Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight said that as the offense continues to develop chemistry, particularly the quarterback-receivers relationship, the players are remaining upbeat.
The eighth-ranked Wolverines are 3-0 and preparing to open Big Ten play Saturday at Purdue. Michigan’s defense has been a major asset so far this season and is now ranked fifth nationally, allowing an average 208 yards a game.
Offensively, though, there have been struggles, especially in the red zone, where the Wolverines have managed only one touchdown in 10 trips. The Wolverines are ranked No. 72 nationally in total offense (402 yards per game), but also 110th in tackles for loss allowed (8.0 average) and are ranked tied for 102nd in third-down conversions (34 percent).
Speight is Michigan’s second-year starter, but he’s working behind a re-tooled offensive line featuring three new starters — fifth-year senior center Patrick Kugler, sophomore Michael Onwenu at right guard and redshirt sophomore Nolan Ulizio at right tackle.
Gone are veteran receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson and tight end Jake Butt. Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black were early enrollee freshmen, but Black will be out possibly for the season with a broken bone in his left foot suffered in last week’s Air Force game. He was the team’s leading receiver, and now Michigan will look to Peoples-Jones, sophomores Eddie McDoom and Kekoa Crawford and junior Grant Perry to take on bigger roles, not to mention the tight ends.
“We’re doing our best to fill those spots,” Speight said Monday night on the Inside Michigan Football radio show. “There’s a lot of big-time players, Jake Butt, Darboh, Jehu, De’Veon (Smith) and guys up front on the offensive line, too, and the young guys are doing the best they can and doing a really tremendous job at it.
“We’ve been having a good time. There are a lot of young guys on the team. It’s a different feel than last year and we’re just enjoying it day by day.”
There have been errors made across the offense, but as far as the skill players, Speight has misfired on throws and receivers have dropped passes. No one points fingers, though.
“There’s not much conversation when I overthrow one of them or underthrow ’em, or they drop a pass, it’s really just, ‘I’ll come back to you’ or ‘I’ll make sure to hit you next time,’ ” Speight said on the radio show. “And then you just move on. It’s the next-play mentality.”
Speight said all the receivers, including freshmen Nico Collins and Oliver Martin, have been staying after practice to work with the Jugs Machine that “throws” passes.
“I think all of them catch 400-500 Jugs after practice,” Speight said. “Just doing everything they can to be the best wide receivers possible.”
And Speight continues to work on his game under the tutelage of head coach Jim Harbaugh, a former Michigan and NFL quarterback, and NFL coaching veterans Pep Hamilton, Michigan’s pass-game coordinator, and offensive analyst Scott Turner.
“It’s really cool. All three of them played the position, coached the position for a long time,” Speight said. “It’s just really a meeting of the minds at all the times. I’m in the last semester of college now, so my class load is not as crazy as it has been in the past, so I’ve been able to sit in on their meetings and listen to what they have to say and it’s really nice to be a sponge and soak it all up.”
Going with the glove
Speight wore a glove on his left hand in last week’s game against Air Force. Harbaugh said on the Big Ten call Tuesday that it was not as protection for an injury.
“Just something we had tried out in practice and he seemed to take to it and liked it,” Harbaugh said.
Thinking about The Game
Speight said he has lost sleep thinking about Michigan’s double-overtime loss to Ohio State last November.
“I think a rivalry of that magnitude probably the biggest rivalry in any sport, you think about that all the time,” Speight said on the radio show. “There’s multiple nights this past offseason where I thought about that game, lost sleep over that game.
“The good thing is, this is a new season now and there’s no time for that anymore. You look ahead and you think ahead to Ohio State but at the same time, we’ve got a massive game this weekend with Purdue.”
Speight was asked about his 4th-and-5 touchdown throw to Darboh that sent the Ohio State game to the second overtime.
“That first overtime was the most surreal experience of my life,” Speight said. “Going out there, we were right in the student section so you could really feel the ground shaking. I looked around before I went in the huddle and was like, ‘Wow, this is such a cool moment.’
“That fourth-down play, normally when you get into the heat of the moment, crowd noise doesn’t play a factor. Everything becomes quiet and you focus on what’s at hand. But that was the loudest I’ve ever played in front of or witnessed. Amara Darboh made a great play. It would have been a lot cooler if we won that game.”