ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Wilton Speight leaned back on a glass display at theTowsleyMuseum atSchembechlerHall after the first day of spring practiceand began answering the first set of questionsabout the 2017 season.
Black-and-white photos of programlegendsdecorated the wall behind him, and hisJumpmanlong-sleeveT-shirt featured a subtletaglineunder the Michigan label that sounds like something Jim Harbaugh would say.
"Engineered to the exact specifications of championship athletes."
Speight then referenced a conversation with Harbaugh after the Wolverines' Orange Bowl loss to Florida State, part of a 10-3season in his first season as the team's starting quarterback. Speight weighed 250 pounds toward the end of last season after suffering a still-undisclosed injury against Iowa late in the season. Speightembraced the comparisons to BenRoethlisbergerfor a while, butHarbaugh suggested the quarterback lose weight.
"Coach and I talked and I said, 'Look, you finish the season the way I did or you finish 15-0, I want to get better and do better than last year,' " Speight said. "That was one of the things (Harbaugh) thought I should do, and that's what I did."
Speight weighed 234 pounds after a four-hour practice and said he felt as though he could run through another one. That's welcome news for a Michigan program that returns the fewest starters in the FBS heading into 2017. Of allthequestions for the Wolverines heading into Harbaugh's third spring game with the program on Saturday, quarterback isn't one of them. Speight appears poised to take on more of a leadership role this time around, and the team will be counting on that leadership.
"Looks good," Harbaugh said of his quarterback on the Big Ten teleconference Wednesday. "Progressed well, it's very important to him. He's ratcheting up his game as you would expect in terms of the mental process and hungry to learn more and more. It's been impressive. He's a very sharp, sharp individual."
It's looking as though Speight is engineered to those exact specifications Harbaugh wants. In some ways, he's starting to resemble Harbaugh himself. The uncanny physical resemblance is well-documented, but Speight is starting to sound like his coach, too. Consider the exchanges with reporters about his health.
Did Speight have limitations in the Orange Bowl loss to Florida State?
"It was so long ago I don't really remember."
What was that injury he suffered against Iowa?
"Again, it was so long ago, I'm trying to remember but I can't recall."
Did offseason surgery happen?
"I can't remember."
Speight is healthy now, and he's entering that first spring as a full-time starter with a palpable confidence. It's the same quarterback who displayed that by playing through that injury in those losses to Ohio State and Florida State. He should get a boost from the addition of former Browns offensivecoordinator Pep Hamilton, who replaced Jedd Fisch as passing coordinator in the offseason. Harbaugh described Hamilton's energy through the "11 out of scale of 10" reference from "This Is Spinal Tap."
Speight spotted another common thread with Harbaugh and Hamilton, the one that matters most.
"One thing that kind of helps,Coach Pep,he played quarterback and played the position," Speight said. "That was always nice to lean on with Coach Harbaugh, but with two guys who played the position…"
Speight jumped to another thought at that point. He's learning a new playbook with some new terminology, but the biggest challenge is obvious.Michigan's top three targets from last season — AmaraDarboh, JehuChessonand Jake Butt — are gone. Ian Bunting and Tyrone Wheatley should step up at tight end, but thereceivers are an inexperienced group that features returners Maurice Ways, Drake Harris,KekoaCrawford and EddieMcDoomalong with highly-touted early enrollees Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black. The spring game should offer a few clues about that competition. That's the focus for Speight.
"It's not like an 'Oh, I hope we can mature and get to the point where we need to be,' " Speight said. "It'smore, 'OK I've got to make sure we get to the point we need to be and lead these guys on the field, in the classroom, up atSchemand up on campus and just doing all the right things to show this is the way we doit here.' "
Speight will get to show all that right away in 2107. Michigan opens with Florida at AT&T Stadium, aka Jerry World, in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 2. The Wolverines have a loaded Big Ten schedule that features rivals Michigan State and Ohio State at home and Penn State and Wisconsin on the road. He'll get to prove he can lead the Wolverines to their first Big Ten championship since 2004.
If there's something to pick up on from what Speight said to reporters,it's that he more than once threw around a record when talking about what Michigan learned from its late-season losses —by five points total —to Iowa, Ohio State and Florida State.
"I don't think it would be any different if wewent15-0 and won the national championship because, one, you should never have that mindset at all," he said. "Likeif we went 15-0 last year and we were perfect last year, then we could chill this offseason because that never happens in football, basketball, business, anything you do in life.Secondly, there are so many young guys that whether wewere 15-0 or 1-10 or 1-11 the new guys are going to step in and it's all fresh to them."
Three times in one answer, he said 15-0.Those are exact specifications guaranteed to create championship athletes. If Michigan reachesthatnumber, then Speight's picture likely will be on that wall inTowsleyMuseum for somebody else to lean on.
That's thepressure of playing quarterback at Michigan.Will a slimmed-down help Speight improve on his play and helptheWolverines get there? He'll let others be the judge.
"I'll have to wait and see how the season goes," Speight said. "That'sy'all'sjob. Not mine."