tight end Jake Butt and redshirt freshman wide receiver Drake Harris over the summer, and they sometimes discussed the team’s quarterback competition. Speight, with starting aspirations, was not enthralled by the idea of being an afterthought, but he attempted to use it to his advantage.
“Sometimes it’s good not to be talked about,” Butt said. “You can just sneak in behind the scenes and just keep working hard, and that’s what Wilton did. He made it a point that he wanted to get his name out there.”
So when Speight received his opportunity Saturday night, with his team trailing in the third quarter at Minnesota and the Little Brown Jug on the line, it was natural that Butt — who considers Speight a close friend — wanted to help his quarterback calm down. He went over to Speight when Rudock went down and gave the backup some encouraging words. He was planning to do the same after Speight’s first three passes fell to the ground, incomplete.
But then he realized he didn’t need to. He saw Jim Harbaugh whacking Speight on the sidelines to amp him up and simulate the sensation of being hit. He figured Harbaugh had it under control. The coach was not hitting Speight lightly.
“Booom, boom, banging on his pads, smacking him in the chest, smacking him in the helmet,” Butt said, pantomiming smacking motions. “I guess after that, you’ve got to be ready to go.”
And Speight was. His first pass on Michigan’s final drive was a completion to Butt. The inexperienced quarterback kept the momentum going, despite the inconvenience of leading his team into Minnesota’s howling student section. He completed two more passes to score the game-winning touchdown, and then another on the ensuing two-point conversion to give Michigan a three-point cushion.
Speight’s task has not been a simple one. His first meaningful passes as a college quarterback were game-deciding ones. Morris, the man many assumed to be Michigan’s backup quarterback, remained on the sideline after Rudock’s injury, his redshirt preserved according to plan.
Even Harbaugh, known as “Captain Comeback” during his NFL playing career, was not sure Monday if he had ever been put in the situation of leading his team to victory after he came off the bench. After a moment of consideration, the former quarterback acknowledged that he had experienced success in the department.
“Well … I’ve had some good ones, I guess,” Harbaugh deadpanned.
After Speight came through with his own comeback, his teammates showed their appreciation. They appeared to be personally proud of Speight. Some of them affectionately call him “Wilt the Stilt” as a play on his first name.
Fifth-year senior Desmond Morgan sought out Speight for a postgame hug. Morris lauded Speight on Twitter. At the end of their joint postgame press conference Saturday night, redshirt freshman safety Jabrill Peppers smiled and yelled, “Wilt the Stilt, baby!” toward Speight. Redshirt junior wide receiver Jehu Chesson, the recipient of the game-winning pass, made it a point to commend Speight for his efforts Monday.
The recognition was his reward for commanding Michigan’s huddle, one filled with older players, with poise.
“He’s respected,” said redshirt junior offensive lineman Erik Magnuson. “We don’t have any doubts on our backup players, backup quarterbacks. So when he came in there, it wasn’t like, ‘Oh no, we’ve got to step our game up because we’ve got Wilton in.’ It was just like, ‘Let’s get going. Let’s do what we’ve got to do.’ ”
The possibility remains that Speight could get another chance Saturday against Rutgers. Rudock’s status is still in doubt. Harbaugh said the plan was to see how much Rudock could participate in practice Monday, but the starter would be determined by who would give the team the best chance to win. If Rudock is healthy, that will likely be him.
But at the very least, Speight will always have Saturday night, when he came off the bench as an unknown to deliver his team a trophy. He is an afterthought no more.