UM stands behind QB Speight: 'He's our leader'

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh could not hide his disdain when asked about his quarterback situation and whether competition continues through the season.

The Wolverines are 2-0 and preparing to face Air Force on Saturday at Michigan Stadium.

Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight looks for an open man in the fourth quarter against Cincinnati.

“Wilton’s the starting quarterback,” Harbaugh said Monday at his weekly news conference. “And we’re forging on.”

As a follow-up question was asked, Harbaugh shook his head and offered a bit of an eyeroll.

Speight hardly has been perfect through two games, but the offense overall has had its share of growing pains as a mostly young group continues to find its way. Speight, in his second season as starter, has now completed 51.9 percent of his passes and has three touchdowns to two interceptions. He fumbled a handoff to Kekoa Crawford on a jet sweep last Saturday against Cincinnati.

While there has been considerable criticism of Speight on social media and various message boards, his teammates offer nothing but support and praise.

“Wilton does a great job keeping the huddle,” fullback Khalid Hill said Monday. “He brings a calmness to the huddle. He jokes around a little bit sometimes and makes sure everybody is tuned in to what is going on. He doesn’t get frustrated at all. Wilton does a great job of getting us together, influencing us and making us better as a team.

“As much as people want to say, ‘Oh, Wilton he had his bad throws,’ he never lets it get to him. He never, (has) his head down. He makes plays. That’s always been his mindset ever since he’s been a starter. I appreciate him having the mindset. He’s a true leader. He leads by example and wants everybody to do the best they can. I applaud him for that.”

Since the spring game, many fans have called for redshirt freshman quarterback Brandon Peters to play. Before camp began, Harbaugh said Speight, Peters and backup John O’Korn were in a “dead heat” and about midway through camp he said Speight and O’Korn had separated themselves. O’Korn played two series in the opener after Speight threw back-to-back interceptions returned for touchdowns, and came in late against Cincinnati.

Harbaugh was asked Monday about Peters.

“He’s progressing,” he said. “Progressing nicely.”

Speight, as expected, won the starting job. And yet, questions abound each week about Peters’ potentially taking over, as criticism of Speight mounts.

A large majority of players are active on social media, including Speight. They all read the criticism.

“Everyone sees it,” center Patrick Kugler said. “It doesn’t faze (Speight) so it’s not going to faze us. As long as he keeps it cool — and I know he will because he’s a great leader, he’s poised no matter the circumstances — he’s our quarterback, he’s our leader. I’ll follow him.”

Hill said the amount of pressure on quarterbacks, with all they have to know along with their leadership responsibilities, is intense. He referenced Harbaugh’s comment last Saturday about being “burnt wood” on the inside, which prevents him from getting too emotionally high during games.

“If you see Wilton around campus, Wilton never lets any — we’ve all kind of got that, Coach Harbaugh said we’ve got burnt wood inside,” Hill said. “All the criticism we get, we take it and roll with it. We put it as a thing that builds us up in the game, we remember it and we want to attack every day with the enthusiasm to prove everybody wrong. People are going to talk no matter what. You’ve got to understand you have to have a hard mind and keep working every day and prove them wrong.”

The Wolverines have confidence in Speight, no matter what the outside world might say.

McShay: Speight’s play one of season’s big surprises

“It kind of infuriates us as a group, because that’s our QB,” Hill said. “But at the same time, we’re going to go out and play. And then when we’re balling and everything’s going good, people say, ‘Oh, Wilton was doing this and that.’ Don’t jump on the bandwagon then. If you want to be a criticizer now, stay a criticizer. Don’t jump on a bandwagon when we get rolling.”

There was some booing last Saturday against Cincinnati. The players heard it and moved on.

“I feel like everyone sort of gets emotionally hijacked,” defensive tackle Maurice Hurst said. “There’s some very passionate fans. You try to keep your mouth shut for the most part and stick together as a team throughout whatever’s going on.”

Hurst said he can’t imagine being in Speight’s shoes and dealing with so much negativity. The players embrace their quarterback, regardless.

“Moreso than anything else as being our quarterback, he’s our friend and someone you care about,” Hurst said. “Outside of football I’ve seen him do amazing things. I’ve seen him do amazing things on the field. You never forget the games that he’s led you to wins. He’s always been reliable. There’s been some great times Wilton has stepped up and been a great quarterback. You have to put your faith in him and your faith in your teammates.”