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Wilton Speight makes case for Michigan quarterback job

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Michigan QB battle turns into three-horse race (1:27)

ESPN Big Ten reporter breaks down who is in the lead to grab Michigan's starting quarterback position and what to look for in Michigan's spring game. (1:27)

Michigan redshirt sophomore Wilton Speight has until recently been largely considered an afterthought in the two quarterback competitions since he’s arrived in Ann Arbor. His perceived status as an also-ran hasn’t gone unnoticed by the 6-foot-6 pro-style passer.

“Yeah, and that’s one thing I would always talk to my parents about,” Speight said Tuesday night about the exterior slights. “All the media all loved to buy in to one guy or two guys and that’s how it is at any program, and I knew that. I came into camp with an open mind knowing what I was capable of and I started showing that about a week into camp.”

Last August, then-junior Shane Morris and eventual starter Jake Rudock headlined the battle to be the first Wolverine quarterback under head coach Jim Harbaugh. Speight eventually took over the No. 2 spot on the depth chart when Morris opted to take a redshirt. Morris and Houston transfer John O’Korn were the front-runners heading into this year’s spring practice, but Speight has firmly injected himself into a three-man battle for the open spot.

In fact, if anyone is nosing ahead of the competition as Michigan wraps up its spring drills this week it’s Speight. The Virginia native took the first and most frequent snaps with the starting offense during an open practice at Ford Field in Detroit last Saturday. He said the competition is still very much anyone’s to win, but he’s been the first to break the huddle for the past week.

“Going into the third week [of spring ball] it was like, ‘OK, let’s solidify more of a depth chart or reps or who’s getting more or less,” he said. “That’s kind of how it’s been.”

Harbaugh said Saturday that Speight, O’Korn and Morris had separated themselves from the other quarterbacks on the roster, but he wasn’t ready yet to rank that trio. He said this Friday night’s spring game, which will be full contact for the quarterbacks, should provide some more important data in the decision-making process.

“Everything is going to be real tackle football,” Harbaugh said. “There will be live bullets for them. It will be a nice, good-sized test for us, looking forward to how that plays out.”

Morris is the veteran of the group and has a “rocket arm” (Speight’s words). He’s learned to hone that with a bit more touch this spring, according to Harbaugh and his teammates. O’Korn is the only one of the three with significant starting experience, having led Houston to an 8-5 record as a freshman in 2013. He also has a reputation as the most mobile of Michigan’s three options.

Speight says the empirical evidence is where he has found a sliver of an edge this spring. The coaching staff charts two-minute drills and other offensive situations during each practice, and the Wolverines have moved most consistently with Speight under center, he said.

Speight is also the one quarterback on the roster who helped lead Michigan to a win last fall. He stepped in for an injured Rudock during the second half at Minnesota last Halloween and threw what turned out to be a game-winning (thanks to a hefty assist from a last-second goal line stand on defense) touchdown pass to wide receiver Jehu Chesson.

Getting the job done in Minneapolis was a confidence boost that Speight carried with him into spring practice. He said he knew a couple of weeks into the regular season that he would be next in line if Rudock was going to miss significant playing time. Other than a few mop-up minutes, he wasn’t needed in any other games, but beating the Gophers was enough to make him believe he had a shot to win the starting position in 2016, even if very few others considered him a serious candidate.

“It would give anybody confidence to be able to go into a game like that and make an impact and eventually win the game,” he said. “You carry that with you. Not that you’re living in the past, but you know you can do it and you know you can do it going forward.”