Just before the start of fall camp, Jess Speight was at dinner with his dad when he missed a call from Jim Harbaugh.
He spent the next hour nervous, mind scrambling, wondering what the news could possibly be.
Then, Harbaugh called back. He wanted the junior to switch to defensive line. After losing so many linemen in the offseason, the Michigan football team was dangerously shallow at nose tackle and three-technique, and Harbaugh thought Speight would be better utilized there rather than as the third-string center.
Speight was a little apprehensive when he first heard the news. He came in as a preferred walk-on and dedicated two years to offensive line, only to suddenly switch — a week before fall camp, no less. Speight played both lines in high school, but preferred offense then and focused his training there. But after calling his family, including his older brother, former Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight, to tell them the news, his nerves began to melt into excitement.
“(I was) confused what to think,” Speight said. “I didn’t know if I had just been wasting time playing offensive line. (Wilton) was immediately ecstatic, enthusiastic, saying that this might be one of the best moves that I’ve ever made while I played football.”
So Speight decided to embrace his new position. He changed his mindset to attack mode, wanting to run through someone on every play, trying to develop as fast as he could to make up for lost time.
At center, Speight had to think a lot, and it slowed him down sometimes. Now, at defensive line, he doesn’t have to think — just attack. He’s become close with defensive line coach Shaun Nua, who pushes him without being overbearing. And then, he began to love his new position.
“Everybody knows it was a little bit of an awkward position just because I’ve already been here two years and putting a good bit of time into offensive line,” Speight said. “The way Harbaugh presented it was that they’re just going to try me at D-line and I was probably a week in and realized that I really liked it, really had a passion for it. So I just tried to develop as quickly as I could, try to make up for two years that I lost playing O-line.”
The Monday after the Middle Tennessee game, Harbaugh gathered the team together and announced that Speight and junior offensive lineman Andrew Vastardis would receive scholarships. Speight had gotten into the game on special teams, making the moment even more special.
Speight and Vastardis had an idea scholarships were coming. Earlier, Harbaugh had made a list of who he was considering, and both players were on it. But still, it was a big moment, a culmination of the hard work that at first had seemed so pointless.
Speight estimated that scout team guys like him could do 500 reps in practice just to get one rep in a game. But now, with some playing time and a scholarship, those reps he’s put in have finally begun to pay off.
“When he went to defense, it was sad to see him go,” Vastardis said. “But we gave him the opportunity to achieve all this. I think he’s really taken it and ran, and it’s been fun to watch. It’s been fun to play against him too, on different sides.”