After being selected in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs, Speaks made his presence felt right away, playing in all 16 games as a rookie with four starts, while recording 24 tackles and 1.5 sacks.
But the following year, Speaks suffered an MCL sprain and meniscus tear during the preseason, which required season-ending surgery. It was Speaks’ first major injury since he began playing football.
The former Ole Miss standout was waived during final roster cuts the following season and bounced around from team to team over the next couple of years. He had stints with the Las Vegas Raiders, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and Buffalo Bills, but after being released by the Bills in December 2021, Speaks didn’t know where his football journey would take him next.
After being away from the game for a year and not playing in a true game-setting since his preseason injury back in 2019, Speaks got a call from Steve Kazor, the general manager of the USFL’s Michigan Panthers.
"He told me they [the Panthers] were looking for a guy to come up here and play defensive end," Speaks told FOX Sports college football analyst RJ Young, who spoke with the Panthers defensive lineman on a recent episode of his podcast, "The Number One College Football Show with RJ Young." I was surprised when he called, and once told him I was available he said, ‘OK cool, let’s roll. We’ll send you a contract tomorrow.’"
Not knowing much about his new home or teammates, Speaks quickly recognized one name he had a connection with: Panthers head coach Mike Nolan.
Before being named the Panthers' coach ahead of the 2023 USFL season, Nolan served as the defensive coordinator for the Cowboys during the 2020 NFL campaign, which coincided with the time Speaks was a member of Dallas’ practice squad.
"Being with him … it was honestly the right fit for me," Speaks said of his decision to sign with the Michigan Panthers. "I can tell so far through the season that it actually has been the perfect fit for me with these guys just believing in me and my ability to play."
Speaks wasted no time showing off that ability as the former Ole Miss star put together a dominant showing in a 29-13 victory over the Houston Gamblers in Week 1 of the USFL season. He racked up three sacks, seven tackles and a forced fumble en route to being named the USFL’s Week 1 Defensive Player of the Week.
"That was my first game in four years, so there a lot of emotions going through my mind," Speaks recalled. "I was just happy I was able to do what I did on game day."
It’s been much the same throughout this season as Speaks leads the USFL with seven sacks and ranks second in tackles with 39 heading into Week 8 of the season. He has been an interlingual part of the Panthers’ success as the team currently sits in second place in the North Division at 3-4.
Speaks credits his football instincts and his dedication to staying in game shape for his early success.
"I run to the football. That’s my key to victory. I always keep my motor running," Speaks said. "I want to make sure I’m in good enough shape to be able to play every snap if need be."
While Speaks’ short-term goal is to continue his success on the field and help lead the Panthers to a playoff berth, he does inspire to get back to the NFL one day.
"That’s the No. 1 goal," Speaks said. "With things I’ve done so far, I really feel like I’ve gained my confidence back to understand that yeah, I probably can play there."