FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — In the days leading up to the Orange Bowl, a lot has been said about the ways a quarterback’s toughness can change a team.
Both teams who will play Friday night have experienced that firsthand this season, as first-year starting quarterbacks Deondre Francois of Florida State and Wilton Speight of Michigan have proven both their mental and physical toughness.
Francois has been sacked 32 times this year, with just 21 teams in the FBS allowing more sacks than the Seminoles. Taking hits from 300-pound linemen is a daunting task that requires plenty of toughness, and Francois has battled through his share of adversity this season.
As an inexperienced redshirt freshman, Francois had to lead Florida State through a rocky start in which the team went 3-2. As the season progressed, Francois and the Seminoles became more consistent and went on a 6-1 run to finish the year.
“That’s one of the great things about our quarterback, standing in there and taking the hits that he’s done,” said Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher. “As a quarterback, I’m a believer in this: If your quarterback is not tough, usually your team is not tough.”
Fisher isn’t the only coach to have taken notice of Francois’ tenacity. Over the past three weeks, Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown has pored over film of the dual-threat quarterback and been impressed, marking his development as the biggest change in the Seminoles’ season.
“One thing I’ll tell you that I value when I look at quarterback play is how tough the guy is,” Brown said Wednesday. “This guy? He’s a tough guy, now. Really tough guy. Sometimes I’m watching the tape and I’m going, ‘Ah, we’re going to get to this guy now. Mentally.’ I’m not sure you’re going to get to (Francois) mentally, so you’re going to have to play all 60 minutes.”
Harbaugh has also been impressed with Francois, stating Wednesday that he has the footwork and vision of a good quarterback for his young age. Having skills beyond his years has helped Francois keep Florida State’s offense in sync, which jumped out at Harbaugh on film.
On the other side, Speight has garnered equal admiration from the Florida State coaching staff after a season during which he threw for 2,375 yards and 17 touchdowns. After an undisclosed shoulder injury kept Speight out of Michigan’s game against Indiana, he returned to play in the Wolverines’ regular-season finale at Ohio State. After the game, Speight told media that there was still lingering pain, but he would undoubtedly be playing in the bowl game.
“(Speight) makes great decisions, accurate with the ball,” Fisher said. “You go out there and he had the major injury with the collarbone and to come back a week later and play. I don’t know what the injury was or the extent of it or anything, but their guy is very tough.”
There’s no question Michigan wouldn’t be where it is without Speight’s progression throughout the season, and his resolve has helped move him along smoothly.
Francois and Speight have both taken their lumps this season, and their experience with playing through the pain may be the deciding factor on Friday.