Michigan football must replace 10 starters on defense from last season, but I think quarterback Wilton Speight is still the biggest question mark for the Wolverines headed into 2017.
For much of the season last year, Speight was at the top of the passer rating charts in the Big Ten. A shoulder/collarbone injury against Iowa, however, saw Speight finish out 0-3 as a starter last season, after starting out 9-0.
It’s no coincidence that his three worst games came following his injury, so it seems odd to question him as much as I’m doing. After all, when he was healthy, he was pretty darn good. He led the Wolverines to wins over ranked opponents Colorado, Penn State, and Wisconsin in consecutive games, averaging over 200 yards passing in those games.
And then he got even better.
Of course, the schedule (Rutgers, Illinois, Michigan State, Maryland) also got much easier.
Still, Speight emerged as a legitimate starting quarterback in the Big Ten, and he was doing so as redshirt sophomore. His future was even brighter.
Until it wasn’t.
He threw four of his seven interceptions last year in his three final starts — all losses — against Iowa, Ohio State, and Florida State. He averaged 4.0, 6.1, and 4.3 yards per pass attempt, which were three of his four lowest outputs of the season.
But his left shoulder was injured, so there was an excuse. And a damn good one.
Does an injured shoulder also injure your ability to make smart decisions with the football? Because that’s my biggest concern for the Michigan offense under Wilton Speight. Does the injury explain the handful of inexplicable throws that Speight should have never thrown against Ohio State and Florida State? Maybe. I don’t know. I’m unsure.
I wanted this spring to help me become more sure, but it just confused me further.
I watched the Michigan spring game, and I understand how much stock should be put into such things, but it is a practice and coaches use every snap of every practice to evaluate their players. You can brush off the spring game if you want, but Jim Harbaugh isn’t.
Not only was Speight not very good in that game, he was downright bad. He completed 9-of-26 passes for 78 yards with two interceptions. And that was with two good shoulders.
Looking back, I have to wonder how much better Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson, and Jake Butt made him, and what will he look like now without them. The spring game won’t be the norm, but will there be a resemblance?
I’ve written in the past about how much I like the Wolverines’ young receivers, but I also wonder if Speight can make them better players, and just how much better can he make them?
How long will it take to build a rapport with the new receivers? How quickly will they be consistent enough for him to rely on? And if he isn’t on point, can he get away with it like he was able to at times last year with three very talented pass catchers?
Generally when you have a returning starter at quarterback, there is some reassurance. The most recent returns for Wilton Speight, however, have thrown doubt into that reassurance.
There is also doubt because redshirt freshman Brandon Peters didn’t look half bad this spring.
So what happens if Speight struggles and starts hearing boos from fans who think Peters would provide a better option? The backup quarterback is the most popular player on the team, and if he’s talented, then patience from a fan base isn’t guaranteed.
I saw it first hand in 2015. Cardale Jones struggled and got booed. He had one eye on the field and the other eye on the sideline to see if J.T. Barrett was warming up. Then when Barrett would come in, he would try to give the offense what it got from Jones, rather than simply doing what he was good at.
All it takes is a little crack in the confidence to create a chasm-sized problem.
Can Wilton Speight overcome all of this — as well as his own limitations — and lead the Wolverines to a Big Ten title? Look at the scores of the losses last year — 14-13, 30-27, 33-32 — and now imagine how those three games turn out with a healthy quarterback at the helm.
It’s almost silly to question Speight like this, especially when I could spend just as much time asking the very same question about Ohio State’s quarterback. But the concerns are real. The flaws are as well.
I am not the only person asking this question of Michigan’s quarterback.
The good news is that he can put the talk to rest right out of the gate against Florida.
Jim Harbaugh is always going to get his quarterbacks to give him the best that they’ve got. Unfortunately, some of the “worst” will always make its way past the filter. That was the case with Wilton Speight last season. For a while he was looking like an All-B1G performer. He still made the Third Team, but he limped to the finish line.
I try to remind myself that any concerns with Michigan’s quarterback should be mitigated by Jim Harbaugh’s presence. I’m not always successful, however.
This is Speight’s third year under Harbaugh, so the groundwork is there. The foundation is built. The teaching has been done.
But is it enough?
There will be more pressure on Speight this season than there was a year ago. The defense will likely be giving up more points, which will put more pressure on him to perform. And he’ll be relying on freshman and sophomore receivers to get it done, as well as an unproven offensive line to keep him standing.
I don’t think last season’s struggles can be put entirely on Speight’s shoulder injury, but I’m also not ready to toss him aside. His experience last season is an investment that needs to pay off this year and next. He needs to step forward in 2017 and lead a program that is going through a number of changes.
This is his team now.
But can he lead them to a Big Ten title?
I think he can, but I just can’t get past the bad that I’ve seen from him to expect it to be completely eliminated.
And in the end, it’s that bad that might ultimately eliminate the Wolverines.