Coming into fall camp a year ago, Wilton Speight was pretty sure he was never going to be Jim Harbaugh’s quarterback — and it wasn’t just because he’s allergic to milk.
In the new coach’s first spring camp in 2015, Speight struggled through four-hour practices, took expletive-filled tongue-lashings from Harbaugh and found himself buried on the depth chart. Heading into the fall, the then-redshirt freshman had had enough.
“I was on the phone with my parents, basically saying, ‘OK, I’m out. Let’s find a different school,’ ” Speight said.
Speight had his parents reach out to other colleges — North Carolina State emerged as an early favorite because of some family ties there — and he was dead-set on leaving Ann Arbor. He told some of his teammates he was leaving, including his camp roommate, then-redshirt freshman receiver Drake Harris, and he planned to go to Harbaugh’s office the first week of camp and tell him the same.
On the morning Speight woke up to do it, though, Harris asked him, “Are you sure?”
Speight wasn’t. He never made it to Harbaugh’s office, and he ended up playing through the rest of camp.
He ultimately won the second-string job, and the rest is history. A season later, he is the starting quarterback for the third-ranked, 9-0 Wolverines and has thrown 15 touchdowns and just three interceptions.
If there was any lingering doubt about Speight from Harbaugh, the second-year coach shattered it in a press conference the Monday following Michigan’s win over Michigan State last week.
“I think we’re looking at a budding — really good player,” Harbaugh said. “I almost said ‘budding star.’ I mean, it’s really close to that. He’s doing so many good things, and he’s been almost flawless, really, when he has time and space to see things.”
Now, Speight can look back at the exhausting practices and tough-love coaching and realize that he was getting tougher and stronger the whole time. That realization didn’t come to him until this spring, when he emerged as the clear frontrunner for the starting job over redshirt juniors John O’Korn and Shane Morris.
More importantly, he’s appeared calm on the field all season, which is a feat that hasn’t always come easy for him. Speight said he’s the type of person to break a paddle if he loses a ping-pong game. When he was younger, he would stop speaking to his mom if she beat him in a game of “HORSE” in their backyard.
But thanks to his high school basketball coach, who doubles as a “mindfulness teacher,” Speight has found a way to maintain a level head when he’s under center.
“I practiced a ton with him, almost like a meditation-type thing,” Speight said. “We figured out whenever I click my buckle in my helmet or lick my fingers before a snap, that kind of brings me back to this chill mode. In football, I feel like I’ve kind of mastered it, but I’m still working on the other stuff.”
That calmness has helped him improve every week. Multiple teammates, including fifth-year senior offensive lineman Ben Braden on Tuesday night, have compared Speight’s trajectory to last year’s starter, Jake Rudock, who rode his late-season success to become an NFL draft pick.
And finally, Speight has earned the endorsement of Harbaugh, who speculated that it might be time “to throw (Speight’s) hat in the ring” for Heisman Trophy consideration.
As for Speight’s milk allergy — which often forced his family to buy raw milk in a Whole Foods parking lot (“The cow’s name was Apple, if you guys were wondering,” he said) — he hasn’t told Harbaugh yet. After all, it was a long road to get on his coach’s good side.
“He just gets so into his milk brand and his whole milk and stuff,” Speight said. “I’ll let him have his whole milk.”