By: Will Burchfield
What Jim Harbaugh tells the media is not necessarily what he tells his players.
This is worth remembering amid the reports that Wilton Speight is locked in a three-way tie for Michigan’s starting quarterback job heading into training camp.
“He comes in really tied for first with John O’Korn and Brandon Peters, legitimately, through competition,” Harbaugh told reporters at Big Ten media days on Tuesday, via ESPN. “Throughout the spring, we went through 15 practices and it was a dead heat.
“But the good news is they all did some things. Brandon really shot up. John O’Korn really played consistently good. And Wilton really had some impressive moments as well.”
Let’s rewind to last summer, when Harbaugh spun a similar story regarding Speight, O’Korn and Shane Morris. He said the three quarterbacks were neck and neck throughout training camp, and Speight wasn’t revealed as the starter until the team took the field for warmups prior to its season opener on Sept. 3.
Then, after the game, Speight spilled the beans.
“I finished spring ball last year on top and I was told going into camp that I would start there and it was my job to lose. So I made sure to stay there,” he said. “I didn’t really worry about them naming the starter or what day it happened.”
Sure, O’Korn and Morris showed their worth in training camp and kept Speight on notice, but they never seriously threatened his hold on the starting job.
“All the QBs have been playing very well, from the first day of camp to the first week to the second week all the way through. Wilton was just a little better,” Harbaugh said. “It was convincing that he was the best guy.”
Speight justified Harbaugh’s decision throughout 2016 season. He threw for 18 touchdowns versus seven interceptions and completed over 61 percent of his passes. He was even generating some Hesiman buzz prior to suffering a collarbone injury late in the season.
Michigan finished 10-3 and racked up a Big Ten-best 40.3 points per game. Speight was nominated for the Davey O’Brien Quarterback Award and was named Michigan’s most improved player by the coaching staff.
If he was the clear No. 1 heading into last season, when he didn’t have a single collegiate start under his belt, his claim to the starting job is only more obvious now.
Does the redshirt freshman Peters add some intrigue to the situation? Maybe a little given his dynamic arm, which he showed off in Michigan’s spring game. But Harbaugh also told reporters on Tuesday that Peters has a long way to go in commanding a huddle and communicating at the line of scrimmage. Speight is already a proven general under center.
In fact, there may not be a trait that Harbaugh admires more in Speight than his ability to lead. The coach isn’t going to turn this thing over to a freshman, not after all the equity Speight built up in 2016.
There’s a good chance Harbaugh has already communicated some version of this to Speight, Peters and O’Korn. He’ll tell the media otherwise in the weeks to come, probably all the way up to Michigan’s season opener versus Florida on Sept. 2, but last year should serve as evidence that it’s mostly lip service.