In one brief comment in his press conference Monday at Crisler Center, redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight showed enough confidence to call one of the legends at his position by his first name.
“Tom’s just Tom — everyone knows that,” he said.
Tom as in, you know, future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady.
To Michigan’s starting signal caller, the opportunity to study some of his counterparts at the NFL level has become normal. He even met Brady when the Michigan alum came to town Sept. 17 to be the honorary captain for the Wolverines’ game against Colorado.
The NFL flavor in Michigan’s offense comes largely from head coach Jim Harbaugh and passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch, who both worked in the pro league in their last jobs. Now, they add every NFL game to their video library each week. In the 15 years since Fisch’s first NFL job as an assistant with the Houston Texans, he has built up an extensive base.
“Each day, we start a meeting off with about eight or 10 clips of an NFL QB or an NFL offense,” Fisch said. “Really just there’s different things to show them all the time, whether it be pocket presence, whether it be how they throw the screen game, whether it be how they maintain a base in the pocket when they’re going to throw the deep ball.”
Often, Fisch’s film study will begin with something that gave his quarterbacks trouble in practice the previous day. He’ll show the players how a professional such as Brady or the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger does it. Just this week, Speight studied Roethlisberger’s pocket strength and how he fends off pass rushers but still looks downfield for an open receiver.
According to Speight’s teammates, Roethlisberger’s approach has rubbed off on Michigan’s quarterback — especially since both have similar stature, Roethlisberger at 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, Speight at 6-foot-6, 243.
“Wilton always talks about Ben Roethlisberger, so it’s just funny when … I don’t know, maybe just an inside joke with some guys on the team,” said senior tight end Jake Butt.
Sometimes, Fisch will take not just tendencies but also plays from NFL teams and implement them into Michigan’s system. The Wolverines run a pro-style system with multiple looks, some of which come from that vast reservoir of game tape.
“I think we’re always game planning every week, every day,” Fisch said. “Every day is a new game plan. We put together the best possible pass game, run game we can, and then we try to deliver it in the way that they understand why the plays are in. And then maybe show them examples of plays, whether or not they’ve worked in other places, or whether they’ve worked here, or whether it looks like they’d work based on the coverages we get.”
Perhaps part of the reason Fisch is always looking for new material is that he’s always teaching. He has now mentored a new quarterback in each of the past six seasons.
In 2011, he coached senior Jacory Harris at Miami (Fla.), a fourth-year starter. The next year, he replaced Harris with junior Stephen Morris. He then moved to the Jacksonville Jaguars and taught former Michigan quarterback Chad Henne, Blaine Gabbert and rookie Blake Bortles before coming to Ann Arbor and starting Jake Rudock and Speight.
Most of those quarterbacks had career years under Fisch, and Speight has made similar improvements on Rudock’s numbers.
“He came in and really transformed me as not only a quarterback but as a leader,” Speight said. “How I study the game, how I approach the game, pretty much how I approach every day, whether it’s up on campus or in Schembechler Hall. That’s not a complete, formed thing — it’s a process every day. Our relationship continues to grow, and he continues to make me better and push me.”
Fisch acknowledged that he would like to get more comfortable with a quarterback, rather than constantly having to teach a new one. All of his quarterbacks so far have been either first-year starters (like Speight and Bortles) or veteran starters new to the system (like Rudock and Harris).
Barring a change, Fisch and Speight could break that trend by working together again next year. By that time, Speight will have already established a strong relationship with his highly respected position coach.
“Everything that he does is football-related,” Speight said. “Every thought that goes through his head, it’s probably about football. If it’s not about his family, it’s about football. It’s helped me a lot. It’s helped all the quarterbacks a lot.”