Throughout last summer — and, really, well into last fall — Wilton Speight felt overlooked. Then a redshirt freshman for the Michigan football team, he was a solid third on the depth chart at quarterback.
There was Jake Rudock, a graduate transfer brought in from Iowa to be an immediate solution. And there was Shane Morris, a former four-star recruit who had been touted as the starter-in-waiting for his whole career. Morris seized the job coming out of spring camp, and Rudock took hold of it during fall camp. That left little attention for Speight.
He would talk to his parents about feeling left out. They told him not to worry about it, so he didn’t. He came into the season knowing what he was capable of.
Slowly, he began to edge his way into the conversation. Morris planned on redshirting if he wasn’t starting, so Speight took the “mop-up duty” at the end of blowout wins. He used that to gain the trust of the coaching staff.
But on Halloween, Speight was no longer an afterthought — he couldn’t be. With Rudock injured, he came in and led a game-winning touchdown drive to help the Wolverines to a 29-26 victory at Minnesota. He then returned to his No. 2 spot on the depth chart and waited for his opportunity, newly confident and no longer overlooked.
“It would give anybody confidence, to be able to go into a game like that and make an impact and eventually win the game,” Speight said. “To carry that with you, not that you’re living in the past, but you know you can do it going forward.”
Now it’s a new season, with Rudock gone and Houston transfer John O’Korn into the mix. But Speight denies that he’s back to square one in the competition this time around.
“With all respect, I was going to approach it with the mindset of, ‘I’ve got to build off of the spot I left off in the Minnesota game or the bowl practices,’ ” Speight said. “I wasn’t going to go down to wherever (the coaches) expected us to, because I just wanted to stay up there and keep working.”
Speight may not be overlooked anymore, but he is still unheralded. He acknowledges Morris has the strongest arm, O’Korn the quickest feet. But he knew after he finished the season last year and went through bowl practices that he’d be in the mix. The team treated the bowl practices as an audition for spring camp, reiterating that at every turn.
For the first two weeks of spring practice, all the quarterbacks took equal reps. Then, they began to separate themselves.
Speight said that throughout spring camp, the coaches tracked how each quarterback did moving the ball down the field in drills.
“Just looking at the stats, I guess that’s where I kind of distance myself,” he said.
Saturday at Ford Field in Detroit, Speight was the first quarterback to take snaps with the first team at open practice. Tuesday, he said that has been the case in other recent practices, too.
“Coach follows a pattern, and unless you mess it up, it pretty much stays the same,” Speight said. “The practice before that, I did what I needed to do, and before that, and before that. I pretty much knew that was going to happen.”
But he also knows what being first — especially by the slimmest of margins — means. He has, after all, been on the other end.
“It means there’s people at my feet and they’re wanting to take the spot I’m in,” Speight said. “If I don’t keep doing what I have to do and keep working my ass off, then they’re going to fill me in.
“Because you’re replaceable at anything you do in life. That’s all it really means — I’m getting the job done, but someone else is trying to do it better.”