Wilton Speight has 'hill to climb' to NFL; no hard feelings for Michigan

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Wilton Speight

Ann Arbor — Wilton Speight hadn’t been in Schembechler Hall since last year, when he decided to transfer and spend his graduate year as a quarterback at UCLA. It felt a little strange at first when he arrived in Ann Arbor earlier this week, but this was home for four years and remains a big part of who he is.

Speight, whose brother, Jess, is an offensive lineman with the Wolverines, was among 16 former Wolverines to take part in pro day on Friday. He had received calls from tight end Zach Gentry and receiver Grant Perry requesting his presence because they needed someone to throw to them. Speight, who will return to southern California to participate in Tuesday’s pro day at UCLA, couldn’t pass up this opportunity after he communicated with Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.

“Looking back, I’m pretty sure if I didn’t reach out to Harbaugh, he might have just thrown at pro day,” Speight said, laughing. “He’s very capable, and I’m sure he’d love to show everyone he’s still got something in the tank. I sent him a text. He responded immediately, ‘That sounds like a great idea.’ It seemed like a no-brainer.”

Speight threw a lot of balls on Friday, but he also ran the 40-yard dash. He proved that someone 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds can move.

“I got one time from one of the guys from the Titans that said 4.79,” Speight said, still wide-eyed about the number. “I think my jaw dropped when he told me that. There were a couple more that were like 4.83, 4.84, 4.85. I just wanted something with a four in it. They all said the 40 doesn’t matter at all, but I wanted to show I had that in the tank.

“I think I ran a lot faster than they were expecting. I talked to a few scouts afterward that were pleasantly surprised. I didn’t train for the 40. I just knew if I got my body in shape, I could run a good time. I ran one, and it was a time I probably wasn’t going to beat again, so I took the speed cleats off and waited a couple hours until I was up throwing.”

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Speight left Michigan a pocket quarterback and arrived at UCLA to play for Chip Kelly, who runs a wide-open offense. Speight knew people were saying there was no way he could make the transition. He did, and what his 40-time confirmed is he has mobility, which a quarterback needs to run that offense.

“I’m clearly not a big, white mule that just sits in the pocket,” Speight said, when asked what he showed during pro day. “I was able to showcase that this year in L.A. running Chip Kelly’s offense. Nobody thought I was going to be able to do that. And then you go back and look at the tape in 2016 when I was 25 pounds heavier I was still getting out of dodge, shaking people off more so than making them miss. But the good 40 time and the focus today in the throwing workout was not just do five-, seven-step drops clean in the pocket. Just to move my feet, show that I’m light and get the ball out where it needs to be.”

Speight said he spoke to a number of scouts Friday and over the course of the last several weeks, and has weekly calls with Jedd Fisch, the Rams’ senior offensive assistant who was pass-game coordinator at Michigan when Speight was quarterback. He knows he’s not on the front-burner for NFL teams, but believes he has plenty to offer. He is the healthiest he has ever been. Speight’s career at Michigan was cut short in 2017 after suffering three broken vertebrae at Purdue. Last season he emerged from UCLA’s camp as the starter but was injured in the opener. He returned to start the final six games.

He has had no issues learning playbooks. After all, at Michigan he learned those for Al Borges, Doug Nussmeier, Fisch and Pep Hamilton, and last year he said he quickly absorbed Kelly’s offense. During the 2016 season with the Wolverines, he completed 61.6 percent of his passes for 2,538 yards, 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Last season he completed nearly 61 percent of his attempts for 1,527 yards, six touchdowns and six interceptions and averaged 218.1 yards a game.

“I know it’s going to be another uphill battle,” he said. “I know I’m not a super talked-about prospect in the media, but scouts have done their research, teams have done their research. They’ve seen me start at two major programs. They’ve seen me showcase my skills in two completely different offenses. I came in as a three-star at Michigan behind a five-star. I was expected just to hold a clipboard. They brought in two transfers when I was sixth on the depth chart, and I won that uphill battle. And I went in and ran Chip Kelly’s offense, an offense nobody really thought I could run, and won that battle.

“This is just another hill to climb. That’s the way I look it, at least. I’m sure some people might think I’m crazy. That’s when I’m doing the right thing, I guess.”

While he was busy playing for UCLA last season, Speight said he always watched Michigan play and not just because of his brother.

“Everyone from the top down,” Speight said. “From Coach Harbaugh and everyone involved in the program, they’re like family to me. It was a tough decision to leave. I wanted what was best for them. It’s been cool to follow my brother and listen to what these coaches have had to say about him since I’ve been back. I know he’s testing as one of the strongest guys on the team. Just seeing him standing next to me, it’s pretty freaky because he’s no longer my little brother.

“Jess has three more years. I’m going to be a diehard fan for three more years, and he’s going to leave, and I’m going to continue to be a diehard fan. Graduating from this university and living in Ann Arbor was the best four years of my life."


Twitter: @chengelis