NCF Nation: Taylor Lewan
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
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).
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
"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."
What will the weekend hold for Big Ten products? Who will be the top pick from the league? Which players should be garnering more buzz? Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett try to answer those questions and more in this blog debate:
Brian Bennett: Adam, another NFL draft is nearly upon us. What better way to spend 96 hours of a spring weekend than listening to analysts describe a player's upside? At least we won't have to read any more 2013 mock drafts after Thursday afternoon.
But let's get down to Big Ten business. According to our colleagues with the good hair -- Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay -- the league very well might not produce a first-round pick for the first time since the AFL-NFL merger. Last year, the first Big Ten player taken was all the way down at No. 23. What's going on here? Is there that big of a talent shortage in the conference, or is this just a blip? And do you think any Big Ten players hear their names called on Thursday night?
I thought the Big Ten still would have a first-round pick even after Michigan LT Taylor Lewan announced he would return in 2012. But now I'm not so sure. Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins and Purdue DT Kawann Short both could hear their names called, but it's far from a guarantee.
What do you think this year's draft says about the state of the Big Ten?
Brian Bennett: I think you hit on several of the reasons, and I'd add in the population and demographic shifts as another. Of course, if Lewan came out as expected, he'd probably be a top-15 pick. And if the NFL were to do last year's draft over, I'm pretty sure Russell Wilson would go in the first round, right?
Still, the downturn in top-level NFL talent, at least from a draft perspective, has to trouble the conference and offers a possible explanation as to why the Big Ten has struggled on the big stage of late. I believe that the way Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke are recruiting will mean more elite players will be entering the pros in the near future, but we shall see.
Let's talk about this year's prospects. Who do you think will be the first Big Ten player selected this weekend? And which Big Ten product do you think should be the first one taken?
Adam Rittenberg: As much as I'd love to see Wisconsin RB Montee Ball work his way into the first round, I think the first pick will be either Short or Hankins. Both are potentially great NFL defensive linemen, but I think Short has a little more versatility to his game and can be an effective pass-rusher in addition to his run-stuffing duties. Short wasn't healthy for a chunk of last season, which led to some erratic play, but he has the ability to dominate inside. So does Hankins, but he's more of a space-eater than a difference-maker on the pass rush. I think Short should be the first Big Ten player taken, and I think he will be.
You mention Wilson, who was arguably the biggest steal of the 2012 draft. Which Big Ten player will fill that role this year? Who are the value picks out there from the league?
Brian Bennett: Wilson slipped in last year's draft because of concerns over his height. And I think there may be a similar thing going on with Ohio State's John Simon. He's viewed as a tweener because he's only 6-foot-1, but there's no questioning Simon's motor, heart or leadership. As long as he can stay healthy, he'll be a productive player for a long time in the NFL.
Penn State's Jordan Hill is another guy who's shorter than the prototype for a defensive lineman but who also makes up for it with his performance and drive. I also believe Nebraska's Rex Burkhead is being undervalued, though running backs aren't the commodities they once were at the next level. A knee injury hurt Burkhead's stock, but he showed at the combine what kind of athlete he is. And I think Michigan State cornerback Johnny Adams, who was looked at as a first-round draft pick not that long ago, could be had at a good price this weekend.
Which players do you think are being undervalued? And what do you see as the draft fate for Michigan's Denard Robinson?
Ohio State tackle Reid Fragel is another guy who could be a great value, although his stock seems to be rising quickly. He started his career as a tight end but really thrived last year at the tackle spot.
Robinson will be one of the weekend's top story lines. He's clearly a work in progress as a receiver, but you can't teach that speed and explosiveness. Robinson is a risk-reward guy, but I'd be surprised if he's still on the board midway through the third round.
The Big Ten sends a fairly small contingent of underclassmen to this year's draft. How do you think those players pan out?
Brian Bennett: Michigan State has three of 'em in Le'Veon Bell, Dion Sims and William Gholston. I think there's a chance that some team reaches for Bell in the first round, and he's got the body to be a very good NFL running back for a long time. Sims also presents an intriguing option for teams, especially with the increased use of tight ends in the pro passing game. Despite Gholston's impressive physical traits, he didn't test that well in Indianapolis and had a questionable motor in college. Teams could shy away from him.
You mentioned Spence from Illinois, a guy whose stock seemed to climb as he showed some great strength in workouts. Hankins will be a second-rounder at worst. Then there's Wisconsin center Travis Frederick, who posted a slow sprint time at the combine. But how many times do centers need to sprint? I still think he'll be a good player, and one who shouldn't fall past the second round.
This is getting to be as long as the draft itself, so we should probably start wrapping things up. Any final thoughts on the Big Ten's outlook this weekend?
Adam Rittenberg: The big story lines for me, other than whether the Big Ten has a player drafted in the first round, are where running backs like Ball, Bell and Burkhead land, the Denard Watch, how the underclassmen fare and where the potential sleepers we outlined above end up. This won't be a transformative draft for the Big Ten because it lacks elite prospects at the positions we mentioned earlier, especially cornerback and quarterback. But there are always a few surprises along the way. As a Chicago Bears fan, I'm always interested to see if a Big Ten player ends up at Halas Hall.
What Big Ten story lines intrigue you heading into the draft?
Brian Bennett: You mentioned most of the big ones. I'll also be interested to see if any team takes a chance on Penn State's Michael Mauti and whether Iowa's James Vandenberg gets drafted after a disappointing senior year. I predict the Big Ten keeps its first-round streak alive -- barely -- and that Robinson stays in Michigan when the Detroit Lions draft him in the fourth round.
And then we can all put the 2013 NFL draft to bed -- and start studying those 2014 mock drafts.
Many college coaches, even those at traditional power programs, concern themselves only with the present and the future. Michigan's Brady Hoke puts the past on a pedestal.
Hoke's players know what the numbers 134 and 42 mean -- Michigan enters its 134th year of football and boasts 42 Big Ten championships. They know about the program's national titles and award winners. They see the Bo Schembechler quotes, the Big Ten banners and the legends lockers dedicated to program greats.
Many of the current Wolverines hadn't put on a helmet and pads in their lives the last time Michigan won a national title in 1997, but they know what the program was like because coaches like Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, both Michigan assistants during the mid-1990s, tell them about it all the time. Offensive line coach Darrell Funk, who had no ties to Michigan before arriving with Hoke in 2011, often shows his players tape of former Wolverines stars Steve Hutchinson, Jake Long and Jon Jansen.
Senior linebacker Cam Gordon was 6 years old when Michigan won the national championship and 13 when the Wolverines claimed their last Big Ten title (2004, co-championship). But he hears about the glory days from coaches like Mattison and new outside linebackers coach Roy Manning, who played for Big Ten championship teams in 2003 and 2004.
"I do remember the stories about Michigan," Gordon said. "Before they even stepped on the field, the game was won."
The constant history lessons taught inside Schembechler Hall don't stem from an unhealthy state of nostalgia. Hoke wants his players to understand the standard at Michigan. He's also extremely blunt about the fact that the Wolverines have yet to meet it.
Hoke guided Michigan to 11 wins in his first season and ended the seven-year losing streak against archrival Ohio State. He has yet to lose a game at Michigan Stadium. He has pulled Michigan out of the fog of the Rich Rodriguez era. Recruiting is undoubtedly on the upswing, and Michigan looks more like its old self on both sides of the ball.
But Hoke's tenure to this point, by his own barometer, has been a failure.
"We didn't get it done," he said of the 2012 season, when Michigan went 8-5. "We were still in a second year of changing a culture and changing a philosophy to some degree, offensively and defensively and the whole scope of what we try and do as a team. But still, at the end of the day, this is about winning Big Ten championships. We have 42 of them, and we need to start on our 43rd."
Hoke's message is heard loud and clear from the team's best player on down.
"The standard at Michigan is a Big Ten championship every single year," All-American left tackle Taylor Lewan said. "That's the minimum. Everything else is a failure. The Sugar Bowl, the BCS game, that was awesome. It was such a great experience, Bourbon Street was cool, New Orleans was cool -- failure. Outback Bowl, close game, lost in the last 20 seconds -- failure.
"Those are all games that are failures. The only way this team would be happy, would be satisfied with one season, is if we win a Big Ten championship."
Things weren't that way when Lewan arrived in 2009.
"The main goal was to make it to a bowl game," he said. "I don't know if that's how it's supposed to be at Michigan. I don't know how much my opinion counts, but I think it should be a Big Ten championship every single year. These coaches have done a great job of preaching that.
"We're not going to settle."
It has been nearly a decade since the Wolverines could call themselves league champions, their longest drought since a lull between 1950 and 1964. Every year that passes without a title means Michigan moves a little further away from the great times, a little further away from regaining the mystique Mattison and others preach about.
Talking about a winning culture in the past only goes so far without establishing a winning culture in the present. It's why much of Michigan's offseason work has been from the neck up.
"There were times where we were down in games and we came back and won the game based off our mental toughness," wide receiver Jeremy Gallon said. "And there were times in games where we didn’t come back, and it was our lack of mental toughness."
Defensive tackle Quinton Washington said Michigan worked on breaking "mental barriers" this spring, one of which is playing better away from the Big House. The Wolverines dropped three road games (Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State) and two neutral-site contests (Alabama, South Carolina) last fall.
"We didn't play well on the road," Hoke said. "We didn't play with the toughness that it takes. We learned a lot in the bowl game about us as people, especially the guys coming back, good and bad."
Hoke has a Sun Tzu quote displayed in the weight room that reads: Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win. The goal is for the Wolverines to enter games with the same mindset as their predecessors.
Many think the Michigan mystique is dead, but Hoke's players are driven to revive it.
"If they don't fear Michigan," Gordon said, "then obviously that's something that we're going to have to change."
Beginning this fall.
"Anywhere you go in the world, everyone knows Michigan," defensive end Frank Clark said. "Anywhere in the nation, as far as college football, everyone knows Michigan. For the last couple years, we haven't lived up to those expectations. This next season, we have to.
"It's time. There aren't anymore excuses."
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The Michigan Man label carries a price tag. Those who earn it invest their bodies and their minds.
Some pay with deferred income.
For Taylor Lewan, becoming a Michigan Man carries a very hefty price tag, one with two commas. Lewan, the Wolverines' All-America left tackle, passed up millions in January when he announced he would return to Michigan for his senior season. After an excellent junior season and a solid performance against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl, Lewan had, in the view of most analysts, locked up a spot in the first round of the NFL draft. Some projected him as a top-10 pick.
"Everybody knew what Taylor could have been worth," Michigan defensive end Frank Clark said. "The type of season Taylor had -- All-American, All-Big Ten, he won the [Big Ten] offensive lineman of the year award -- I knew he was gone.
"I mean, who wouldn’t be?"
So why did it take Lewan all of 3½ hours to decide he'd be back at Michigan in 2013? Two words meant more to him than three letters and two commas.
He wants a title that, in his own blunt assessment, he doesn't deserve yet.
"I can't call myself a Michigan Man," Lewan told ESPN.com, "but that's what I want to become."
Lewan's decision to return served as an acknowledgement that his journey at Michigan isn't complete. He hasn't helped the Wolverines to their 43rd Big Ten championship (and first since 2004). He hasn't put himself among the greats -- Jake Long, Dan Dierdorf, Jumbo Elliott, Jon Jansen -- to play tackle for the Maize and Blue. He hasn't restored Michigan to the standard that coach Brady Hoke talks about on a daily basis.
But the decision also acknowledged how far Lewan had come at Michigan and how his view on the school had changed. Because when he arrived, the thought of leaving millions on the table for another year in school was laughable.
"When I came here, I didn't know anything," Lewan said. "All my friends are Ohio State fans, so I was always like, 'Ohio State's badass.' That's all I thought. I didn't know. I was getting away from Arizona for a couple years. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. The first couple years I was here, I still didn't know any of the tradition. I was playing for myself, I was playing for the opportunity to go to the NFL as soon as possible. That was my focus."
“Things began to shift when Hoke arrived and started his push to restore Michigan to glory.
I enjoy the pain of it. 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.” -- Taylor Lewan
"Coming into a room and expecting excellence, talking about a Big Ten championship every single day, knowing we have 42 championships and there needs to be a 43rd, that repetition, talking about it, talking about it, it makes you think," Lewan said. "Now I know more about the tradition here. I know more about the winged helmet, 115,000 people at the game, the largest stadium in the country. There’s a tractor or something under the stadium because it fell in while they were building.
"The little things, it becomes a part of you."
Hoke calls it "an education," and Lewan will continue his on the field and in the classroom and outside of it at Michigan. Winning a Big Ten title and completing his degree factored into his decision, but Lewan also wants more out of his college experience.
He hopes another year at Michigan allows him to do what few college football players can -- engage in campus life.
"As a football player, the biggest thing you do is hang out with the football people," he said. "Maybe some hockey guys, maybe some baseball guys here and there. I don't really know what Michigan has out there. If you play college football, your college experience is officially different from everybody else's and that’s how it’s going to be. I think it would be cool to see the different societies going on at Michigan, meet different people, all the things they do to contribute to the University of Michigan.
"I contribute in such a little way compared to some other people. I'm a source of entertainment. The things other people do are much bigger than what I do."
Lewan's perspective is refreshing, but don't tell anyone around Schembechler Hall that the things he does are small.
Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner knows his blind side will be sealed this fall. Wolverines offensive line coach Darrell Funk knows he'll have arguably the nation's best offensive lineman anchoring the front five and helping lead a group that must replace starters at all three interior positions. Clark knows he'll have the best possible preparation for opposing offenses by battling the 6-foot-8, 308-pound Lewan every day in practice.
"When Taylor announced [his return], that was pretty much at the peak of recruiting," Funk said. "All the arguments around the country were who has the No. 1 player? Who has the No. 1 recruit?
"I know when I went home that night, thinking of who got the No. 1 player in the country; I know I did."
Lewan often says the decision to return to Michigan is his and his alone. Like many high-level NFL prospects staying in school, he'll take out an insurance policy to guard against a career-threatening injury.
But there was no doubt in his mind when he made the announcement. If there had been, he'd be meeting with NFL teams right now and likely planning a trip to New York on April 25. Instead, he's preparing for Michigan's spring game Saturday at the Big House.
"People are going to absolutely think, 'He's crazy, he left all this money,'" said Lewan, whose decision drew skepticism from ESPN's Mel Kiper and others. "It doesn't matter. If I don't do what I'm supposed to do now, I shouldn't be in the NFL anyway.
"It wouldn't be fair to Michigan for me to hold anything back. There's no foot-out-the-door attitude."
Lewan thinks he can improve every part of his game in his final season, from pass protection to double-teams to base blocks to the screen game. He's "nowhere near perfect" despite having a unique blend of size and athleticism that allows him to defeat pass-rushers in one-on-one matchups.
Funk notes that while Lewan certainly could have made the jump -- "Everyone that I talked to knew he was in that elite status" -- he also has areas to upgrade, such as certain run-blocking techniques.
"The scary thing about him," Funk said, "and I know it and he knows it, when we really break him down on tape, he’s got two to three things that when he improves on those, his stock's going to rise even further."
Funk has coached talented offensive linemen who need to be prodded to finish blocks. Lewan is the opposite, playing to the whistle and sometimes beyond it.
He earned a reputation for being "nasty" even before he made his debut as a redshirt freshman in 2010. In 2011, Lewan and Michigan State defensive end William Gholston exchanged unpleasantries during a game in East Lansing. Gholston received two personal-foul penalties and a one-game suspension for punching Lewan, but Lewan wasn't exactly a saint in the game.
"If I do my job and do it 100 percent between the whistles and just try to physically dominate someone every single play and make them hurt at the end of the game, that's enough for me to go home happy every Saturday," he said. "I enjoy the pain of it. 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."
Lewan wasn't always this way. A future in contact sports seemed unlikely after his career as a young hockey player ended very early.
"I played for a team called the Tarantulas," Lewan recalled. "It was a mite league, so there was no checking allowed. I was good. I would wield the stick. I was money at hockey. And then they had tryouts for a team and it was pee-wee, so you could check all of a sudden. Some guy laid me out. This guy hit me so damn hard.
"I got up and just skated off. I was done."
Despite a love for baseball, Lewan eventually warmed to football and the contact it brought. He started nine games at left tackle as a redshirt freshman and has remained a fixture there ever since. Lewan earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2011 before making numerous All-America teams last fall.
Lewan will hold his own draft party of sorts later this month. He'll watch the first-round selections, rooting on top linemen such as Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel, Central Michigan's Eric Fisher and Oklahoma's Lane Johnson, as well as USC quarterback Matt Barkley, with whom he played in a high school all-star game.
"Watching them fulfill their dreams and knowing that someday I’ll hopefully be there, it’s just so cool to see," he said. "There's no jealousy or anything. If I'd wanted to leave, I would have left."
He's too busy enjoying himself at Michigan, whether he's growing an incredibly weak mustache as part of the line's "Muzzy Maulers" campaign, competing daily against Clark on the field and in the weight room, or tormenting Gardner in every way possible ("He's a bully, a big bully," Gardner said. "He picks on me, and he's so large I really can't do much about it. And he protects my blind side, so it's a lose-lose").
Michigan could have managed without Lewan, but his return "lifted a weight off our shoulders," Clark said.
"It brought joy back to the team," Clark continued. "He's one of the characters on the team, one of the motivators, one of the leaders. When I found out he’s coming back, that’s when it really clicked for me that it’s bigger than the NFL for him. It’s bigger than the money."
Lewan used to be a football player who happened to play for Michigan. He has become something more.
"The statement he made when he was asked why he came back and he said, 'You've never played football at Michigan,' that speaks volumes," Hoke said. "His goal is to help mold a young offensive line. His goal is to win a Big Ten championship. His goal is to become a better football player in all aspects. All those things are why he came back, but he wouldn’t have come back if he didn't play football at Michigan."
Lewan isn't sure how a Big Ten championship in 2012 would have affected his decision. He'd like to think he would have stayed. Maybe he would have bolted. The bottom line, he said, is it didn't happen.
His career is incomplete. He wants to be a champion. He wants to be a Michigan Man.
"I don't think there's any doubt about it," Hoke said. "The way he's carried himself, the way he's led, how he approaches every day, he's put himself in that position."