When Wilton Speight steps up to the podium, he exudes a quality few college athletes — let alone students — possess in the face of intense criticism: professionalism.
Saturday was no different. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh described the natural butterflies this youthful team must overcome.
Speight is one of a few exceptions.
As a redshirt freshman, he won a game on the road, at night, with his team down five in the fourth quarter against Minnesota.
Nearly a year later, he threw the 40-yard touchdown pass that beat then-No. 8 Wisconsin.
Seven games later, he started on the road against Ohio State with a shoulder he wouldn’t admit was injured — but undoubtedly was — only to come three points shy in a heartbreaker.
“When mistakes are made, nothing’s gonna faze him,” said fifth-year senior center Patrick Kugler. “After a big play, he’s not super high or super low. He’s a poised leader out there. Especially in the huddle, you know that he has a command that you want to follow him.”
And for that reason, the redshirt junior is — and should remain — Michigan’s starting quarterback.
I’m not going to make excuses for Speight.
This season, he has underperformed, plain and simple, no doubt about it.
He threw two pick-sixes in Michigan’s season opener against Florida.
He should be absolved for the first. The pass hit sophomore wide receiver Kekoa Crawford’s hands and cornerback Duke Dawson took it to the house.
The other was his fault. Speight sailed a ball over Grant Perry’s head and cornerback CJ Henderson made him pay for the mistake.
Against Cincinnati, he fumbled twice — both on botched handoffs.
On the first, Speight tried to hand the ball off with one hand — something Harbaugh said he repeatedly cautioned his quarterback against doing. He warned that it would eventually come back to bite him. It finally did.
The second came on an end-around attempt intended for Crawford. The play ended with Cincinnati recovering a fumble. Speight was fortunate that his defense bailed him out with three straight stops.
Through two games, Speight is 28-for-54 for 402 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. At this point last year, he was 35-for-50 for 457 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception.
Hawaii and Central Florida aren’t Florida and Cincinnati, though.
Still, this is Speight’s second year under center. With that experience comes higher expectations, and with good reason. Many are waiting to see Speight take a game over. He hasn’t done that yet — not even close.
And when Harbaugh briefly sat Speight against the Gators, it was supposed to be an opportunity for Speight to gather himself, settle into the flow of the game and examine Florida’s defense.
The strategy worked. In the first series of the second half, he went 5-for-7 for 52 yards on a crucial touchdown drive.
Speight’s time on the sideline may have opened up the dialogue of a quarterback competition when there isn’t one at all.
Monday afternoon became the most recent instance that Harbaugh has publicly backed Speight.
“Wilton’s the starting quarterback,” he said.
Yet, the other options at quarterback remain unrealistically romanticized.
John O’Korn’s underwhelming performances against Indiana in 2016 and against Florida in the opener are suddenly being chalked up to a case of small sample size worthy of further experimentation.
Brandon Peters’ unexpectedly strong performance in Michigan’s Spring Game suddenly seems very appealing.
Even true freshman Dylan McCaffrey is drawing intrigue, with talk of 2017 being a year to rebuild and prepare young talent for a true title push in 2018.
Harbaugh could trot out McCaffrey or Peters and let them take their lumps. But in all likelihood, a young team led by a young quarterback would stumble to a record that isn’t indicative of the talent the Wolverines have.
Or Harbaugh could start O’Korn. The fifth-year senior would take snaps under center for a year before his eligibility is exhausted, all in the name of stopping the bleeding — if he’s even capable of doing so. McCaffrey and Peters still wouldn’t get the experience that seems so appealing to many as they look to the future.
Then there is Speight. He has a year of experience. He has a year of eligibility left. The Wolverines get a quarterback capable of leading a roster ample with youth, and develop Peters and McCaffrey for a year — all while Speight continues to develop himself.
If, come next year, Speight isn’t best suited to lead Michigan, then the torch still gets passed to his successor. And if he is Harbaugh’s choice — which would speak volumes, as it already should — the Wolverines have a two-year starter leading a crop of receivers brimming with potential.
In Speight, Michigan has a man praised for his ability to lead a team when faced with adversity — the Wolverines being booed for the first time in the Harbaugh era against Cincinnati serving as the most recent example.
“Everyone sees it, but it doesn’t faze him, so it’s not gonna faze us,” Kugler said, when asked if the team recognizes the criticism Speight has received. “So as long he keeps it cool — and I know he will — because he’s a great leader, he’s poised, no matter the circumstance. He’s our quarterback. He’s our leader, so I’ll follow him.”
Added fullback Khalid Hill: “Next play, that’s just his mindset. It’s always been his mindset, ever since he became a starter. I appreciate him having the mindset of a true leader. He leads by example and he wants everyone to do the best that they can. I applaud him for that.”
Last year, Speight didn’t need to be a leader. Enough seniors around him could assume that role.
And yet, Kugler explained, Speight led anyway. He isn’t a “rah-rah” guy, but he is a steadying force. That should be more than enough on a young team that will be prone to making mistakes — even if Speight is making them himself.
Santo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Kevin_M_Santo.