By Michael Spath
When he completed his redshirt sophomore year at Michigan, John Navarre was 11-5 as a starting quarterback, had thrown for 3,018 yards with 27 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, almost an exact 2:1 touchdown to interception ratio. Yet going into the 2002 season, many fans were clamoring for challenger Spencer Brinton to take over the reins, or were hopeful four-star true freshman Matt Gutierrez would steal the job away in preseason camp. Navarre and Michigan’s current incumbent starter, Wilton Speight, have a lot in common, and it is Navarre who fits the perfect mold as we begin our Michigan Football Doppleganger series for 2017.
Lightly recruited out of Cudahay, Wisc., offered the chance to play quarterback at Michigan and Northwestern while a defensive end prospect everywhere else, Navarre is a physical match for Speight, playing his redshirt junior campaign in 2002 at 6-6 236 pounds. Speight is listed at 6-6, 243 following the spring. Though both have been labeled as lumbering, unathletic QBs, the truth is, Navarre was pretty good in the pocket, understanding how to step forward to avoid pressure coming off the edge. Navarre was sacked 82 times in 42 career starts, less than twice per game.
Speight is similarly labeled as lumbering, a statue in the pocket without the ability to run. While no one will confuse him with Denard Robinson – Speight’s longest career run is 17 yards and he has just three career rushes of 10 yards or more on 14 attempts – he’s only been sacked 21 times in 14 games of significance – because of his ability to elude pressure. Speight isn’t as committed to the pocket as Navarre, he moves laterally far more often to slip a would-be sack, but he does have a keen awareness of where he is at all times and what he must do to extend a play, even a second longer, before he can attempt a pass or pick up positive yardage on the ground.
In one full season a starter, and a key reserve in contests against Minnesota and Ohio State in 2015, Speight has thrown for 2,611 yards with 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions in his career. He has been accurate, completing 61.6 percent of his throws a year ago. Like Navarre, Speight was essentially a game manager as a redshirt sophomore, throwing for 250 yards or more just three times in 12 starts. Navarre never hit that mark in 2001, but with greater confidence, experience, and the trust of his coaches, he threw for 250 yards or more four times in 2002 and then six times as a senior in 2003, finishing with a Michigan single-season record 3,331 yards passing while leading the Maize and Blue to a Big Ten championship.
Speight could follow a similar career arc, becoming a bigger part of the offense in 2017 while building towards a championship campaign as a fifth-year senior in 2018, when most feel the Maize and Blue will be poised to beat Ohio State, win the Big Ten and qualify for the college football playoff. Of course, a few of us believe the learning progression will advance more quickly, and Speight can win right now. If he does, we’ll have to compare the Richmond, Va., native to former Michigan greats that led the Wolverines to titles as juniors – names like Elvis Grbac and Tom Brady.