Everyone saw it. A six-second video on Vine of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh punching his new starting quarterback’s pads prior to him taking the field — shoulders, chest, hips, helmet — emulating the environment he’d likely see this coming season.
Harbaugh seems certain of a lot of things, like maybe how hitting his quarterback up and down helps him play. He did it prior to this quarterback’s game-winning touchdown drive against Minnesota in 2015, when he was just a reliever for starting quarterback Jake Rudock.
Harbaugh knew that it had worked before, so he was doing it again, pumping up his quarterback for his first start of the 2016 season, in Michigan Stadium against Hawaii.
Since Monday at least, Harbaugh knew who would start. He knew who had won the competition, even if no one other than him and his quarterback knew.
But he didn’t know that redshirt sophomore Wilton Speight would throw an interception on his first play of the season. The mental anguish that comes with that can’t be emulated by a few slaps and punches.
An audible gasp from the crowd filled the stadium. The stout Michigan defense had just forced a three-and-out in a little over a minute, and it was a shock to the system to see the offense start in such an alarming fashion.
Besides, this is the same quarterback that claims that his perspective started to shift after that game in Minnesota. He rode that confidence boost through spring, giving it a great deal of credit for his success throughout spring camp.
Back on April 1, when it was just the Maize playing the Blue in Michigan’s annual Spring Game, he noted how much it helped him.
“(Playing against Minnesota last season) was huge,” Speight said following the Spring Game. “Not that you live in the past, you never want to do that, but to go out there and say that, ‘Well, I’ve done this on the road in a hostile environment, why can’t I do it in Glick (Field House), or why can’t I do it in a Spring Game, or why can’t I do it next year versus Hawaii?’ It’s big, and it’s kept me calm.”
How would Speight bounce back from this, a season-opening interception? Would it zap his confidence, ultimately zapping his season?
He answered in resounding fashion: On the next series, he started on the two-yard line. His first pass was to fifth-year senior wide receiver Jehu Chesson for 16 yards. One pass did what no pass he had thrown before had done: It instilled confidence in him as a starting quarterback, and after that, he didn’t look back.
“Once I saw my first completion to (Chesson) on that slant, I felt completely settled in and kind of like that weight was lifted off my shoulders, and I was able to just get comfortable and fire some shots in the pocket,” Speight said.
He would be just fine.
Following the interception, Speight went 10-for-12 for 145 yards and three touchdowns.
There he was, 7:31 into the first quarter, throwing a 12-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Grant Perry in the corner of the endzone to cap off an 11-play, 98-yard scoring drive. Just over six minutes later, he was there again, hitting senior tight end Jake Butt for a 19-yard touchdown over the pylon. He did it one last time a few minutes into the second quarter, keeping cool and getting the ball to wide-open fifth-year senior wide receiver Amara Darboh.
But before all of that, Harbaugh, a quarterback expert by nature, had to find a way to keep his new starter calm.
“I was kind of running toward the sideline anyway (after the interception) so my momentum just kind of carried me right into Coach,” Speight said. “He just grabbed me and hugged me and was kind of laughing, and was like, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get it next drive, don’t sweat about that.’ ”
Harbaugh finds the ways in which quarterbacks respond to interceptions interesting. Sometimes, he said, they think of ways not to screw up, and usually that doesn’t bode well.
“It’s very difficult for a quarterback to throw an interception on a series, and then come back and lead a touchdown drive following a series,” Harbaugh said. “It’s something I’ve always been fascinated in watching quarterbacks … to see him start the next drive on the two-yard line, that’s as much adversity as you can have for a quarterback starting a series, starting a drive. … He responded in tremendous fashion.”
Speight said after the game that he knew it was his job to lose heading into summer camp, and that he felt confident throughout in his ability to keep it. It’s unclear if Harbaugh ever even told him specifically that he would be starting. It seems like it was an unspoken agreement, and that speaks to the nature of the competition between Speight and redshirt juniors John O’Korn and Shane Morris.
And after that battle, in which Harbaugh chose Speight, Speight had to prove he didn’t make the wrong decision.
Speight no longer has to worry about losing his starting job. His ability to respond to a pick with a 77-percent completion rate might be more impressive than not throwing a pick at all, and he said that at no point did he feel like he had to look back over his shoulder to see who was waiting right behind him.
It seems that Harbaugh’s pre-game ritual — like a shot of confidence — worked out, in the long run.
“It bodes really well for our team and it bodes really well for his career as a quarterback to have done that, to have come back off an interception and on the very next drive, go on a 98-yard touchdown drive,” Harbaugh said.
“Now he knows he can do it, and now we can expect him to do it.”