Before he became such a potent weapon as the Michigan football team’s starting quarterback, Wilton Speight received a message from assistant strength and conditioning coach Mark Naylor. The only content was a photo of a racehorse wearing blinders.
There was no text. There was no further explanation. But Speight heard the message all the same.
Speight went to the same high school, Collegiate in Richmond, Va., as two current NFL players, Russell Wilson and Jake McGee. Wilson is a Super Bowl-winning quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks, and McGee is a converted quarterback and rookie tight end for the San Diego Chargers. Speight followed both of them as Collegiate’s starting signal-caller. That’s when he developed his own set of horse blinders.
He constantly faced comparisons to both players. Opposing fans chanted that he wasn’t as good as either. News coverage made the same statements. Speight learned not to listen to any of it.
“And then here as a redshirt, I’ve kind of been written off as being the guy by everyone,” he said. “I’m just kind of natural at it now.”
Seven weeks into his career as Michigan’s starting quarterback, Speight seems to have mastered the focus on himself. Two weeks ago, he spent his bye week watching film of each of the 159 passes he had thrown in the first half of the season.
After video coordinator Phil Bromley and his team compiled all of the clips, Speight first watched the tape one time through, observing only himself. Then, he went through again and broadened his attention to the play. He took notes on how each throw developed.
With that newfound perspective in mind, Speight shifted his mindset to the second half of the season and delivered — in head coach Jim Harbaugh’s mind — his best performance of the season. His completion percentage of 69.6 was his best since the season opener against Hawaii. He netted 15.8 yards per completion. And for the fifth time in seven games, he did not throw an interception.
Speight agreed with Harbaugh’s assessment and said that, except for a couple of instances here and there, he threw the ball to the right spot. For the most part, he improved what he set out to improve after his comprehensive film study.
“I thought there was a few times earlier in the year when I was aiming the ball, and that’s a quarterback’s worst nightmare, is when you’re sitting back there with guys collapsing around you and you’re worried about aiming where the ball goes,” Speight said. “Whether it’s a five-yard pass, 10-yard pass or a deep ball, you just gotta let it rip.”
Now, Speight looks ahead once more to this weekend’s game at Michigan State. He knows how important it is, and he knows it will be a tough one despite the Spartans’ current five-game losing streak.
If Speight can continue his improvement in the second half of the year, he will be Harbaugh’s second straight quarterback to do so, after last year’s starter Jake Rudock made major strides down the stretch. Speight’s numbers have been better as well, and his teammates notice the same trajectory.
“He’s really trying to solidify his leadership position on the team, and guys are really just looking up to him to make plays,” said fifth-year senior wide receiver Jehu Chesson.
Speight issued the same refrain as his head coach and teammates about treating this week’s game as a championship game like any other. That goes back to his horse blinders.
A couple of times this season, Harbaugh — perhaps as a sign of Speight’s evolution as a leader — has called the quarterback in front of the team to lead an edition of “Wise Words,” the session at the end of practice in which one player gives some advice to the team. Once, Speight used horses’ blinders as a lesson.
“That’s for a reason — they don’t worry about what’s going on in the outside world,” Speight said. “What the media’s saying — no offense to you guys — what the media’s saying, what other coaches or other players are saying on Twitter. They just worry about their own lane. That was kind of my message to the team.”
Maybe that’s why, when Speight was asked Tuesday about the coming trip to East Lansing, his answer meant a little more.
“It’s the biggest game and the biggest start of my life,” he said. “Because it’s the next one.”