DOES THIS THING HAVE A DIFFICULTY LEVEL HARDER THAN "INSANE"
The Law of Harbaugh: it doesn't matter who your QB is
Jim Harbaugh is a kid sitting in a basement frustrated because Dark Souls is too easy. Sure, he crafted the first draft pick of any variety in San Diego history. He beat USC with a pottery major. He got Alex Smith a 70-million dollar contract. He nearly won a Super Bowl with a guy the league is currently passing over in favor of Stoney Case. (For bad reasons, admittedly.) And he turned an Iowa castoff into an NFL draft pick and in-demand trade bait:
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) August 27, 2017
Quarterbacks? Quarterbacks are easy. He has all the Quarterbacka Universalis IV achievements. Except one: take a quarterback recruited by Al Borges and have him finish his career as the starter. It's never happened. Never! Never ever ever. And no wonder. This Speight quote from last year only gets more boggling 12 months later:
"In their eyes, myself, David Cornwell, and this kid from IMG Academy Michael O'Connor are the best quarterbacks in the nation in this class."
Cornwell and O'Connor were both nowhere near the two deep before they transferred, Cornwell to Nevada and O'Connor to UBC. As in British Columbia.
The Borges achievement wasn't going to happen this time either, because John O'Korn was going to swoop in and gun-sling his way into our hearts. Then it did happen. Wilton Speight, a redshirt sophomore who played a chunk of the season with something deeply wrong with his collarbone, was the second-most efficient QB in the Big Ten, averaged nearly eight yards an attempt, and had a 18-7 TD-INT ratio. He's already the best Borges-recruited QB ever, easily outstripping Cam Coffman's 6.7 YPA (and subsequent move to TE) in 2012.
At this point I'm willing to see what the Harbaugh version of Denard Robinson looks like under center. Just in case.
[After THE JUMP: references marginally less dorky than EUIV!]
THE BEAR AND THE FRESHMAN FAIR
who got lucky on a 'speight peters okorn' flickr search: this guy [Upchurch]
...ALSO THE DISREGARDED SENIOR SO I GUESS AEMON TARGARYEN?
The coaches swore up and down that Michigan is having a bonafide quarterback competition this fall, but rather gave away the game when they named Wilton Speight and John O'Korn as the top two. Freshman Brandon Peters might have sped past the assembled masses; when Michigan fans saw Speight and O'Korn last year they knew there was only one way that competition was going to resolve itself.
Your correspondent admits he is considerably skeptical about O'Korn's ability to go from the guy we saw against Indiana to... not that. But it doesn't really matter. With all due respect to open quarterback competitions and Peters's talent and O'Korn's spring game heroics, sophomores with Speight's numbers almost never lose their job without a meteor falling on them.
Yes, Speight is older than a typical rising junior after a collarbone injury in high school caused him to take an extra year, and yes he had a QB guru. He's closer to his ceiling than Peters, a guru-free QB who is young for his class and somehow already polished. But this is quarterback, not running back. Any QB younger than 30 is a work in progress. Peters should improve faster; it probably won't matter.
you talkin' to me about salmon? [Bryan Fuller]
So. WILTON SPEIGHT it is, then. Speight's high-level stats above are the very picture of good, solid quarterbacking. They are neither depressing nor amazing. They don't suggest either an early NFL entry or a pending collapse. They are lies. Speight was a rollercoaster in a helmet, from his first attempt of the season—an interception—to the last. The twist ending is where he ended up.
He started well. Speight looked terrific for the 1.99 games after that interception…
Speight's accuracy was excellent, with vanishingly few throws where the receiver had to do anything even mildly difficult. … There haven't been any passes to dig out or guys taken off their feet or throws on which the receiver has to reach behind his body. Everything short has been almost 100% on point. … Speight gives off an aura of confidence.
…and then fell apart after getting earholed by Chidobe Awuzie in the Colorado game. He put up a 50% downfield success rate in a performance this site characterized as "Early Rudock Except Crazy" because of events like this:
The saving grace of other Speight throws against the Buffaloes was that they were too inaccurate to intercept. Speight had a couple of trundling performances after that game. "There were a lot—a lot a lot—of inaccurate and marginal throws" said this space after Penn State; "far too many close calls" after Wisconsin. Also: "there's nothing for it except to hope that he can improve a great deal." Then Michigan had their bye week.
Speight returned on fire. After the Maryland game Michigan's offense was coming off a four-game stretch where they scored 12 touchdowns in 16 first-half drives and got field goals on three others; two field goals were forced by the end of the half, not the defense. This space at Speight's apex:
None of these teams are good, but that's insane. Speight going from meh to legit good has turned this offense into a juggernaut not far off their defense. Metrics that attempt to adjust for SOS are inching into the bonkers zone. Michigan's offense is #8 in S&P+, #4 in FPI, and #1(!) in FEI.
And... I don't know if I disagree? Especially given the trajectory here. Those metrics include a big chunk of the season in which Speight was not playing anywhere near this level. "Ain't played nobody" is a charge with some merit, but I mean dang man, 'Bama had 17 points at halftime against Kentucky.
The implosion was forthcoming, because of course it was. It came as swiftly and made as little sense as The Day After Tomorrow's weather. The post-Iowa UFR surveyed the carnage:
WHAT HAPPENED TO SPEIGHT AHHH
I dunno, man. The weird thing is that Speight started out looking much like he had in the previous three games. He missed a bomb to Darboh early, but other than that he was rolling out and finding guys downfield impressively, or actually hitting a downfield shot, or hitting open short stuff with ease. By the time Michigan scored to go up 10-0, he had one inaccurate pass and one marginal one against 9 DO/CA throws.
That did not last. … Speight's DSR over the final ~40 minutes was 40%.
Things went haywire after the RON COLUZZI IS A GOLDEN GOD punt. He overthrew Jake Butt badly on a three-yard route, setting up the ensuing safety, and over the next four drives these were his non-screen attempts:
- Underthrows Chesson by five yards on a waggle comeback
- Underthrows Darboh by 20 yards on a stop and go that was eyepoppingly wide open
- Sacked despite being given a full five seconds before contact
- Completed drag to Perry
- Nearly throws INT at Perry when he is flanked by open guys
- Underthrows Darboh by 20 yards on flea flicker
- Throws it way behind Butt because a linebacker made him; had two open guys further outside
- Sack/strip that's not really his fault but does have a hitch-up that allows the DE time to get home
You can't move the ball like that.
There was no apparent reason for any of this. There was no wind. The two throws prior to this long period in the desert were the 29-yarder to Chesson and an accurate quick out. Speight didn't get hit on either throw, and the only contact he took until the end of this period was a sack on which his legs were grabbed and he went down without taking much of a hit. Speight's performance dropped off a cliff without any ready explanation.
Speight recovered slightly but was still disappointing for the duration; since his receivers were equally disappointing Michigan missed a bunch of opportunities to escape Iowa City with a win. This, Speight's fourth touchdown-spurning miss of a wide open Darboh, has been seared into the minds of the judgmental faction of the fanbase and will never leave:
It'll never leave mine, either, but let's try to get over it.
Unadulterated data from Speight's season ends there. He was not given a chance to recover because at the very end of the Iowa game he was tackled and something very bad happened to his collarbone. That knocked him out of the Indiana game and prevented him from throwing deep at all against Ohio State. His offensive line prevented him from doing so in the bowl.
[Hennechart orientation: mouse over column headers for explanations of the categories. + is handed out for a good throw under duress. * is handed out for a very bad version of a bad thing. Numbers in parens are screens. DSR is an attempt to compress the numbers into one overall number. PFF is PFF's grade.]
That is Speight's full season in UFR. I went back and did a passing chart for OSU and FSU, and now there are numbers with which I can describe the weird disconnect between Speight's sophomore performance and the Michigan fanbase's lust for Brandon Peters. I frankly do not get the PFF numbers, which had Speight's final three games at about the same level; I saw a horrendous game against Iowa and performances between good and great—especially considering the circumstances—in his final two outings. Except for, you know, the two turnovers that cost Michigan 14 points and the game against OSU. (The third was not his fault.) Aside from those, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the quarterbacking?
Speight won and lost the OSU game. Despite the fact he was still clearly affected by his shoulder injury—he attempted zero downfield throws—he was back in creepy accuracy mode. Michigan went to a ton of short west coast passes and completed nearly all of them. For the vast majority of the game Speight looked like a veteran in total command:
He did start wobbling late with a few balls that were borderline MA/IN in my charting system. "MA" is marginal, an iffy throw that still gives your WR a shot but forces him into a tough catch or robs him of the ability to pick up YAC. "IN" is plain inaccurate. Here that poisonous Speight-Darboh thing where a moderately inaccurate throw resulted in Darboh failing to bring in a moderately tough catch reared its head:
This late fade became hugely magnified in importance when Speight threw a third-down slant a little behind Darboh and Darboh dropped it, preventing Michigan from executing a four-minute drill. The rest is terrible, terrible history.
Then there were the two plays on which he more or less handed OSU 14 points. One was a fumble from under center, his first and only of the year. (IIRC.) The second was a crippling interception flung at a linebacker Speight did not expect. For sanity's sake please don't look at Grant Perry on this:
Sorry, now you're insane. Welcome!
The unresolvable question is whether these plays were symptoms of a deeper problem or just some random-ass shit that turned out to be maximally harmful. I vote the latter, and wrote a whole column about it. Something good happened almost 80% of the time Speight threw, and the big errors were not characteristic of his season. He did this on the road in Columbus at considerably less than full strength. I will fight people who want to dump on his OSU game.
Then, the bowl game. Speight's performance against FSU is difficult to parse because he was under siege. The interior OL had an abominable outing, led by Kyle Kalis. Kalis was an astounding –5.2 in pass protection per PFF and picked up 10 pass pro minuses in my charting of the game. Cole and Bredeson were half as bad, but also bad. The end result was 13 Speight throws I either gave up on because of pressure or offered a plus in the chart because he managed to cope. PFF deemed him pressured on 56% of his dropbacks. The OL barely scraped above 50% in my charting. This was his night:
In that context Speight's performance was okay. He got sped up and missed some throws he should have made, but he also bailed Michigan out time and again:
It was a bit worse than OSU, still solidly within the realm of acceptable, and achieved despite Damarcus Walker turning Michigan's interior OL into a rug and wearing them.
The twist: Speight's late-season slide was not a slide. It was a horrible blip during the latter two thirds of the Iowa game. We can all feel excellent about his performance next year, because horrible blips were permanently extinguished, as the spring game amply...
TRAITS, AND A THEORY
jump mans [Fuller]
How does this fit together? Our operative theory of Speight: there's a Harbaugh version and a... well, let's call it a pre-Harbaugh version. When things are going well they go very well because Harbaugh has coached him up like he's coached up the rest of his charges. When Speight gets rattled because he gets blown up or doesn't trust his protection or gets spooked by corn(?) he reverts to bad old habits, sending his accuracy off a cliff.
I tried to figure out what was going on with Speight's erratic touch after PSU, which was not great the week after that earholing:
My theory is that Speight's footwork went to hell when he was still in the pocket and getting pressure. Once he's outside the pocket and throwing on the move he's basically fine. He modifies his approach since he knows he's on the run and throws a lot of wobbly floaters that are on point to open guys. When he's totally clean and his mechanics are consistent he's very accurate.
When he's getting rushers in on him and still throwing from the pocket maybe his footwork gets messed up and balls go anywhere? Compare the two fullback flat throws. On the early one to Hill PSU sends a blitzer and Speight appears to anticipate the contact as the pickup guy gets hit back into him. Thus a throw Hill has to pluck off his shoelaces:
The fourth quarter throw to Poggi is clean and he throws a strike to Poggi's chest:
I zaprudered these plays and Speight doesn't step up with his left foot on the Hill throw, probably because he's anticipating contact. If he does step and throw as normal this ball still gets out without having the impact affect the ball's accuracy.
…a gentleman who hears about practice reported back to me that this week's practice shorted the backups snaps: "They were trying to correct some mechanics [for Speight]. Short arming passes, footwork and timing. Cadence and rhythm were a focal point." He's seeing the field well, and just struggling to execute periodically.
He refined during the bye week and came out on fire. I got that same report, or something close to it, after the Iowa game. Speight had the week off to refine and came out slinging against OSU. If he can just keep the Harbaugh stuff switched on for the duration he's going to be excellent.
This is because he's got some dominant traits.
One thing Speight is indisputably excellent at is buying time in the pocket. Rushers bounce off him or grab at his feet in the futile hope he falls over; he senses pressure and spins away from it; he keeps his eyes downfield; he finds guys in desperate situations. His pocket presence is that of a 35-year old NFL quarterback who stays alive with occult playbook knowledge and borrowed horse tendons:
After the PSU game this space said "that Rothlisberger thing where he's slippery enough in the pocket and also huge so it's surprisingly hard to sack him." When Mike Spath interviewed folks at Big Ten media day anonymously this attribute was the first thing out of multiple opponents' mouths:
"Our coaches raved about his football IQ and his feel for the rush. The biggest thing was execution. He missed on some throws that were there. If he hits some of the big plays, they're probably undefeated. But the intangibles are there, the smarts are there, the arm is there." …
"The hardest part about playing him is you can't bring him down. I watch guys in the NFL try to tackle Cam Newton or Ben Roethlisberger and they seem to just bounce off him, and Speight is the same way."
I mean, this is a thing:
And this is even more of a thing:
I am actually disappointed that Speight shed some 20 pounds this offseason, because it would have been way more fun to see him double down on being large and impossible to tackle, like Groot in a facemask. Ah well.
Speight's also demonstrated his toughness. The aftermath of his ugly Colorado game:
Wilton Speight pic.twitter.com/4rr42GXTiE
— Nick Baumgardner (@nickbaumgardner) September 17, 2016
Later in the season he played two weeks after doing something nasty to his collarbone. He took a series of big hits this season and after Colorado he did not seem unduly affected by them. His ability to stay sane in the bowl game was impressive, and a harbinger of a new and improved leader sort of guy Michigan hopes to deploy this fall.
Also, yes, he can throw deep. A lot of people bash Speight's deep accuracy because of lingering frustration with the Iowa game, but this is recency bias. Speight was more than capable of hitting deep targets for much of the year. Then Iowa happened, and the rest of the season afterwards has to be seen through an injury prism.
Michigan message boards slathered skepticism on this PFF stat, but it's not wrong:
No returning Big 10 QB threw the deep pass better than Wilton Speight last season.
Can he keep that up this season? pic.twitter.com/Yb7xKBxXHU
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) August 16, 2017
It is generous. It's generous to Speight because he eschewed deep shots against two of the toughest defenses in the country and benefited from 20+ yard throws in the #buttzone, but it's not totally bonkers. Iowa was the outlier here, as painful as it was.
If you are still concerned, 24/7 reports that Speight "worked relentlessly on his deep ball this off-season" and that he'd been hitting "more consistently" at those lengths. So there you go.
i keeck a touchdown [Fuller]
The #1 question: can Speight keep Harbaugh mode going when he's under siege? Because, uh, he's going to be under siege some. Colorado and Iowa say no. OSU and FSU say yes, as does an extra year of development, as does Harbaugh's unerring track record. His age is a bit of a drag on the incremental improvement most players make year-to-year, but see above about quarterbacks before 30.
Refining Speight's mechanics and keeping him on the straight and narrow should see him perform better. Whether that'll show up in the numbers depends on opposing defenses, his offensive line, and his targets. I don't know about the defenses—ask Ace.
This preview says that the OL will at least remain static since two of the three players they lost were outright bad and they're one year further removed from the Hokestink, and the wide receivers will be about the same, with early freshman nonsense overwhelmed by midseason—the secret thing about Michigan's WRs last year is that only Darboh made any impact, and I remain deeply conflicted about his failure to help his man out in virtually all critical situations a year ago.
That should set the stage for Speight to meaningfully improve on his numbers and emerge into the Big Ten's best passing quarterback. This is faint praise since his main competitors are Clayton "2017 Mitch Leidner" Thorson and Trace McSorley. If the horseshoe falls out of McSorley's butt he's the man, man. (JT Barrett will of course be a very valuable dual threat.)
It says here that Speight hits 8.5 YPA and gets more attempts, allowing him to challenge for first team All Big Ten and mount an assault on various bits of the Michigan passing record book. He will have a decision to make about the NFL draft.
THE FRESHMAN FAIR
ooh dreamy [Upchurch]
Yes, this is not the way the depth chart appears to be shaking out but I have this conceit and I'm sticking to it. Also: I kind of don't believe anyone who maligns my precious. While Speight was struggling in the spring game, BRANDON PETERS [recruiting profile] was poised and impressive:
One pick six marred an otherwise confident and accurate performance. The two best throws in there are probably the ones to Nate Schoenle, about whom more in a second. The first was a third and long conversion at 4:30 that looks a lot like the guy we saw on Peters's high school tape—unusually, I mean that as a compliment. He's got his guy, he knows it, and he tosses an accurate, catchable ball. Peters's ability to vary speeds is uncanny for a young quarterback, and it's good to see some of that is translating to college.
The second is the Schoenle wheel route to open the winning drive, which is just... dang, man. That's a hell of a throw, and Peters was making it most of the day despite a strong and swirling wind. (The earlier fade down the sideline that Jordan Glasgow got over the top on felt like it had been pushed by that wind.)
Peters moved decisively to get out of the pocket when necessary, scrambled for a touchdown, did not throw into coverage much, and was accurate on all but a couple throws. He looked very plausible at the same time Speight struggled.
You can review his performance herein:
This is obviously the only on-field data we have so far. It is encouraging.
The off-field stuff was equally encouraging up until Harbaugh slammed on the brakes a couple weeks back. After Rome, Webb described the QB situation thusly:
If you're asking me if what I've seen is further confirmation that Brandon is the most talented quarterback on the roster, my answer would be yes. No one is disputing that. I don't think the quarterbacks themselves would dispute that.
Nick Baumgardner broke down the spring game throw by throw and came out with this take:
Peters didn't create unwarranted pressure on himself by making quick, decisive throws. And when he had time, he was downright surgical. Michigan loves to throw crossing concepts when teams sit in man, and Peters had no problem with any of those throws. The balls were on time, allowing receivers to make plays.
His deep shot at the end of the game was one of the best throws I've seen in a live situation in some time. Can't do it any better.
Then came fall, with the coaches and various insiders swearing up and down about that bonafide competition, with the unstated subtext that it was between Peters and Speight. Harbaugh:
What is your stance on Wilton Speight as you enter the season? You said earlier in the year that he is your guy but there is a meritocracy.
“Yes, so Wilton’s in a good spot. He comes in really tied for first with John O’Korn and Brandon Peters. Legitimately through competition, throughout all 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.
Peters chatter slowed, and then stopped, and then bang.
What to make of that? I don't know. Coaches are not above making statements to the media that are mostly cattle prods to their team, and Peters did do well when put on the field. It could be nothing. It could be an understandable difficulty picking everything up. We got this during spring:
Peters is flashing talent but is still behind the veterans with his command of the offense.
It could be a first warning sign that the hype is going to... well... peter out. Ask again later.
...ALSO THE OTHER GUY
this bit was good at least [Upchurch]
All together now: I know that Jim Harbaugh told the assembled media that JOHN O'KORN and Speight had separated themselves in the QB battle and was all like "whaaaaaaa" about that. O'Korn got his shot when Speight was unable to play against Indiana. Michigan won thanks in large part to an explosive scramble O'Korn managed deep into the third quarter; they almost lost because he couldn't complete a pass to save his life.
His performance was, in a word, catastrophic. Passing table from his game against Indiana:
He was also –3 as a runner, which was the good bit of his day.
Michigan has seen quarterbacks rescue themselves from the depths before, especially under Harbaugh. Jake Rudock was brutal for half of his season as a starter and Speight's cameo against Minnesota last year was extremely shaky. But O'Korn's performance was closer to Russell Bellomy's outing against Nebraska than either of those performances.
O'Korn didn't just look bad, he looked completely out of his depth. He looked like a novice Madden player on more than one dropback:
That pass protection is fine if he just steps up. Instead he looks like early Devin Gardner. Even when Michigan was giving him simple half-field reads right in front of his face he was not executing:
(Michigan got bailed out by a horrendous late hit call.)
That's deep into his redshirt junior year, and his second under Harbaugh. Rudock walked into fall camp trying to pick up a new system; Speight was a redshirt freshman. O'Korn also has a season and a half of play at Houston that's not particularly encouraging. At the bust it was uncertain whether Michigan would bring him back this year. It would be a comeback of truly mind-bending proportions if O'Korn was able to overcome all that.
But Harbaugh sitting in the basement trying to find the "Stygian" difficulty level is a thing. Maybe!
OTHER OTHER GUYS
Freshman DYLAN MCCAFFREY [recruiting profile] comes in with accolades similar to those Peters garnered and one hell of a last name. He is guaranteed to redshirt as he packs pounds onto his 6'5" frame and learns the offense. Everyone who's paying even a little attention expects Peters to be the man sooner or later, including this space, but one doubts the combination of a McCaffrey QB with Jim Harbaugh at one's peril.
Early returns are what you'd expect:
...incredibly high IQ and an awareness of the game you can't teach. As you'd expect, it's the physical development McCaffrey will have to work on.
Check back in two years.
Redshirt sophomore ALEX MALZONE [recruiting profile] has probably seen his chance come and go. He's been definitively passed by Peters; McCaffrey figuratively and literally looms. He is all but unreferenced during press conferences. It would take a number of injuries and upsets for him to see the field for meaningful snaps. He enrolled early and is likely to get a degree in 3.5 years and search for a two-year gig elsewhere. There are worse things.