Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of three stories looking at the battle at UCLA to replace Josh Rosen at quarterback this season. Read Part 1: Devon Modster.
LOS ANGELES — Five years ago, a cookie was all it took to impress Wilton Speight. He was a teenager easily swayed by the extraneous things often lavished on recruits while they visits schools. The cookie had his number on it. Four years at Michigan, several fractured vertebrae and an undergraduate degree later, he’s learned his lesson.
So when the former Michigan quarterback met with UCLA head coach Chip Kelly this spring about a potential grad transfer spot, Speight made sure to have his priorities straight.
“He wanted to talk about what course of study he was going to be and what type of offense we ran,” Kelly said. “Those were the only two things that concerned him. So you’re getting a guy that’s got some maturity.”
In the battle for UCLA’s starting quarterback spot, Speight brings more college experience than the rest of the candidates combined. He has 16 collegiate starts. UCLA’s returning back-up Devon Modster has just two. Freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson has yet to even suit up for a college game.
Speight has already competed and won quarterback battles in college and played in a New Year’s Six bowl. The Bruins have just eight seniors, need three new starting offensive linemen and lost their top two receivers from last year. Speight could bring much-needed experience to the team in its first year under a new coach.
“Nothing is really too big for him,” receiver Theo Howard said. “He’s not too frantic when he’s out on the field.”
While the pairing of Kelly, whose Oregon teams rose to prominence on the backs of dual-threat quarterbacks, and a 6-foot-6 prototypical pocket-passer like Speight seems unlikely, the grad transfer envisioned only success in Westwood.
“I saw a team that was ready to win,” Speight said of why he chose UCLA. “Coach Kelly obviously has the formula to get that done.”
Kelly pitched Speight on a system like the one the coach ran in the NFL, where he turned to pocket-passers like Nick Foles, Sam Bradford and Mark Sanchez. Foles was named to the 2013 Pro Bowl while leading the league in yards per pass attempt and passer rating. Sanchez, the former USC star, personally vouched for Kelly’s offense as the two quarterbacks trained together in the winter after Speight left Michigan following a career plagued by injury and inconsistency.
Speight’s Michigan career ended when all 295 pounds of Purdue defensive lineman Eddy Wilson crashed down on the back of the quarterback’s head last fall. Speight sustained several broken vertebrae on the hit.
Although the Wolverines were off to a 3-0 start with Speight at quarterback, fans clamored for a change as he was completing just 54.5 percent of his passes and had thrown just three touchdowns to two interceptions.
It was a stark contrast from his performance as a junior, when, under former UCLA offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, he led Michigan to the Orange Bowl. Despite suffering an injury to his non-throwing shoulder that reportedly required offseason surgery, he passed for 2,538 yards with 18 touchdowns to seven interceptions while completing 61.6 percent of his passes.
That, quarterbacks coach Steve Clarkson said, was the real Wilton Speight.
Clarkson, who has worked with Speight privately since the quarterback was a rising junior in high school, doesn’t doubt that his protégé can regain the magic under Kelly.
“I think he can be better,” Clarkson said. “He’s just that much more confident and knowledgeable. Physically, his body is just a lot, lot stronger.”
Speight said his body is “100 percent,” after a rigorous winter workout program. He left Michigan with his degree in hand and worked with Tom House, the Huntington Beach-based quarterback coach who has honed the throwing motions of NFL stars like Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger. In September, he walked off the field at Purdue with three fractured vertebrae, and by April, he felt better than ever.
Now it’s a matter of getting his play to match.
“This is my last year,” Speight said. “It’s my last shot to show what I can do to get to the next level, and that’s what it really came down to.”