Wilton Speight didn’t know his coach would casually toss his name into Heisman Trophy discussion Saturday night. It wasn’t long ago that Jim Harbaugh wouldn’t even publicly declare Speight the starter.
But after Speight completed 19 of 24 passes for 362 yards and two touchdowns in No. 3 Michigan’s 59-3 dismantling of Maryland, Harbaugh wasn’t shy about touting a second player’s campaign for college football’s highest honor.
“The way he’s been playing all season,” Harbaugh said, “it’s time to throw his hat into the ring.”
Harbaugh went as far as to say Speight’s first half — in which he racked up 292 of those yards on 13-of-16 passing — was the best half of football he’s ever seen from a Michigan quarterback.
Speight was, indeed, exceptional. He made few — if any — mistakes, he made a handful of spectacular plays, and he did so while pushing Michigan’s offense to a new level of effectiveness.
On the Wolverines’ second drive of the game, Speight handed off to Jabrill Peppers, who ran right, then threw back to Speight. Speight waited a moment with the ball, and even while a Maryland defender barreled toward him, he stood in and delivered a 40-yard strike to fifth-year senior receiver Jehu Chesson.
Speight’s presence was one of the themes of the game. He evaded tacklers, stepping slightly inside or outside to keep plays alive, and did so without being especially fast. With 42 seconds left in the half, Speight stepped ahead of what looked destined to be a sack, then reset and found Chesson all alone in the back of the end zone.
Michigan’s redshirt sophomore quarterback is frequently compared to Ben Roethlisberger of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, and on Saturday, he looked the part.
“I watch a lot of Big Ben film and I see how he anticipates it, which is to wiggle there, a wiggle here, then gets his eyes right back to downfield to fire a touchdown,” Speight said.
Asked why he was so effective at eluding tackles, Speight credited his ability to running a spread offense in high school. He had to scramble, and now, he’s seeing the benefits while playing in a pro-style offense.
At a self-declared 6-foot-6, 245 lbs., Speight’s size plays a role in his elusiveness, too. (“I can’t imagine that’s that easy to bring down,” he said.) He has demonstrated an ability to shake off tacklers, and in some sense, he can empathize with those who are tasked with pressuring him.
But perhaps the most telling difference is Speight’s patience. Early in the season, he had a propensity to force throws when under duress. Often, they worked out anyway. Lately, though, he says he has felt a shift in the feel of the game.
“I feel like everything is slowing down,” Speight said. “I feel like I’m becoming a better leader throughout the game in the huddle, and stepping into situations that I need to and letting them ride out when I need to.”
That was evident on Saturday. Speight reset and refocused while under pressure, and rarely were any of his throws off target.
But even though he played likely the best game of his career, Speight wasn’t about to proclaim himself a Heisman contender like his coach did.
“I don’t want it to take away from anything Jabrill’s done,” Speight said. “That was a cool compliment that he gave me, but Jabrill deserves to be there in New York. Whatever happens with the rest of my season, statistics wise, we’ll let it ride out.”