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UCLA's Wilton Speight gets his picture-perfect opportunity

Some of the more enduring snapshots of Wilton Speight’s football career were the kind best stuck in a drawer to collect dust.

Click! Speight guided Michigan to a lead in the final two minutes of the 2016 Orange Bowl before Florida State’s long kickoff return led to the game-winning touchdown.

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Clack! A Purdue defender crunched Speight awkwardly on the ground after he had been sacked in September 2017, breaking three vertebrae and ending his season after only four games.

Ka-chick! Speight went down less than a half into his comeback as a UCLA graduate transfer, a back injury sustained on a sack allowing true freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson to take over as the starting quarterback.

Finally, on Saturday, came a frame-worthy moment.

Speight took a knee and pumped his fist after closing out the Bruins’ taut 31-30 victory over Arizona at the Rose Bowl. It was a glossy return that had appeared unlikely in recent weeks as Thompson-Robinson solidified his hold on the starter’s job — before suffering his own injury in the second quarter against the Wildcats.

Speight replacing Thompson-Robinson was a role reversal from the opener, only with a better ending for the Bruins.

“I feel very happy, relieved that I was able to get back in and play the game that I love,” Speight said after helping to preserve the triumph by directing a 13-play drive that drained the final 6 1/2 minutes off the clock. “You know, it’s been a long haul of some dark times since the first back injury and then again opening the season.”

Speight won the starting job in training camp but did not reclaim it even after being cleared to return to game action in late September, UCLA coach Chip Kelly sticking with Thompson-Robinson amid his early-season struggles.

Yet Speight never wavered in his dedication to a team that had moved to the younger, snazzier option. Every day, he came to work driving his black Chevy Tahoe with Virginia license plates onto the top level of a parking lot that overlooks the practice field where he would often toil with the second team.

“He’s always prepared like he may get another opportunity and he never was too down,” said Steve Clarkson, the quarterback trainer who has worked with Speight since early in his high school career. “It had to have been extremely frustrating for him to watch basically an injury take him off the field, but he kept his faith and continued to push on.”

Speight could get another chance Friday night when the Bruins (2-5 overall, 2-2 in Pac-12 Conference play) face No. 23 Utah (5-2, 3-2) at the Rose Bowl. One day after short-arming a few passes, Thompson-Robinson did not even attempt to throw Monday during the portion of practice open to the media. He apparently was still bothered by an upper-body injury.

Speight continued to work with the first team, showing the commanding presence that Kelly praised before the season in explaining why he had won the starting job.

“He definitely has the best swag on the team of the quarterbacks,” said tight end Devin Asiasi, a transfer who was also Speight’s teammate at Michigan. “We got a young quarterback [in] DTR in there, but [Speight] bringing that experienced presence, being in a couple games at Michigan, having experience with them big games, having that leadership is something that we need for our team.”

To Clarkson, Speight evokes a famous quarterback turned politician.

“If you ever hear him speak,” Clarkson said, “he always reminds me of Jack Kemp.”

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Kemp starred at Occidental College before leading the Buffalo Bills to AFL championships in 1964 and ’65. He was known as the team’s clubhouse lawyer for his role in mediating conflicts, a skill that later came in handy as a longtime congressman and vice presidential candidate.

Like Kemp, Speight’s gift for public speaking and rallying his teammates makes him seem like a natural politician. They are talents he’s begun to enhance while completing a two-year master’s degree program in the UCLA Graduate School of Education. But he’s also hoping there’s lots of football left before making any sort of career switch.

Speight showed glimpses Saturday of the abilities that have made him an NFL prospect despite playing in only a handful of games over the last two seasons. His mobility as someone who stands 6 feet 6 and weighs 232 pounds has been widely questioned, but he’s nimbly sidestepped defenders multiple times as a Bruin.

His two touchdown passes against Arizona might have been upstaged by a fourth-down completion he made while scrambling late in the second quarter. Speight freed himself just enough to complete an 11-yard pass near the sideline to tight end Caleb Wilson, giving UCLA a first down on a drive that ended in a touchdown.

“Wilton, he’s won a lot of games as a college football quarterback,” Wilson said, “so I don’t really expect anything less when he comes in.”

Clarkson said he expected Speight to generate interest in the NFL draft based on his size and an intriguing skill set. He has long compared his protege to Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, calling him “Big Ben 2.”

“There were [video] clips I did side by side with Ben and Wilton and they looked like the same guy,” Clarkson said. “They had the same movement in the pocket, the same strength throwing people off them and being able to improvise.”

Now Speight is trying to show that he can also master the art of the comeback after so much disappointment.

“It stinks, but it’s part of the game,” Speight said. “I just had to keep my faith and keep my spirits high and just try to make all my people proud and keep doing what I do.”

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