NCF Nation: Taylor Lewan

If you follow former Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan on Twitter, you've probably seen the hashtag #nobaddays. He signs almost every tweet with the phrase, whether he's getting picked by the Tennessee Titans in the NFL draft or being cut in line by an old lady at the airport.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Lewan
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesOff-the-field issues have clouded the perception of Taylor Lewan, who was the first Big Ten player picked in the NFL draft earlier this month.
But it does appear that Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 were bad days for Lewan.

Michigan lost a heartbreaker Nov. 30 to Ohio State 42-41 in Lewan's final home game at the Big House, dropping him to 1-3 against the rival Buckeyes. Hours later, in the early morning of Dec. 1, Lewan was involved in an incident involving an Ohio State fan. Lewan claimed he was trying to break up a fight and relayed his version of what happened to NFL teams in the predraft process. But Buckeyes fan James Hughes claimed Lewan punched him in the face, and Lewan was charged with one count of aggravated assault and two counts of assault and battery.

The Associated Press on Thursday obtained the police report from the incident, which includes statements from Lewan's ex-girlfriend, who claims Lewan assaulted Hughes.
Alexandra Dileo, whose brother was a teammate of Lewan's, said "Taylor is lying" about his actions on Dec. 1.

"He knocked the guy to the ground and he punched him," she told police in a telephone interview Jan. 29, according to the report. She recalled hearing Lewan tell his mother "I knocked a guy out" the next morning while they were having breakfast.

Alexandra Dileo is the sister of former Michigan wide receiver Drew Dileo, one of Lewan's good friends on the team.

As soon as the AP story broke Thursday, some Michigan fans questioned Alexandra Dileo's credibility, since she and Lewan had broken up and Lewan soon will become a millionaire with the Titans. Lewan's attorneys undoubtedly will make the same argument, which Dileo acknowledged in her conversation with police.
Dileo expressed concerns to police that people would feel she was lying because she and Lewan had broken up, according to the report. But she "stated she knows what happened and Taylor is lying."

What really happened Dec. 1 in Ann Arbor depends on whom you believe. At the very least, it creates an awkward situation for Lewan and Drew Dileo.

It also raises more questions about Lewan, one of the more polarizing star players in the Big Ten in recent years.

"I was actually breaking something up and some guy said that I slugged him, but that's not who I am off the field," Lewan told reporters at the NFL combine in February. "That's not the kind of person I am."

Who is Taylor Lewan? Good citizen or bully? Textbook tackle or dirty player? All of the above?

Few would deny he's an exceptional football player -- a tall, strong, athletic, smart offensive tackle who should have a long NFL career. He's a two-time All-American and three-time All-Big Ten selection who won Big Ten offensive lineman of the year honors in both 2012 and 2013. Any credible list of Michigan's top offensive linemen in the past 20 years should include Lewan's name.

But he'll also be remembered for twisting the facemask of Michigan State safety Isaiah Lewis in last year's loss to the Spartans. Lewan later apologized.

Two years earlier, he was on the receiving end of a punch from Michigan State defensive end William Gholston that resulted in a one-game suspension for Gholston. But many believe Lewan wasn't free of blame in that incident.

Lewan also had to defend himself against allegations he tried to intimidate a woman who said she had been sexually assaulted by Michigan kicker Brendan Gibbons, another of Lewan's friends.

It doesn't add up to a squeaky-clean image, which Lewan acknowledged at the combine.

"It kills me inside," Lewan said. "It probably kills my mother, too. She helped raise me. But yeah, it hurts definitely because the player I am on the field, it's probably really easy to assume all those things about me. But that’s not who I am at all."

Lewan always had an edge to his game. He was a through-the-whistle lineman. Last spring, he told me: "Maybe I'm a little messed up in the head, I don't know, but I enjoy hitting my face on another man's face and trying to put him in the dirt and make him feel every single inch of it. Something about that, it puts me on cloud nine."

In the next breath, he talked about spending his final year at Michigan exploring campus life beyond Schembechler Hall, interacting with regular students and parts of the university that have nothing to do with football. Athletes often live in a bubble and Lewan wanted to venture beyond. It was an impressive and refreshing viewpoint from a guy who turned down millions because, in his mind, he hadn't become a Michigan Man.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke repeatedly defended Lewan's character this spring, noting that assumptions would be made about the Dec. 1 incident until the truth comes out. Hoke pointed out Lewan's work at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital and other good things he did in the community during his time as a Wolverine.

"I believe that his character will shine through," Hoke told the NFL Network.

Time will tell if that's the case. Lewan's next court appearance is scheduled for June 16.

It could shape a Michigan legacy that, for now, must be labeled as mixed.
The biggest non-game on the American sporting calendar is all done, as the 2014 NFL draft wrapped up Saturday afternoon in New York. After arguably its worst draft in the modern era in 2013, the Big Ten performed better this year with 30 picks. Still, the league finished fourth among conferences in selections, trailing the SEC (49), ACC (42) and Pac-12 (34).

After a big Friday night with six second-round selections -- including four in a row -- and six third-round selections, the Big Ten's momentum slowed a bit Saturday in the final four rounds. The league had only one sixth-round pick and only four in the seventh round.

Let's start the breakdown by listing Big Ten draftees by round (with comments below). Maryland and Rutgers players aren't included here because neither group competed in the Big Ten (Terrapins CB Dexter McDougle went in the third round; Rutgers had no players drafted).

FIRST ROUND (4)
[+] EnlargeTaylor Lewan
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyTaylor Lewan was the first Big Ten player selected, going 11th overall to the Tennessee Titans.
Analysis: Click here for my first-round thoughts

SECOND ROUND (6)
Analysis: Hageman ends up in a really good spot with the Falcons. Although Latimer had an excellent pre-draft performance, it wasn't surprising to see him end up in the middle of the second round. Hyde waited longer than many anticipated, but he enters a great situation with a team that loves to play power football. Robinson joins a new-look Jaguars passing attack featuring quarterback Blake Bortles and wideout Marqise Lee.

THIRD ROUND (6)
Analysis: Everyone had Southward going before Borland, right? Borland, the 2013 Big Ten defensive player of the year, had an exceptional college career, but concerns about his height and perhaps his injury history moved him down the draft boards. The Iowa Effect shows up here as both Fiedorowicz and Kirksey were swept up by teams that respect what the Hawkeyes do. What does it say that Michigan's offensive line struggled mightily in 2013 but had two tackles drafted in the first three rounds? Those young Wolverines linemen had better step up this fall.

FOURTH ROUND (4)
Analysis: Some really good pickups in this round, especially White, who will fit in very well with New England's offense. Although James Morris received the most accolades among Iowa's linebackers at the college level, both Kirksey and Hitchens were mid-round selections, while Morris went undrafted and signed with New England as a free agent. As a Chicago Bears fan, I love the Vereen pick. He's a smart, athletic versatile player who knows from his older brother what it takes to succeed in the NFL.

FIFTH ROUND (5)
[+] EnlargeJared Abbrederis
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsJared Abbrederis isn't venturing far from Madison as he was drafted by the Green Bay Packers.
Analysis: Like his teammate Borland, Abbrederis had a much longer wait than expected but lands in a very familiar spot with Green Bay. I think he's a steal and will surprise people with his ability to make plays despite less-than-ideal measurables. Pamphile had a fairly quiet college career but is seen as a project and could develop into a better pro. Urschel is another player who lacks the ideal physical traits sought in the NFL, but could make up for it with exceptional intelligence.

SIXTH ROUND (1)
Analysis: Enunwa complemented his superb blocking skills with big-play ability in the pass game as a senior. He's a good value for a Jets team that needs to boost the league's 31st-ranked pass offense.

SEVENTH ROUND (4)
Analysis: All four players could be very good values. Bolser is an athletic tight end who had 15 career touchdown catches. Allen showed versatility as a senior, transitioning to a 3-4 scheme. Gallon heads to a Patriots team that has had success with smaller, productive receivers. Bryant likely would have been selected higher if not for major leg and ankle injuries last season.

Here are the draft picks per B1G team:

Ohio State: 6
Wisconsin: 5
Michigan: 3
Penn State: 3
Nebraska: 3
Iowa: 3
Purdue: 2
Minnesota: 2
Indiana: 2
Michigan State: 1

The big surprise is a Michigan State team that dominated Big Ten play and won the Rose Bowl had just one player selected, as standout linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen didn't have their names called. Only four teams -- LSU, Alabama, Notre Dame and Florida State -- had more selections than Ohio State. Illinois, which led the Big Ten in draft picks last season (4) and had 18 picks between 2009-13, had no selections. Northwestern also went without a draft pick for the second straight year.

Curious about the Big Ten's undrafted free-agent signings? Check back in a bit as we take a look.
The first round of the 2014 NFL draft is in the books, and as expected, the Big Ten fared much better than it did a year ago.

Four Big Ten players had their names called Thursday night at New York's Radio City Music Hall, although some waited a little longer than expected. The league had three more first-round picks than 2013 but went without a top-10 pick for the sixth consecutive year. Former Michigan tackle Jake Long, the No. 1 overall pick in 2008, is the last Big Ten player in the Top 10.

[+] Enlarge Taylor Lewan
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesTaylor Lewan was first off the board for the Big Ten, going to the Tennessee Titans.
Two Big Ten players who made the trip to Manhattan, Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and Indiana wide receiver Cody Latimer, still don't know their draft fate.

Let's recap the Big Ten first-round picks:
Our friends at NFL Nation reacted to the selections of Lewan, Shazier, Dennard and Roby.

It's no surprise that Lewan went first among Big Ten prospects, although some analysts had pegged him -- and possibly Dennard -- for the top 10. Two SEC offensive tackles, Auburn's Greg Robinson and Texas A&M's Jake Matthews, went ahead of Lewan, who likely still would have been a first-round pick if he had come out after his junior season in 2012. It will be interesting to see how he factors in with the Titans, who already have starting tackles in Michael Roos and Michael Oher.

Dennard fell further than most expected, as two cornerbacks -- Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert and Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller -- went ahead of him. He ended up in a pretty good spot, though, as he joins a very good secondary that includes another former Big Ten cornerback, Leon Hall. He'll also play for a defensive-minded coach in Marvin Lewis and first-year coordinator Paul Guenther.

Shazier's stock soared in the weeks leading up to the draft, and he enters a Pittsburgh organization known for swarming defense. The Steelers have taken linebackers in the first round in each of the past two years (Jarvis Jones in 2013). It doesn't hurt that longtime Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is an Ohio State guy.

Like Dennard, Roby waited a little longer than expected but ends up with a very good team in Denver. Broncos general manager John Elway said Roby was the highest-ranked player on the team's draft board "by a long shot" when their pick rolled around.

It's a bit surprising Hageman didn't make the first round, although teams had concerns about his consistency. Latimer's stock surged in the pre-draft period, but five wide receivers went ahead of him Thursday night. Both likely won't be waiting long Friday.

Is the Big Ten's weakened reputation hurting its top draft prospects? You have to wonder when a guy like Dennard, who did everything he could for a nationally elite defense, falls as far as he did.

Finally, here are some notes on the Big Ten picks from ESPN Stats & Information:

  • Lewan is the highest drafted Big Ten player since former Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt in 2011 (also No. 11). He's the first Michigan player taken in the first round since defensive end Brandon Graham in 2010.
  • Shazier is the third Ohio State player drafted by the Steelers in first round since 2006: Cameron Heyward (2011) and Santonio Holmes (2006) are the others.
  • Dennard is the first Michigan State player taken in the first round since wide receiver Charles Rogers in 2003. He's the first Spartans defender in the first round since linebacker Julian Peterson in 2000.
  • Roby has high standards to uphold, as four of the last seven Ohio State defensive backs drafted in the first round went on to make the Pro Bowl (Donte Whitner, Nate Clements, Antoine Winfield and Shawn Springs).

The draft resumes today and finishes Saturday. We'll have a full Big Ten draft recap on Monday.

Michigan's offense has hopscotched under Brady Hoke, never establishing an identity despite repeated claims about a clear philosophy. We always hear about who the Wolverines want to be, but because of personnel, youth or fickle schematic decisions, we rarely see who they are.

Perhaps the best thing about Michigan's offensive coordinator transition was the lack of indecision. Hours after Michigan announced Al Borges had been fired, reports surfaced that Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier would be his replacement. Hoke knew who he wanted, targeted him and got the deal done (the team has yet to officially confirm Nussmeier's hiring).

It's up to Nussmeier to refine Michigan's offense for the 2014 season. Otherwise, both he and Hoke could be looking for jobs in December. It's that simple.

[+] EnlargeNussmeier
AP Photo/Butch DillHiring former Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier is a step in the right direction for a Michigan offense that has sputtered lately and struggled to find an identity.
Nussmeier is a proven coach with an impressive track record, most recently at Alabama, which defended its national title in his first year as coordinator and put up solid offensive numbers this past season as well (38.2 points per game, 454.1 yards per game). Regardless of whether Alabama coach Nick Saban let Nussmeier walk to pave the way for Lane Kiffin, Michigan seems to be getting a high-quality coach. CBSsports.com's Bruce Feldman reports that Nussmeier, who earned $680,000 in 2013, will become one of the five highest-paid coordinators in college football. That's fine, too, as Michigan makes more than any Big Ten team and has yet to translate all that dough to championships on the field.

Hoke's rhetoric about Big Ten-title-or-bust and Team OneThirtySomething rings hollow until his teams start showing they can live up to Michigan's storied past. Rivals Ohio State and Michigan State have bypassed Michigan, and 2014 is pivotal for Hoke and the Wolverines, who enter the same division as the Buckeyes. They need to go for it now, and the Nussmeier hire is a good sign that they are.

Nussmeier must take a group of players, some recruited by Rich Rodriguez's staff and some by Hoke's staff, and mold them into a unit that's easy to identify. Quarterbacks such as Alabama's AJ McCarron, Washington's Keith Price and Michigan State's Drew Stanton and Jeff Smoker have improved under his tutelage. He must facilitate similar upgrades with Michigan's Devin Gardner and/or Shane Morris.

A record-setting signal-caller at Idaho who played in both the NFL and CFL, Nussmeier knows quarterbacks, but his first priority at Michigan will be resurrecting a run game that went dormant the past two seasons. Michigan's young offensive line needs to grow up in a hurry, especially after losing left tackle Taylor Lewan, a first-round draft pick in April, as well as right tackle Michael Schofield, a three-year starter. Nussmeier isn't exactly inheriting the Alabama offensive line in Ann Arbor. Or Alabama's running backs, for that matter. There's some young talent at Michigan, but it needs to be coached up.

As much criticism as Borges received, some of it deserved, coordinators can't do much when their offenses are incapable of generating moderate rushing gains between the tackles. Michigan set historic lows on offense this year, becoming the first FBS team in the past 10 seasons to record net rush totals of minus-20 or worse in consecutive games (losses to Michigan State and Nebraska).

Nussmeier has worked in different conferences as well as in the NFL (St. Louis Rams), but his stint in the Big Ten at Michigan State should help him in his new gig. His basic philosophy as a pro-style coach doesn't differ dramatically from Borges -- or what Hoke wants -- and shouldn't turn off Michigan's 2014 recruits.

But his ability to evaluate the strengths of Michigan's players and tailor his scheme around them will determine his success or failure. When Borges built a game plan around what Gardner does best, as we saw against both Notre Dame and Ohio State, the results proved positive. But we saw too much tweaking, too many versions of the Michigan offense, too many attempts to show who is the smartest coach in the building.

Nussmeier is a future head coach and entered the mix for recent vacancies at both Washington and Southern Miss. It might be hard for Michigan to keep him, but the future beyond the 2014 season isn't really important.

Michigan acted quickly and decisively Wednesday night. Nussmeier must do the same in refining the identity of an offense that will determine a lot about where Michigan is headed under Hoke.
Jake WatersMark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsJake Waters threw three touchdown passes, but his timely rushes kept the Wildcats' offense moving.

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Jake Waters was reticent. It was all so easy, but it didn't feel right to admit that. Still, the numbers told a story.

Waters was exceptional, leading a dominant offensive effort for Kansas State in a 31-14 win over Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. He threw three first-half touchdown passes Saturday night, all to Tyler Lockett. Michigan knew what was coming, yet the Wolverines were powerless to stop it.

Yes, Waters had to admit. It was easy.

"When you have a special player like Tyler, any time he's one-on-one, I'm looking for him," Waters said. "I have that confidence in him, because he's such a special player."

Michigan quarterback Shane Morris had a solid enough game, too. The freshman was making his first career start in place of injured Devin Gardner. He hadn't thrown a pass in a game since Nov. 2, but he was sharp. He completed 15 of 19 throws in the first half. He was cool, composed, confident. But unlike Waters, Morris got little help.

When the game was over and the Kansas State crowd cheered for head coach Bill Snyder as the Wildcats accepted the trophy for their first bowl victory in 11 years, Waters wasn't even on the stage. Lockett was the offensive MVP. The defense had dominated. Waters was a supporting player.

When Michigan slumped off the field, owner of a 7-6 record and loser of five of its final six, Morris was at the forefront. Amid a season gone awry, for a program adrift as it stares down a bleak offseason in which so many areas need to improve dramatically, he offered hope.

"Who knows who will be the quarterback next year?" Morris offered when asked about the future -- a 2014 season in which Gardner is slated to return but wholesale changes appear imminent.

All season, Waters split time with Daniel Sams in a two-quarterback system, but he improved, and so did the team. Kansas State rallied from a 2-4 start to finish as one of the nation's hottest teams.

[+] EnlargeShane Morris
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesShane Morris performed admirably in his first career start, giving Michigan hope for the future.
All season, Morris waited in the wings. A former ESPN150 recruit, he threw just nine passes behind Gardner, and Michigan devolved.

Saturday's meeting was a marker for where both programs now stand. Kansas State is poised for 2014, with Waters and Lockett speaking jubilantly about the future. Michigan is at a crossroads, with Morris a lone bright spot in a finale that included a disastrous defensive effort and another lackluster effort from the ground game.

And yet, in the aftermath, the praise for Waters was limited, offered largely as a side note to Lockett's impressive performance. But even Kansas State's players raved about Morris, who threw 38 passes and finished as Michigan's leading rusher.

"Shane held his own," Michigan receiver Jeremy Gallon said.

"You would've thought he was doing it five years now," lineman Taylor Lewan said.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke credited his quarterback, too, but found little consolation in the performance. His job now is to decide whether Morris in an answer to one of many problems.

On the other side, Snyder shrugged off his willingness to stick with Waters for the bulk of the game as simply riding the momentum of a hot hand. But it's Waters and Lockett and Snyder who have all the momentum now. As the page turns on the final chapter of 2013 and they look ahead to what's to come, there isn't simply hope and promise in Manhattan, Kan. There is expectation.

"Ending the season 6-1," Lockett said, "it gives us a lot more to look forward to going into next year."

For Michigan, the future might be the baby-faced quarterback who led the offense to just six points before Saturday's final two minutes, but even that remains a question still unresolved.
The Big Ten released its all-conference teams as selected by coaches and the media earlier this month. We didn't have a vote for the media teams, and we don't pretend to know as much about football as the league's coaches.

But we can also say with confidence that we watched more Big Ten football here at the blog than anyone else. So here are our picks for the 2013 ESPN.com All-Big Ten team:

Offense

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesBraxton Miller is one of six Buckeyes on ESPN.com's All-Big Ten team.
QB: Braxton Miller, Ohio State
RB: Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
WR: Allen Robinson, Penn State
WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan
OL: Jack Mewhort, Ohio State
OL: Brandon Scherff, Iowa
OL: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
OL: Corey Linsley, Ohio State
OL: Ryan Groy, Wisconsin

Defense

DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
DT: Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota
DE: Randy Gregory, Nebraska
LB: Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State
LB: James Morris, Iowa
DB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
DB: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State
DB: Bradley Roby, Ohio State
DB: Brock Vereen, Minnesota

Specialists

K: Jeff Budzien, Northwestern
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State
KR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska
PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa

OK, so we cheated just a bit on positions, going with three tackles on our offensive line and a 3-4 defense. But considering the coaches had six defensive backs and two punters on their first team, we don't feel too bad about it. ... We wanted to include Scherff, Lewan and Mewhort on the first team, because we thought they were the three best linemen in the league. If we had to field an actual team with these guys, we're sure we could figure it out. It was a tough call between Groy and Penn State's John Urschel, whom we love for his on- and off-the-field accomplishments. We just felt Wisconsin had the better overall season as an offensive line, so we went with Groy. ... We went with the 3-4 because linebacker was such a deep position in this league -- so deep that we had to leave off some deserving players, like Michigan State's Denicos Allen -- while defensive line wasn't nearly as strong. ... The defensive backfield was a tough call (no wonder the coaches had an, ahem, pick six there). Dennard was a lock, and we felt that Drummond was the league's best safety in a year when that position was a bit weak conference-wide. We like what Vereen did in providing versatility and leadership for the Gophers, and Roby overcame a slow start to do his usual fine work. We had to leave off very good cornerbacks like Michigan's Blake Countess, Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Iowa's B.J. Lowery -- but that's what a second team is for. Stay tuned. ... Ohio State leads the way with six selections, followed by Michigan State with five. It's almost as if those were the two best teams in the league or something.


Brady Hoke endears himself to Michigan fans by embracing all things maize and blue, but he outlines the standards for the Wolverines program in black and white.

Success: a Big Ten championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl.

Failure: anything else.

Ricky Bobby would be proud.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
AP Photo/Tony DingMichigan coach Brady Hoke sees championships or failures. There is no in-between, which is why Saturday's game at Michigan State means so much for the Wolverines.
Hoke's clear approach is refreshing in an environment where many coaches avoid specifics on how to judge them -- mindful of whacked-out fan expectations, quick-trigger athletic directors and boosters, and a media environment where everything you say can and will be used against you. Perhaps Hoke feels secure enough in his situation to set such narrow parameters for success.

Or he simply thinks Michigan shouldn't settle for anything but championships. Again, refreshing.

It has been eight seasons since Michigan last won a Big Ten championship. That should never happen.

While Hoke undoubtedly has done some good things in his two-plus seasons as Michigan's coach, his tenure to date, by his own standards, has fallen short. Maybe that's too harsh an assessment, given the fragile program Hoke inherited from Rich Rodriguez. Then again, if Hoke judges himself that way, why shouldn't we?

He's in Year 3, enough time to have Michigan positioned for a championship push, regardless of the issues when he took over. As November dawns, Hoke and the Wolverines embark on a stretch that will determine exactly who they are -- champions or guys who talk about championships at a school that has won more than any in the Big Ten.

"The month of November is when you win championships," Hoke told ESPN.com. "A lot of that has always been because of the meat of your schedule, who you're playing. When you look at our schedule and the divisional games are all over that schedule, it's important."

It begins Saturday when No. 21 Michigan visits No. 22 Michigan State. The Spartans are the only Legends Division team without a Big Ten loss. Michigan's lone defeat came in a cross-division game at Penn State, and a loss to Michigan State would essentially put the Wolverines 2½ games behind the Spartans with four weeks to play.

"If we want to win a championship," Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan said, "we have to go through Michigan State."

Could Michigan still achieve its goal with a loss Saturday afternoon?

"You're counting on a lot of things to happen," Hoke said. "It gets out of your hands to a certain degree. Are we a good football team? Yeah. Are we perfect by any ways? No, and we haven't been. We've been inconsistent, but we have won six games and lost one in four overtimes where we had plenty of opportunities.

"We've grown, but obviously [if you lose] you put yourselves behind the eight ball."

Michigan has been an enigma this season, impressively beating Notre Dame in Week 2 but struggling against Football Bowl Subdivision bottom-feeders Akron and Connecticut and losing to an unremarkable Penn State squad. The Wolverines are one of the Big Ten's most talented teams, bolstered by the recruiting success Hoke and his staff have engineered, and they're certainly capable of blossoming into a division champion in the next five weeks. They also could crumble as the competition gets tougher.

The next five weeks not only will provide answers about Team 134 but also about Hoke and his ability to meet his own standards.

Several of Hoke's achievements at Michigan can't be touched. He has ended long losing streaks against rivals Ohio State and Michigan State. He boasts a 19-0 mark at Michigan Stadium and became the first Michigan coach to go undefeated at home in his first two seasons since Fielding Yost (1901-02). He has made significant upgrades in recruiting, as Michigan signed top-10 classes in 2012 and 2013 and likely will do so again in February.

He also blends seamlessly with the Michigan family, unlike his predecessor, and oversees a program that lacks the drama that seemed to surface throughout Rodriguez's tenure.

Hoke has achieved many of the things Rodriguez could not, but that's not enough at this type of program. He has yet to make the Big Ten championship game, even with Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State in the other division. Michigan had fortune on its side in Hoke's first season, as it beat the worst Ohio State team in a generation, received a BCS at-large berth ahead of a Michigan State team it lost to and beat a Virginia Tech team in the Sugar Bowl that many believed had no business being in New Orleans. Last year, Michigan lost to all the elite teams it faced and finished a disappointing 8-5.

Hoke's teams are just 6-8 away from Michigan Stadium, including a 28-14 setback two years ago at Michigan State, an emotion-charged contest that featured six personal foul penalties on the Spartans.

"Two years ago up there, we, as a team, flinched too many times," Hoke said. "That bothers you, so I wasn't expecting that from the Michigan teams that I've been around before."

Hoke hopes to see more poise Saturday from his team, including young players like starting guards Kyle Bosch and Erik Magnuson, a true freshman and a redshirt freshman, respectively. He needs to see better tackling technique from a Wolverines defense that surrendered 47 points and 572 yards in its last game against Indiana.

He needs to see great leadership from players like Lewan, who embraces Hoke's championship-or-bust mentality and passed up millions in the NFL for one more title shot at Michigan.

Lewan recognizes what's on the line for Michigan and ensures anyone who doesn't will by week's end.

"Just staying in their ear, over and over again, letting them know what this game is about," Lewan said.

How close is Michigan to being a championship team?

"Golly," Hoke said, "the best way I would say it is we need some more seasoning, some more experiences."

There's no better experience than the one Michigan will have Saturday at Spartan Stadium. A win gives Michigan control of the division. A loss likely extends Michigan's title drought for another year.

The stakes are spelled out for the Maize and Blue in black and white. Hoke would have it no other way.
1. Michigan fans couldn’t get Rich Rodriguez out of town fast enough. But it’s worth noting that Brady Hoke’s best offensive players are fifth-year seniors recruited by Rodriguez. That includes Saturday’s record-setters, quarterback Devin Gardner (503 passing yards, 584 yards of total offense) and receiver Jeremy Gallon (369 receiving yards), as well as Fitzgerald Toussaint (four rushing scores Saturday) and starting tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield. Then again, offense wasn’t RichRod’s problem at Michigan.

2. There’s the speculation at the top of the BCS standings, where No. 2 Florida State and No. 3 Oregon may leapfrog one another the next three weeks as their schedules ebb and flow. Then there’s the battle at the other end, where No. 17 Fresno State and No. 18 Northern Illinois are jockeying with one another and both trying to stay in front of No. 20 Louisville and No. 23 UCF from the AAC. If one of the former finishes ahead of one of the latter, that will guarantee a BCS bid. The BCS ratings always provide fodder.

3. Senior quarterback Clint Trickett left Florida State after spring ball when he realized that he wouldn’t beat out redshirt freshman Jameis Winston. On Saturday, Winston threw for 444 yards at Clemson and became a Heisman frontrunner. Trickett started at West Virginia and threw for 254 yards and a touchdown against Texas Tech. But the Red Raiders outscored the Mountaineers 21-0 in the last 20 minutes to win, 37-27. Over the last five possessions, Trickett completed 6 of 11 passes for 19 yards. The offense made one first down.

Reranking the Big Ten's top 10 players

October, 14, 2013
10/14/13
11:30
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We've reached the midseason point, so it's time to go back and revisit our list of the top players in the Big Ten.

In the preseason, we ranked the Top 25 players based on past performances and potential for the 2013 campaign. You can see that list here. Now that we've had a half-season worth of actual data, we're re-ranking the Top 10, based mostly on this year's performance, with a little second-half potential thrown in. As you can guess, this list looks a lot different than it did in August. Take a gander:

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesMelvin Gordon's 870 yards and eight touchdowns on a mere 90 carries has made him the No. 1 player in the Big Ten.
1. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin (Preseason ranking: 22): We knew Gordon had serious superstar potential when we ranked him in the preseason. He's met and even exceeded our expectations as the Big Ten's most dangerous offensive weapon.

2. Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin (Preseason: 6): Somehow, Borland -- who's been around since 2009 -- has gotten even better as a fifth-year senior, and he's a clear choice right now as the league's defensive MVP.

3. Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State (Preseason: 8): Penn State has been light on complementary receivers at times this year, but it hasn't stopped Robinson from dominating and putting up huge numbers as the league's best wideout.

4. Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska (Preseason: 13): With Taylor Martinez injured, Abdullah has stepped up and become the Cornhuskers' leader on offense. He's right behind Gordon as the Big Ten's top running back right now.

5. Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State (Preseason: 4): There's not a faster or more destructive linebacker in the Big Ten, and Shazier is at his best in big games. He'll give Borland a push for that defensive MVP award in the second half.

6. Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State (Preseason: 10): The league's best defensive back got punished for his physical play by tight-whistled refs at Notre Dame. No matter. He came back the next time out with two interceptions at Iowa.

7. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State (Preseason: 1): Miller has missed a lot of time and didn't look fully sure of himself at Northwestern. but as he showed in the Wisconsin game, he can change a game like no other. He could do major damage in the second half.

8. Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan (Preseason: 2): It's hard to get a read on just how well Lewan has played as many of his teammates have had their share of problems. But he's still the league's marquee offensive lineman.

9. Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin (Preseason: 16): How does this guy keep getting so open? Because he's fast, smart and really good at his job.

10. Max Bullough, LB, Michigan State (Preseason: 7): Stats don't matter with Bullough. He's the leader and the on-field brain for the best defense not only in the Big Ten, but quite possibly the nation.

Dropped out from preseason list: Northwestern RB Venric Mark (No. 5), Ohio State CB Bradley Roby (9).
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan was referring to the Wolverines’ recently criticized quarterback, but it might as well have been a statement about the team in its entirety following Saturday’s 42-13 home win against Minnesota.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Devin Gardner was 13-of-17 for 235 yards and no turnovers in Michigan's win over Minnesota.
“He wasn’t playing like himself,” Lewan said of Devin Gardner, whose carelessness with the ball played large roles in close victories against supposed also-rans Akron and UConn. “It was a good off week, and things settled down for him.”

Lewan admitted that he was downright irritable after the nerve-fraying win at UConn, saying he would not apologize for a 4-0 team.

“I’m not going to apologize for 5-0 either,” the All-American lineman said.

This time he was smiling.

That grin as an indication, the postgame had a different tone than wins that required late defensive stops to secure victories against one team that lost 43-3 Saturday to Ohio (Akron) and one team that now has an interim coach (UConn).

The Wolverines, who got their first Big Ten win and held on to the Little Brown Jug, outscored Minnesota 35-6 starting with a score late in the second quarter.

“Things we’d been good at in the past we had slipped on,” Gardner said. “It felt good to get rolling again.”

There might have been little drama for the Wolverines, which was welcome, but there was one potential discovery.

Hoke told ESPN.com on Friday that tight end Devin Funchess would see some time on the outside, at receiver, to create mismatches for the 6-foot-4, 235-pound sophomore.

Funchess did play mostly outside, and the mismatches were prevalent all day. Michigan didn’t even try a pass in the first quarter, but Funchess still had four catches for 62 yards -- including a 24-yard touchdown -- in the first half.

“We want to take advantage of his assets,” Hoke said.

Funchess finished the day with seven receptions for 151 yards and that score. His 46-yard catch down the sideline, illustrating his potential as a vertical threat, set up the team’s final offensive touchdown.

Blake Countess’ 72-yard pick-six punctuated the rout, sending 111,079 fans spilling out into Main Street. Most of them were pleased, as opposed to the past two wins that had fans on edge and analysts picking apart the Wolverines and their quarterback.

Gardner had turned the ball over seven times (five interceptions, two fumbles) versus Akron and UConn.

Michigan, and Gardner, had no giveaways Saturday. That ended an unfortunate streak of 25 consecutive games with at least one turnover.

“When you don’t turn the ball over, it’s a good day,” said Gardner, who completed 13 of 17 passes for 235 yards and one score -- all in the final three quarters. “We responded. That’s the best way I can describe it.”

There was a message in Michigan’s approach to the game too. It came out with runs on its first 10 offensive plays, including a six-play touchdown drive on its initial possession.

In addition to the questions about Gardner, the offensive line had likewise been scrutinized. The Wolverines had new starters at center and left guard, trying to shake things up.

Hoke talked Friday about intentionally physical practices during the bye week. The Wolverines even had one 6 a.m. practice.

The team wound up rushing Saturday for just 113 yards on 35 carries (3.2 yards per carry), but it had four rushing scores -- including two by starter Fitzgerald Toussaint. Freshman Derrick Green added a rushing touchdown, the second of his rookie season.

Lewan might have been smiling, but he wasn’t leaving the stadium completely satisfied.

“We should have gotten Fitz 100 yards,” he said early in his visit with reporters. “[Our push] was better than it has been, but not up to our potential.

“That’s a hard word, potential -- because it means you haven’t done it yet.”

Hoke said Friday that the team would approach this stretch, between open dates, as a three-game schedule. A trip to Penn State is next, followed by a visit from Indiana. The Hoosiers upset the Lions on Saturday, winning in that series for the first time ever.

“I think we’re improving,” Hoke said. “I think we’ve got a long way to go.”
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The old adage “you play like you practice” had never hit so close to home for Michigan.

And it’s the answer to why the Wolverines looked so out of place against Akron, a team that had lost 27 consecutive road games.

[+] EnlargeConor Hundley
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAkron gave Michigan a scare before losing to the Wolverines, 28-24.
You play like you practice -- simple, old-school, Pop Warner football knowledge. There's nothing groundbreaking there.

So it should surprise no one that when Michigan practices and prepares poorly, that’s the product that’s put on the field.

“We knew we didn’t give our best effort throughout the week, and we knew that everything that happened during that game, we deserved it because we didn’t give it all we had,” sophomore linebacker James Ross said. “Everybody, the whole team, it just wasn’t a good vibe.”

Was it a letdown from the previous weekend, when all the pomp and circumstance was brought in for the last Michigan-Notre Dame game in Michigan Stadium? Yes.

Did it become a wake-up call for the Wolverines? Yes. From the moment the game ended, the renewed sense of urgency was obvious among every player.

Is it a sign of something more troubling for Michigan? Absolutely. After all, technique and fundamentals are teachable. Attitude and effort are not.

Sometimes, fundamentals and technique trump attitude and effort. Chances are that Alabama or Oregon could’ve prepared poorly for a team like Akron and still won handily. They have an experience factor.

The Wolverines don't. They’re young across the board. And they’re especially young at some very crucial spots.

Their defensive line combines for 29 career starts. At times, coach Brady Hoke admitted, there was a lack of communication on the line. There were missed assignments and, because of it, wide-open gaps.

Without the pressure up front, Akron QB Kyle Pohl had time inside (and outside) the pocket. The Zips outgained Michigan in the passing game, 311 yards to 248 yards. On the ground, they rushed for 107 yards -- 11 more yards than the Fighting Irish gained against Michigan the previous week.

That goes back to game-week prep.

Michigan’s interior offensive line combines for nine starts. And that inexperience seemed evident as Akron packed the box with eight defenders on many plays, making it impossible to create double-teams on the interior line. It forced the Wolverines' young tight ends to block more, and as a result it put more pressure on quarterback Devin Gardner.

The Zips dared Michigan to beat them in the air, and Michigan didn’t. It couldn’t.

That goes back to game-week prep.

The Wolverines aren’t good enough to wing it. Yet they spent last week acting as if they could, apparently.

“We had a really bad week of practice, too, and it all just kind of played in together,” senior right tackle Michael Schofield said. “People kept saying, ‘Oh, you guys should beat them by 50. You guys should only play one half,’ and everything. We kind of let that get to our head.”

One reporter followed up: So you bought in to that?

“Yes,” Schofield said.

They bought into it even though one of the Wolverines’ goals is to get better every day.

Last week, Hoke had said he didn’t like the way his team practiced on Tuesday as he began installing game specifics for Akron. He didn’t think his team improved that day.

By 3:20 p.m. on Saturday, Michigan had defeated Akron 28-24. Even with the win, it was another day Michigan didn’t improve, according to Hoke.

By 4:07 p.m., Hoke had decided to call a Sunday practice in full pads, something he has rarely done at Michigan.

“We needed that,” senior left tackle Taylor Lewan said. “This team needed that. I think we were a tough, hard-nosed football team, and then we kind of got away from that this week. I think that was coach Hoke giving us a reality check.”

There were bright spots -- though few and far between -- in the win over Akron. When the Wolverines needed to score, they marched down the field and got Fitzgerald Toussaint into the end zone. And when Michigan needed a goal-line stand to win the game, the defensive line and linebackers Desmond Morgan and Brennen Beyer came up big.

Maybe that goes back to the two-minute drills the Wolverines practice. Those, perhaps, went well last week. And Hoke said he’ll implement an additional one of those in this week’s practices.

He and the rest of the Wolverines are working to get better each day this week, so they’re prepared when they take the field against UConn on Saturday night.

It’s another team that Michigan should beat. But the Wolverines know that doesn’t mean too much.

“I don’t have any doubt in my mind that this team understands what happened Saturday, that they know it’s not acceptable,” Lewan said. “They’re focused. And we’re going to prepare like no other team has ever prepared before.”

Week 4? It’s about time.

Michigan-Notre Dame writers roundtable

September, 3, 2013
9/03/13
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Michigan StadiumAP Photo/Tony DingCan anything top Michigan's 35-31 win in 2011, which was the first night game in the history of Michigan Stadium?

Under the lights ... and two of college football’s oldest rivals in one of their last scheduled meetings … and College GameDay. Does it get any better than this? Only when Big Ten reporter Brian Bennett, Dame reporter Matt Fortuna and Michigan reporter Chantel Jennings get together to talk about it. Today, they discuss a few topics surrounding the highly anticipated matchup.

1. Over the past few years, this rivalry has seen its fair share of big stars excel during this game -- Denard Robinson's 502 yards in 2010, Roy Roundtree's game-winning catch in 2011, Manti Teo's defensive performance in 2012. Which player could you see having a mega game on Saturday?

Bennett: How about Jeremy Gallon? The Michigan receiver had the huge 64-yard catch that set up Roundtree's game-winner in 2011. While he wasn't as active in last year's game, that's primarily because the Wolverines were busy throwing the ball to Notre Dame. Gallon has been more effective ever since Devin Gardner started running the show, and I could see him burning the Irish secondary for some big plays.

Jennings: The heroes this game has helped create have kind of come out of nowhere in some instances. So I’m going to pick a guy who has been flying under the radar statistically, who I think has the ability to show up in big games, and that’s Michigan tight end Devin Funchess. He had a fine freshman year and a better offseason. I think we could see him be a big difference maker on Saturday.

Fortuna: If I'm Notre Dame, I'm gearing up for Gardner, since Michigan quarterback play has essentially decided these contests in one form or another in each of the past four years. From the Irish side, though, I think wide receiver DaVaris Daniels could break out. He was Notre Dame's best offensive player in the national title game loss to Alabama, hauling in six catches for 115 yards. On Saturday against Temple, the redshirt sophomore had three catches for 69 yards, including a pair of 32-yard touchdown receptions on the Irish's first two drives.

2. Which mismatch between these two teams are you most intrigued to watch?

Bennett: On paper at least, it's the Michigan interior offensive line vs. Notre Dame nose guard Louis Nix III. Center Jack Miller and guards Kyle Kalis and Graham Glasgow are talented and played well together last week, but they have very little experience. Nix, meanwhile, is a 357-pound man-mountain who helped anchor a championship-level defense last season. He commands double teams, and it will be up to Michigan's young inside guys to keep him in check so Stephon Tuitt and others can't wreak even more havoc.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Lewan
Andrew Weber/US PresswireMichigan tackle Taylor Lewan will have his hands full with Notre Dame's talented defensive line.
Jennings: Left tackle Taylor Lewan on whomever or whatever Notre Dame tries to throw at him. He’s so crucial to Michigan’s offense, and I really don’t see him not dominating any matchup this season. Lewan came back for games like this and matchups like what he’ll have against Tuitt.

Fortuna: I'll say Notre Dame's offensive line against Michigan's defensive line. The Irish have three starters back from last season, along with a very talented center in Nick Martin. One of the reasons they were able to jump out to a 17-point lead in Ann Arbor two years ago was because of their ability to run up the middle, as the Irish averaged six yards per rush on the night. Notre Dame is now in its third straight year of starting Zack Martin and Chris Watt together on the left side, and it has started using pistol packages in 2013 to tailor to the strengths of some of its young backs in hopes of establishing a downhill run game. This is far from a "mismatch," but with Michigan returning just three starters from last season's front seven, and with the teams so evenly matched across the board, I'd say this is where Notre Dame probably has the biggest edge. Conversely, I can't wait to see Tuitt and Lewan go head-to-head. Both will be a lot richer eight months from now.

3. Is there any way this game could one-up the last time these two teams met in the Big House?

Bennett: It's possible that this could be an even better overall game than the one in 2011, just not as flashy. People remember the Michigan comeback and the crazy fourth quarter, but it was a pretty lopsided affair until then. That wild finish was made possible by major defensive breakdowns on both sides, and both teams are much more sound defensively now. I believe these are two legitimate top-15 teams, so we should expect a tight game. The atmosphere won't be quite as special because it won't be the first time under the lights at the Big House. But Notre Dame-Michigan usually finds a way to amaze us.

Jennings: I was on the sideline for the final minutes of that matchup two years ago, and to call the atmosphere electric would still be selling it short. I don’t know if the Wolverines have had a game as exciting since, so I’m going to go with no. I think it’ll be a great game and the fact that it’s the last in Michigan Stadium for the foreseeable future adds a lot. But as far as the plays themselves, jam packed into that short amount of time, I just don’t see that being topped.

Fortuna: I said no to this same question two years ago and was sadly mistaken, so I'll try not to be as definitive in my answer this time around. Whether it was Denard Robinson or Tate Forcier before him, magic seems to always happen in the late moments of this game. I'll just go ahead and make the bold prediction that if Notre Dame takes the lead with 30 seconds remaining this time, its secondary will hold up and secure an Irish win. Like I said, bold.
CHICAGO -- Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan caused a stir this past spring when he announced that he and some Wolverines teammates had bought a pig and named it Dr. Hamlet III. The blogosphere, naturally, went nuts over this revelation.

On Thursday at Big Ten media days, Lewan went whole hog on the details of his short-lived swine time. Getting a pet pig was the brainchild of him and his roommates Erik Gunderson, Michael Schofield, Jack Miller and Graham Glasgow, who are all fellow offensive linemen.

"So we bought a pig," Lewan started off, and if there's a better way to begin a story, I haven't heard it. "Offensive linemen are hogs, and that's how that works."

Where do you find a pig? Craigslist, of course. The linemen pooled their money and spent $250 for a teacup pig. As for the robust name?

"I don't know," he said. "I just wanted my pig to have a Ph.D."

The Wolverines players weren't quite prepared for what they had gotten themselves into, however.

"It was fun for about two weeks," Lewan said. "Then the pig got kind of mean. We weren't neglecting it or anything. We were being sweet to it."

The little porker's sour disposition wasn't totally his fault. The house Lewan and his teammates are renting has a lot of hardwood floors and tile, which does not combine well with a pig's hooves. Lewan said Dr. Hamlet III ended up confined to a small rug area roughly the size of a ballroom round table.

"I thought it was going to be a good deal, but I didn't realize the hooves of a pig struggle so hard with the tile," Lewan said. "It got in the kitchen one time, and it was like watching Bambi on the ice, if you've ever seen that movie. It was so comical."

After about two weeks, the players decided that their pig experience needed to end. Lewan said Gunderson arranged for Dr. Hamlet III to find a more suitable home.

"A living animal can't be confined to a small space like that," he said. "So we decided that the best thing for the pig was to give it away, and now he's a happy pig. We sent it to a farm where it could do pig things."

As for the Wolverines linemen, Lewan said they've given up on the idea of having a pet this year. Not even a dog or a cat?

"Nah," he said. "That's too normal for us."

Big Ten media days primer

July, 12, 2013
7/12/13
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It won't be long now until Big Ten media days are upon us. There won't be burning controversies like the Penn State penalties or Bret Bielema's supposed tiff with Urban Meyer, but there are plenty of storylines. Here's a primer to get you ready.

When: July 24-25

Where: Hilton Chicago

Big names in attendance: QB Braxton Miller and CB Bradley Roby, Ohio State; QB Taylor Martinez, Nebraska; QB Devin Gardner and OT Taylor Lewan, Michigan; RB Venric Mark and QB Kain Colter, Northwestern; LB Chris Borland and WR Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin; LB Max Bullough, Michigan State.

Big names not in attendance: WR Allen Robinson, Penn State; RB Carlos Hyde, Ohio State; RB Ameer Abdullah and WR Kenny Bell, Nebraska; QB Andrew Maxwell, Michigan State.

Five storylines/things to watch: Here are a handful of what we think will be the most popular topics in Chicago:
  • Ohio State/Urban Meyer: The Buckeyes and their coach remain the elephant in the room. After going 12-0 last season and entering this year ranked No. 1 in some polls, Ohio State will be the story in the Big Ten. Is Meyer's team a legitimate national title contender? Can anyone -- especially in the Leaders Division -- beat back the Buckeyes? Meyer will be a big focus, and he surely will face questions about the Aaron Hernandez/Florida arrests situation. Whether he answers any is another story.
  • Heisman hopefuls: There will be some bright stars shining in the Hilton ballrooms, including Heisman Trophy contender Miller and some with outside shots at the prize, such as Martinez and Gardner. All three quarterbacks figure to get the most attention, and all three have interesting yet different stories to tell.
  • New coaches: Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Purdue's Darrell Hazell make their first Big Ten media days appearance as head coaches at their new schools. Both have enjoyed honeymoon periods and they will attract curiosity in Chicago, especially Andersen, who inherits a Badgers program that has gone to three straight Rose Bowls.
  • Quarterback battles: Indiana, Iowa, Michigan State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin have heated and open competitions for the starting quarterback jobs. While we don't expect many answers on any of those fronts, we're sure that many of the same questions will be asked, and every nugget will be parsed for meaning.
  • The future: While there are plenty of interesting things to talk about with the upcoming season, there are also big changes on the horizon. This will be the final season before the Big Ten adds Maryland and Rutgers and goes to new divisions, not to mention the forthcoming four-team College Football Playoff and the new bowl lineup. Nine-game conference schedules are just a few seasons away. Commissioner Jim Delany likely will talk about all of it and more when he takes the podium.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Two words attach themselves to Michigan defensive end Frank Clark.

The first is potential. Clark has plenty. Wolverines All-American left tackle Taylor Lewan saw it throughout spring practice, when he faced Clark on a daily basis. Michigan coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison also see what the 6-foot-2, 277-pound Cleveland native could be this season for the Wolverines defense.

"He's so athletic, it's unmatched in my opinion," Lewan told ESPN.com. "He has so much potential to do so many things here, which would be awesome. But a person told me once that potential means you haven’t done anything yet. Frank has the opportunity this year to really come out and blossom."

The value of that opportunity isn't lost on Clark because he nearly threw it away last summer. He pleaded guilty in September to second-degree home invasion after admitting to stealing a laptop computer from a student's room in his dormitory. The offense took place June 14 -- Clark's 19th birthday.

Clark was suspended for Michigan's season-opening loss to Alabama before returning to the field.

"I had to mature after last year," Clark said. "My coaches, as much as they've done for me, giving me another opportunity to play here at this great school, another opportunity to further my education despite everything I went through last year, there's nothing more I could have asked for."

[+] EnlargeFrank Clark
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioMichigan's Big Ten foes will be going up against an even stronger Frank Clark in 2013.
The lesson for Clark?

"I’ve got to stay out the way, I can't get into any more trouble, I can't do what I did," he said.

Although Clark missed only one game, he paid "heavy consequences" for his mistake, according to Hoke, inside the walls of Schembechler Hall. Hoke saw changes in Clark, especially after the season and when Michigan got into spring ball.

"Growing up as a young man, you really see an accountability to his teammates from Frank," Hoke said.

There's that second word, accountability. Clark always has had potential to be a star, but only recently has he embraced the need to be accountable and the responsibility he now carries for the Wolverines' defense.

Just a true junior, Clark is one of Michigan's most experienced defensive linemen along with Quinton Washington and Jibreel Black. He has appeared in 23 games, starting four last season, and quietly recorded nine tackles for loss, two sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and three pass breakups in 2012.

When Michigan lost All-Big Ten linebacker Jake Ryan to a torn ACL in March, the big question around the program was who would step into a featured role for a defense that, aside from Ryan, lacked star power last season. Clark's name came up a lot.

"Playing last year and having a bigger role than my freshman year, it forced me to change my mindset," Clark said. "I've got a new set of goals. I've got things I know I've got to help my team out with a little bit more. I've got to be more of an impact player on the defense. I've got to help bring the defense together in the absence of one of our leaders, Jake Ryan.

"Whether it's working harder in the weight room or working harder on the field, I'm doing whatever I can do to help motivate the guys under me: Mario [Ojemudia], Taco [Charlton], the whole defensive line."

Thanks to Lewan, Clark had no trouble keeping track of his progress this spring. They went at it during team drills in workouts, and challenged each other in the weight room, even if they were in different lifting groups.

They competed to see who could do the heaviest set of squats, the top bench-press total and the most pull-ups. Clark didn't win each time, but his victories boosted his confidence.

"I say it to myself, I say it to my family and my friends back home," Clark said. "When you're going against the best offensive lineman in the nation -- and that's how I feel about Taylor -- there's nothing else in the world that can challenge you more. He's an All-American. He's somewhere I want to be, somewhere all my life that I dream to be.

"If I can put myself in that position, live up to expectations of what many people see me as, I know how much I can help my team out."

Mattison has made the pass rush a major priority after Michigan finished eighth in the Big Ten and 78th nationally in sacks last season with 22. The Wolverines lose end Craig Roh (four sacks) to graduation and Ryan (4.5 sacks) for at least the start of the season.

There's a bigger burden on players like Clark, Black, Ojemudia and Taco Charlton, a 6-6, 265-pound man-child who enrolled early and went through spring drills.

"He's grown up," Mattison said of Clark. "He's understanding that he has a responsibility to this defense because he is a veteran and he's played quite a bit of football, so his best performance is the only thing that's acceptable."

Mattison tells Clark that "potential is nothing." Those who live up to it separate themselves.

After last summer, Clark is ready to take that step.

"You can't make the same mistake twice," he said. "That's in life and on the field."

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