SANTA CLARA – The coincidence did not immediately hit quarterback Wilton Speight, who last week agreed to a three-year contract to join the 49ers as an undrafted rookie.
Speight played the bulk of his college career at Michigan for Jim Harbaugh. For his final year of eligibility, he transferred to UCLA, where he played for Chip Kelly.
So after starting at quarterback in college for two recent 49ers head coaches, Speight is now a member of the 49ers. Go figure.
“It didn’t really cross my mind until Chip texted me right after and was all fired up,” Speight said after a practice at 49ers rookie camp. “He said, ‘You’ll love it there.’ I got to the equipment room, and all the equipment guys have been here X-amount of years for both staffs. That was the first time they talked to me about it.”
Speight certainly looks the part of an NFL quarterback. Listed at 6-foot-6, 232 pounds, Speight has the size and physical tools. The ball came out of his hand cleanly with tight spirals during his debut on the 49ers’ practice field in the non-padded work during rookie camp.
Speight, however, experienced an up-and-down college career. In the spring of 2015, he received a very public reprimand from Harbaugh, who had been recently fired as 49ers coach. As part of a Harbaugh profile in HBO’s "Real Sports," the coach was shown berating one of his quarterbacks.
“I’m just telling you the right way to do it,” Harbaugh snapped at the player. “If you want to look at me with that look, go (expletive) somewhere else.”
The player’s jersey number and face were blurred, in an apparent attempt to obscure which player Harbaugh was addressing. That, clearly, did not work.
“Everyone knew it was me because I was taller than he was,” said Speight, who was recruited to Michigan to play for previous coach Brady Hoke.
“He (Harbaugh) told me if I had a sour look on my face to transfer to Princeton or something like that. That was on the HBO special, so everybody knew he and I, obviously, butted heads a little bit. And that carried over a little into fall camp, and I just put my head down and worked and got up to second string that year.”
Speight rose from being the Wolverines’ fifth-string quarterback to the starter as a sophomore. He appeared in 12 games in 2016, as Michigan rose as high as No. 2 in the national rankings in mid-November. Speight completed 204 of 331 passes for 2,538 yards with 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions on the season. His relationship with Harbaugh grew in the process.
“In order for the team to be successful and have a smooth operation, it needs to be a solid relationship,” Speight said. “And especially since he played quarterback at the University of Michigan, there were a lot of similarities and common things that we shared.
“And, also, everyone said we looked alike and he ate that up. He loved that. We had a great relationship.”
Speight's best football appeared to be in front of him. But his junior season came to an early end when he sustained three fractured vertebrae in his back in the fourth game of the season at Purdue. Speight sat out the final nine games of the season and decided to consider all his options for his final year of college eligibility. He said he and Harbaugh spoke frequently during the process.
“He and I had an open talk, an open door policy,” Speight said. “He knew I was going to do what was best for me, and that was for me to go be the quarterback at UCLA at that time.”
Speight was eligible to play immediately as a grad transfer, and he won the starting job for Week 1 in Kelly’s first season as UCLA coach.
“My experience was awesome, working with Chip,” Speight said. “It was a totally different approach and style, X’s and O’s wise, but also off the field, and the scientific approach that Chip takes.
“Chip and I watched a lot of film with Nick Foles, and I noticed a lot of similarities in terms of build and how I moved in the pocket and stuff like that.”
In Kelly’s first season as coach of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013, Foles threw 27 touchdown passes and just two touchdowns in Kelly’s offense. But Kelly was fired after three seasons with the Eagles. He lasted just one year with the 49ers.
Speight sustained a back injury in the first game with UCLA and did not return to action until late-October. He was back on the field for the highlight of UCLA’s season, an upset victory over crosstown rival USC.
Speight was not among the 17 quarterbacks invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, but he did get a couple of opportunities to show his skills to a large group of NFL scouts and evaluators.
Michigan tight end Zach Gentry and receiver Grant Perry got in contact with Speight about the possibility of him attending the pro day this spring at his old school. Michigan did not have any quarterbacks graduating, and they wanted someone familiar to throw them passes. But, first, Harbaugh had to approve the idea of Speight taking part in the Michigan pro day.
“They asked me to take it to him because he and I had a close relationship, still have a close relationship,” Speight said. “So I just picked up the phone, gave him a call. He answered and immediately said, ‘That’s a great idea.’
“I think, first and foremost, it helped his current players. But it also helped me, his former quarterback.”
Four days later, Speight took part in the UCLA pro day. The 49ers also gave Speight a private workout in Southern California, and quarterbacks coach Ryan Day was in constant contact with him throughout the draft process.
Speight received post-draft interest from four teams, he said. He opted to sign with the 49ers over offers from the Los Angeles Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Speight joins a 90-man roster that alreaady features Jimmy Garoppolo, C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens. He went out to his first day of 49ers rookie camp on Friday feeling secure about his knowledge of the playbook and ready to provide assistance to any of his new offensive teammates who might need help.
“I woke up this morning knowing the playbook inside and out," Speight said. "I wanted to come out and show well and be able to lead the guys, and be a confident guy that if somebody needed to ask a question because they weren’t sure, I’d be their guy to answer it.”