- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Few college players find themselves in a more ideal situation than Michigan's Brandon Graham.
Consider the résumé Graham brought into the fall: 24 games played, five starts, nine sacks, 10 tackles for loss and two fumble recoveries. Not bad, right? But compared to Michigan's other three starting defensive lineman, Graham looked like a novice.
"I've always been the young guy," Graham said. "It's good to have the seniors around me."
Graham is the only non-senior among the Wolverines' starting front four.
Defensive tackle Terrance Taylor, the team's vocal leader, entered the season with 24 career starts, while tackle Will Johnson and Tim Jamison had combined for 73 games played.
So much experience up front makes it easy to forget about Graham.
When asked about Graham on Tuesday's Big Ten coaches' teleconference, Illinois coach Ron Zook started talking about Jamison before catching himself. But you can bet the Illini will have Graham on their radar when they visit Michigan Stadium on Saturday (ABC, 3:30 p.m.).
If they don't, they'll be in trouble. Few Big Ten defensive linemen have been more productive than Graham since the start of the 2007 season.
Graham led Michigan in sacks last fall with 8.5 and already has five this season. He earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors after recording three sacks and two forced fumbles in last week's come-from-behind win against Wisconsin. Of Graham's 19 tackles this season, more than half (9.5) have come behind the line of scrimmage.
He leads the nation in tackles for loss (2.38 per game) and ranks third in sacks (1.25 spg).
"He's always been productive his whole career," Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said. "He's in the best shape of his playing career. He's playing with a high motor, and he's a tremendous pass rusher."
Like his fellow linemen, Graham made significant progress in Michigan's offseason strength and conditioning program. He slimmed down and sped up.
"I was about 280 [pounds]," Graham said, "and now I'm down to 260 something, trying to play fast all the time. I feel slimmer, I feel quicker, I feel a whole lot stronger than last year. I'm learning new tricks for this year plus old tricks I learned last year, so I've just been trying to take it in and stay conditioned so where I can go out and do what they're teaching me every play."
Graham doesn't put himself in a category and strives to perform against both the run and pass, though his sacks statistics indicate he's developing into a strong speed rusher off the edge.
But the Detroit native is the first to point out he's not a finished product. That's where playing alongside the seniors, particularly Jamison at the opposite end spot, is paying off.
"He knows a lot of different protections that I don't really know on both the pass and the run," Graham said. "He's able to plant a little bit more. I just try to go off my abilities to push people around and try to do it. But I'll learn a little bit more, and that's why next year's always good. I'm just trying to learn as much as I can right now to get on his level.
"I appreciate saying I played with Terrance, Jamison and Will. The whole D-line, it was just all love when I got here. It's still the same way."
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