The success of Michigan and coach Jim Harbaugh, right, this year might depend on how well quarterback Wilton Speight fares. BLADE/ANDY MORRISON
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The synopsis of the 2016 season reads that Michigan’s defense carried the Wolverines as far they could go.
While the defense ranked among the nation’s best, one could argue it was Wilton Speight who almost lifted Michigan to a Big Ten championship. As Speight went, so did the Wolverines.
The quarterback used the offseason to improve upon every aspect of his playing ability — passing, reading defenses, even eating. It’s called a “battle rhythm,” at least according to Jim Harbaugh.
The Michigan coach encourages his players to orchestrate a battle rhythm, or routine. Wake up at the same time every morning, eat breakfast, work out, go to classes, and, of course, consume football.
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“It just gets repetitive to where your body builds a callus to it and you just get really good at becoming numb to the pain,” said Speight, who still isn’t officially Michigan’s starting quarterback for Saturday’s season opener against No. 16 Florida in Arlington, Texas.
Speight’s status is a foregone conclusion, but Harbaugh prefers constant competition. It leads to another favored method of the astute coach — instilling in players that being comfortable with discomfort is essential.
“That’s coach Harbaugh’s mission,” Speight said, “to make sure we feel uncomfortable at all times.”
In 12 starts last season, Speight threw for more than 2,500 yards and 18 touchdowns. He had the second-best completion percentage in the Big Ten and tossed the second-fewest interceptions.
The coolness Speight possesses in the pocket is what endears him most to Harbaugh. He’s prone to forcing passes into tight spaces, but his command on the field exceeds mistakes the job creates. Speight’s instincts and ability to manage the offense gives Michigan value at the sport’s defining position.
“Wilton is on our depth chart at No. 1,” Harbaugh said after the spring. “But it’s a meritocracy. By your effort and by your talent, you will be known. That’s a good thing for our football team.”
It’s a message Harbaugh repeated Monday.
“There’s competition that is healthy, fair, and productive,” he said. “It’s been very good. As I said, it’s been a good camp for our quarterbacks, and we feel confident in our guys. We believe in them.”
Criticism could be added to Speight’s battle rhythm, because it seems like he’s under a constant barrage of denunciation from fans. In 2016, it was John O’Korn they wanted as the starter. In the spring, fans set their sights on freshman Brandon Peters. All the while, Speight kept his sanguine demeanor and never delivered a calculated dig.
The noise is silent for Speight, blocked out with a singular focus. As a fourth-year junior, he’s wise enough to disregard outside chatter. He likens it to a race horse wearing blinders.
“The jockey or the owner doesn’t want the horse to be distracted,” Speight said. “That’s always the motto that I’ve had at this position. You can’t worry about what’s going on to the right or left of you, and a good way to do that is just to block it out. It’s worked for me in the past, and I think it’ll work for me in the future.”
Shedding 23 pounds should also brighten Speight’s future. A strict diet of “animals and things that grow in the ground” was the secret menu.
“Stayed away from processed foods and stuff like that,” Speight said. “I feel a lot quicker coming from under center being able to finesse around the pocket and maybe get more than two or three yards like I did last year.”
The introduction of Pep Hamilton into Michigan’s offense has been a boon to Speight’s progression. Hamilton, UM’s passing game coordinator, brings a wealth of college and NFL experience to Ann Arbor. Speight and O’Korn acknowledged his guidance has elevated their production.
“It’s business,” Speight said. “The personal relationship came along this offseason. At the end of the day at this level, you don’t really have to be best friends. You go out there, you win games, you complete passes, and you move on. That’s the mindset you have to have in this profession.”
Michigan’s success — or lack thereof — in 2017 will be inextricably linked to Speight. Forget the 10 new starters on defense. If the blinders are in place and Speight performs like a tremendous machine, any lingering critics will be hushed.
“We try to avoid the hiccups,” Speight said, “and just try to go forward every day.”
What they’re saying about UM
“The Wolverines seem like they have the potential for an off year after losing so many players to the NFL this spring. That kind of talent drain is a testament to what Jim Harbaugh has been building in Ann Arbor, but I don’t think Michigan’s depth will prove to be at the level of an Ohio State or Alabama, where it’s simply next-man-up after a major departure.” — Joan Niesen, Sports Illustrated
“Despite heavy losses on both sides, the Wolverines will be right in the mix again in 2017. Rashan Gary and Maurice Hurst will lead a nasty defensive line, and if presumed starter Wilton Speight finds a few reliable targets in the passing game, Michigan will be fine. Like, good-enough-to-make-it-to-Indianapolis fine.” — Bill Bender, Sporting News
“Jim Harbaugh’s squad will be out of the national title picture by the end of October. ... But rest easy, Michigan fans. Your boys will wrap up the season by giving Harbaugh his first win as a head coach against the Buckeyes.” — J.P. Scott, Athlon Sports
Saturday — Florida*
Sept. 9 — Cincinnati
Sept. 16 — Air Force
Sept. 23 — at Purdue
Oct. 7 — Michigan State
Oct. 14 — at Indiana
Oct. 21 — at Penn State
Oct. 28 — Rutgers
Nov. 4 — Minnesota
Nov. 11 — at Maryland
Nov. 18 — at Wisconsin
Nov. 25 — Ohio State
* at Arlington, Texas
Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight used his offseason to get into a rigid routine where he would do the same things at the same time daily. BLADE/ANDY MORRISON