Niyo: Speight takes the right steps to lead Wolverines

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Wilton Speight was talking about his stride length. And if you’re looking to assess his growth as Michigan’s starting quarterback, you might as well start there.

A week after enduring the toughest loss of his career — a double-overtime gut punch at Ohio State — Speight was done measuring his disappointment. He had moved on to taking the measure of his initial throwing step, among other mindful minutia, as No. 6 Michigan begins preparation for its Orange Bowl matchup against No. 10 Florida State on Dec. 30 in Miami.

Speight, who says his injured left shoulder is healing nicely, sounds ready to go. (“I’m playing in the bowl,” he said, just in case there was any doubt.) But before hitting the practice field this week, the redshirt sophomore was headed back for more film study, analyzing his video cut-ups from his first full season as a starter over the next couple days.

He’ll be self-scouting his vision, pocket awareness, and even the “little tiny details” like the position of his left foot when he drops back to throw, or his shoulder tilt. That short throw to the left flat “has been my kryptonite” in practice all season, Speight says. So that’s one more area he’ll attack with an enthusiasm his coach, Jim Harbaugh, should recognize.

Leadership is in the details

Of course, what Harbaugh recognized in Speight going back to last winter was the same thing he appreciated about his predecessor, Jake Rudock, who studied and worked and studied some more and ultimately played his way into an NFL draft pick as a graduate transfer last season.

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Speight picked up on those winning habits as Rudock’s backup, asserted himself in spring ball and then took the job and ran with it this fall, developing a strong rapport with passing-game coordinator Jedd Fisch. He found a rhythm as Michigan plowed through its early-season schedule with ease, and by late October, Harbaugh was touting Speight as a “budding star” and an impromptu Heisman Trophy candidate.

By season’s end, even after missing the home finale with the injured shoulder and struggling with three turnovers in the loss at Ohio State, Speight had established himself as something decidedly more intriguing than a simple caretaker or a game manager. He completed 62.5 percent of his passes for 2,376 yards — a healthy 8.1 yards per attempt — and threw 17 touchdowns and six interceptions. He was named third-team all-Big Ten behind Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett and Penn State’s Trace McSorley.

“It’s been a pretty fun year,” Speight said. “Experienced a lot of joy, a lot of wins, a couple of really, really close, heartbreaking losses. But all in all, I think the trajectory I’m on as a quarterback is going in the right direction.”

And now he’s determined to keep it that way, avoiding complacency and “not focusing so much on, ‘Oh, my gosh, could I win this job?’ ” the way he might have a year ago.

Instead, Speight says he’ll use December’s bowl practice schedule “to really focus in on certain things I need to get better at.” To worry about, “OK, what are the minor details I can do to perfect my game?”

Next generation

He’ll embrace the competition, sure. That goes without saying in Harbaugh’s program, whether it’s “Christmas Camp” or spring ball. Speight beat out John O’Korn and Shane Morris for the starting job once, and he’ll have to do it again. Brandon Peters, the talented freshman who redshirted this fall, also will join the fray, and Speight knows these next few weeks will be valuable for him as well.

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“This is his first step now to say, ‘Let’s move on past this redshirt year and figure out what kind of player I can be,’ ” Speight said. “Unfortunately I didn’t have that after my redshirt year. We didn’t make a bowl (in 2014), so I couldn’t use that extra time. But I’m gonna make sure to bring him along, too.”

Because that’s the best way he can prove he’s ready to tackle the next big challenge, as a likely team captain next year. Michigan will lose at least 17 starters to graduation or the NFL, including 60 percent of Speight’s offensive line and his top three targets. Replacing that experience won’t be easy. Replicating this season won’t be, either.

But that’s the goal, for starters. And that’s Speight’s charge, as he sees it.

“Obviously, I kind of embraced the leadership role that comes with being a quarterback this year,” Speight said. “But I’m going into my fourth year now. And guys like (co-captains Chris) Wormley and Jake (Butt) and all the older guys are leaving. So someone’s gotta step up, and I know (center) Mason (Cole) will and I’m sure a lot of other guys will, too. But I’m looking forward to taking that next step.”

Measuring it as he goes, of course.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com: @JohnNiyo