The first time Pep Hamilton ever saw Wilton Speight, it had nothing to do with the Michigan football team.
Speight wasn’t the starting quarterback for the Wolverines yet. In this case, he was just a high school lacrosse player.
Hamilton, then at Stanford, had made his way down to Richmond, Va., to watch the lacrosse game of a defensive end he was recruiting. Speight just happened to catch his eye as a player who was “extremely quick and athletic for his size” on the lacrosse field.
Hamilton later found out who the “scrawny” 6-foot-5 kid really was: Collegiate School’s starting quarterback who was supposedly heading to North Carolina State to play football, and that was the full extent of the interaction back then.
Lo and behold, Speight never played for the Wolfpack, despite holding a childhood affinity for them. He ended up in Ann Arbor. So did Hamilton, many years later.
And it didn’t take long for Michigan’s new associate head coach and passing game coordinator to realize the connection he had with his new pupil.
“I knew as soon as I decided to be a part of coach Harbaugh’s program who I was going to have an opportunity to work with,” Hamilton explained Tuesday.
The two have built what appears to be a solid working relationship through the early part of spring practices. Both, as Hamilton relayed, have a good understanding of what his job is, which is to help Speight become the best quarterback he can be.
That has clearly resonated with the redshirt junior as he enters his first spring entrenched as Michigan’s quarterback. For once, there is some comfortability in his position — though Speight and Hamilton have said the customary things about fending off internal competition — and that has allowed Speight to set his eyes on further goals.
He doesn’t want to be just the best quarterback on the team. Now, he wants to be the best in the entire conference.
“It’s always, ‘OK, if I can check this off, then it’s (the) next (box),’ ” Speight said. “It’s not, ‘OK, let me sit in this little checked-out box for as long as I can and be comfortable.’ It’s ‘OK, I need to keep achieving every little goal that I have on my list.’
“Obviously, I’m still doing my best to make sure that box is checked off and I’m the quarterback here, but at the same time, I’m trying to check that next box off.”
How he’ll achieve that next step will surely involve the tutelage of Hamilton, who replaces former assistant Jedd Fisch — a coach Speight described as being “on the same page all the time” with.
Despite any unfamiliarity, the new mentor and mentee jumped into things from the very moment they met in person. Speight recalls shaking Hamilton’s hand before immediately heading to a whiteboard together, where Hamilton quizzed him on his decision-making versus certain defensive looks.
“His big thing was we’ll get to know each other as time goes on, we’ll build a good relationship, but right now it’s about football,” Speight said. “That’s what I love — a working relationship first.”
Hamilton had a lot of praise for what his new quarterback brought to the table performance-wise — especially from what he saw watching last year’s tape.
“I thought that (Speight) had above-average physical stature for the position,” Hamilton said. “He can function from the pocket, he has great field vision and he can deliver the ball under duress. And I felt like that was an extreme positive.”
Speight’s mental grasp of the game, especially as Hamilton adds new concepts and terminology to the pre-existing offensive scheme, has impressed the coach as well.
“Wilton is a conceptual learner, and so some of the things that we’ve put on his plate up until this point in the spring, he was a quick study,” Hamilton said. “… It’s preferred that you have guys that understand the why, that get it the first time. I think it helps them to ultimately be good decision-makers post-snap, and that’s something that you see in Wilton when you watch him.
“You just go back and watch his film. He can manage bad plays, and he does a good job of playing situational football.”
While Hamilton and Speight have hit the ground running on the field, there doesn’t appear to be much of a personal relationship. Hamilton even said he didn’t know that he would label what the two have as a relationship yet.
That won’t be an issue as Hamilton seeks to build the offense around Speight’s strengths. His new pupil has the keys to the Ferrari, and their utmost concern is making sure Speight knows just how to handle that responsibility while continuing to elevate his game.
But it wouldn’t be a surprise if the two became even closer as they continue to work alongside each other. After all, they have the most important thing in common — they want to win.
“I think once we finish spring ball and maybe while we’re over in Europe, we’ll have a chance to actually sit down and get to know each other better,” Hamilton said. “A lot of our time is spent just grinding on football right now, and thank goodness Wilton is mature enough to manage all his affairs very well off the field. It’s been all ball, all the time.”