There are some risks that Wilton Speight needs to avoid. Others, the redshirt sophomore quarterback explains, aren’t really risks at all.
The Michigan football team’s first-year starter has thrown 10 touchdowns and just two interceptions this season, with one of the picks coming in a crucial game against then-No. 8 Wisconsin on Saturday.
Speight’s mistake came on the Wolverines’ first series of the third quarter, when he threw into coverage for an interception that the Badgers’ Derrick Tindal returned 46 yards into Michigan territory. That’s the kind of gamble Speight has to resist.
“If I had just changed the channel, I would have seen an open receiver to his left,” he said Monday. “But when there’s a guy here, and a guy there, and a guy behind (senior tight end Jake Butt), that’s the fine line I need to walk.”
But in the fourth quarter, Speight lined up in a similar formation, with fifth-year senior wide receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson split to either side, Butt on the line of scrimmage and redshirt junior Ty Isaac the lone setback.
Speight faked the handoff to Isaac and again looked over the middle for his first option, Butt, who was swarmed by linebackers and safeties. That time, Speight shifted his eyes to the left to find Darboh in one-on-one coverage with Tindal on the outside.
Many consider the deep pass to be a risky play, but in cases like that, Speight doesn’t. He dropped back and lofted a perfect throw where only Darboh could get it — a longer attempt, but a far safer one nonetheless.
“When there’s a one-on-one deep shot, I’ve got two of the best receivers in the country, so that’s not really a fine line,” Speight said. “That’s give them a chance, give them the best ball I can and they’ll make me look good.”
Speight said he’s getting better at walking that line between taking shots and giving his team a chance to achieve the best outcome on every play. A completion downfield is the ideal option. If it’s an incomplete pass, that’s OK, too. But Speight knows he has to avoid turnovers like the one Saturday.
To do so, he has been good at scanning the field to search for the receiver in the best position. He had success Saturday by shifting from Butt to Darboh, and the week before against Penn State, he threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to freshman tight end Devin Asiasi on a play designed for Chesson.
“You rarely have plays throughout the game that always go to your first read, your main read,” Speight said. “You gotta just have it be second nature. You say, ‘OK, he’s not there, now where do my eyes go? Now where do my eyes go?’ Coach (Jim) Harbaugh always says you gotta change the channel as fast as possible, and if you don’t see your main read open, you’ve got to find number two, three and sometimes four.”
Harbaugh is pleased with that tendency, complimenting Speight’s decision-making even on a day when the quarterback threw his second interception.
“It’s beyond his years,” Harbaugh said Monday. “It’s been a real positive. Talked about it the other day, his decision making and going through the film. He’s making good decisions — the right decisions.”
Speight also sees points for improvement from Saturday’s game, ones that may not be apparent on first glance. He ended up with only one interception but nearly threw more, once throwing into coverage when he could have thrown shorter to an open receiver.
And even if there is no check-down, if the running back is engaged in blocking, Speight always has the option of throwing the ball away.
“There’s one I just chucked deep as basically an incomplete,” Speight said. “I saw Darboh was double-covered, Jake was covered like a glove, but I didn’t have any check-downs. So there’s no point in running around and possibly taking a sack when I can just airmail it and just move onto the next play.”
All of those in-play decisions have come easier to Speight as he has worked more with Harbaugh, passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch and their offense, and perhaps that’s part of the reason Michigan’s passing game is further along statistically than it was a year ago. Much of that improvement has come from developing the relationship between Speight and his coaches.
On Sunday mornings, Speight comes into the team’s facility to look at the tape and the notes Fisch left him from the night before. By Monday, he’s already focused on the next game, which comes against Rutgers this week. After that one, he’ll once again look at the throws he made to the right receiver, and the ones he didn’t, and he’ll start the process over again.