It seemed like yet another Friday night game under the lights. Yet another quarterback taking the field looking to lead his troops and leave a legacy. Yet another star in the making.
For Wilton Speight, the night started out ordinary. But at night’s end, when the team left the field, the fans emptied the bleachers and the Friday night lights shut off, Speight’s future as a football player seemed anything but certain.
It was Sept. 9, 2011 and the junior quarterback was opening Richmond, Va.’s Collegiate High School’s football season with a matchup against Trinity Episcopal in front of a home crowd.
On a drive in the middle of the game, Speight led the Cougars down the field with ease. A quick run-option play had Speight heading for the end zone. Quickly, all that stood between Speight and six points was a Trinity safety, but Speight paid him little mind.
As he reached for the right pylon, he collided with the safety, landing on his elbow to brace the fall.
With all eyes on him, the junior jumped up after the touchdown — and the collision — celebrating as he made his way to the Collegiate sideline, amid deafening cheers from the home crowd.
Thriving on adrenaline, Speight had to wait for the trainer to check him out on the sideline before he knew anything was wrong. The trainer quickly felt three breaks underneath his shoulder pads, and the diagnosis was clear — a broken right collarbone, his throwing arm.
“I definitely knew he was done after that,” said Collegiate coach Mark Palyo.
Collarbone injuries are common in football. But Speight’s required a metal rod and eight screws to be inserted. He had the surgery almost immediately after the game.
“The recovery (with the rod), the way I’ve seen it, is a faster way than on its own, and that’s why he had it put in,” Palyo said. “And of course it takes some time to come back, but amazingly he was back on the field in 22 or 23 days after the surgery doing light arm motions and light tosses.”
The Cougars ended the season 2-6 without the guidance of their quarterback. But despite the quick recovery, Speight had essentially missed his entire junior season — the most important year for an aspiring college athlete — so something had to be done to salvage his future playing career.
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In 2011, going into his junior season, Speight was a highly regarded recruit. Though he had yet to commit to a school, for the Virginia native, all signs pointed to Virginia Tech.
Following the injury, though, the Hokies withdrew their offer, leaving Speight with little choice on how to resurrect his career. Speight decided to reclassify and repeat his junior year at Collegiate.
“A lot went into the decision,” Speight said. “A lot of conversations with my friends, my family and the school. It was a tough decision, especially seeing all my buddies go off to college early, but last season, my second junior year, was really good.”
“Really good,” is an understatement. During his second junior season, Speight exploded for 2,900 yards and 32 touchdown, and he rushed for six more — all in just 10 games. And despite an early exit from the state playoffs, Speight’s season launched him back into the national spotlight and onto Michigan’s radar.
Following the 2012 season, Speight had multiple offers — suitors coming in from North Carolina State and Miami. He chose to commit to the Wolverines on Feb. 6, 2013, signing day for the 2013 class.
Since signing with Michigan, Speight has shot up the recruiting rankings. He’s now considered a three and four-star recruit from multiple sources. ESPN currently ranks the quarterback as the sixth best at his position, while Rivals and Scout ranks him 16th and 21st quarterback, respectively.
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As a player, Speight is everything a team looks for in a quarterback. At 6-foot-6, 230 pounds, he is blessed with size. He’s a pro-style player with strong pocket presence and a cannon of an arm. Speight has also shown flashes of mobility and an ability to make throws outside of the pocket.
“I have been with Wilton for five years, and I can still remember his very first year when we had to pull him up to the varsity team (because) we had a need for a backup quarterback,” Palyo said. “In our very first scrimmage, which was against a really good public school team, I had to put him in because our first string quarterback got hurt a little bit.
“One of the first things that really stood out to me was his pocket poise and presence. For such a young person to get thrown in against a really good opponent, he actually showed great composure in the pocket at a very early point.”
Above all else, though, Speight has a cerebral game that only the best players in the sport can add.
“One thing I’ve done with him that I haven’t done with any other quarterback (is) I will turn it over to him, and he knows,” Palyo said. “We just have a little hand signal, and I let him make the call according to what he has seen on the field. He understands those aspects of the game.”
Considering Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson attended Collegiate and played under Palyo, his praises for Wilton can’t be brushed off as pretentious.
Speight’s early ability to audible not only illustrates his complex understanding of the game, but also his leadership in the huddle and the locker room. He’s also shown early signs of leadership at the collegiate level, having reached out to many of his future teammates and taking part in linebacker commit Michael Fern’s Project 135. Fern’s project has been a way to promote Michigan to fellow recruits and help spread the Wolverine brand.
“I think the most important thing that we did was to communicate with recruits and do our best to build up a relationship so that they feel comfortable,” Speight said of the project.
Following his senior season at Collegiate, Speight will join four of his teammates and enroll at Michigan in January. Coming to campus early will help him get acclimated to the team and the culture, as well as give him an opportunity to participate in spring football.
Among those early relationships he’s already made, Speight has grown close with four-star wide receiver Drake Harris. The two will be roommates in the spring and have already put in some early work together at the Elite 11 weekend in California this past spring.
“I’d say I’m probably closest with (Harris) because we’re just excited that we get to learn together and, hopefully, do incredible things on the field,” Speight said. “He and I are just excited to hit the ground running.”
But when Speight arrives on campus, the quarterback picture will look murky. Behind redshirt junior Devin Gardner, the team also has redshirt sophomore Russell Bellomy and freshman Shane Morris.
While Bellomy has never been viewed as a viable long-term option, Morris was brought in to assume the role in future seasons. When he was initially recruited, Morris was one of the top quarterbacks in the country, but a case of mononucleosis during his senior year of high school dropped him from a five-star recruit to a four.
But Speight’s addition to the equation should make the competition fierce and the quarterback battles entertaining in the near future.
“Everyone including Shane and myself (are) going to be in an intense competition for years to come,” Speight said. “But when I agreed to play at Michigan, I agreed not (to) shy away from competition. We have to embrace it, and I’m looking forward to the future.”
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Since his injury, Speight has appreciated football in a new way.
“He doesn’t take anything for granted because it could be that one simple play that wasn’t that big of a play that could change everything,” Palyo said. “It makes him realize anything can change. It can be that one play, so since then he has been very diligent in his work to be prepared both mentally and physically.”
Having watched Speight develop for the last five years, Palyo knows Michigan is getting a special player.
“They’re going to find a young man who’s passionate about football,” he said. “A young man who is open and willing to be coached and (willing) to listen and to learn. He’s always looking to learn to try to understand the field better and better his vision in the pocket. Wilton is definitely going to bring that with him.”
At the time of Speight’s injury, he never imagined re-classing would lead to a turf field emblazioned with a block ‘M’ and a winged helmet. But one thing Speight has learned in his four and a half years in high school is that plans change, and you have to take obstacles as they come.
“I would never have been able to do any of this without my family’s support,” Speight said. “They’ve always been supportive in whatever I want to do, and they’re behind me 100 percent. I’m where I am because of them.”
While his parents’ eyes will always stay focused on him, new sets of eyes will be cast on Speight when he arrives at Michigan.
Ones from coaches. Ones from teammates. And if things go as planned for Speight, over 100,000 sets of eyes when he takes the field at Michigan Stadium as the starting quarterback for the Wolverines.