As the seniors prepare for their final home game against Ohio State, their legacy will serve as a testament to how quickly the football program has been turned around
The 2013 class of Michigan football seniors has had a first-hand view of the rocky transition that has taken place as the Wolverines attempt to regain their position as one of the top football programs in the nation. Over the past five years, men like Michael Schofield, Taylor Lewan, Thomas Gordon, Brendan Gibbons, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Jeremy Gallon, Jibreel Black, Cam Gordon, Courtney Avery, and Drew Dileo have all seen Michigan hit rock bottom under Rich Rodriguez while also experiencing the elation of winning a BCS Bowl game under Brady Hoke.
At the onset of their careers in 2009, this class of seniors was part of a Michigan team that finished 1-7 in the Big Ten. Consistently horrific defense plagued the Wolverines in each season under Rich Rodriguez until he was fired following the 2010 season. These seniors were recruited by Rich Rodriguez to become part of a scheme that would revolutionize the Big Ten, a spread offense with speed and talent unseen in the history of Michigan, and a defense with equally effective speed and turnover-producing ability. In reality, what fans received out of Rich Rod’s recruiting hype were players that couldn’t tackle, speedy playmakers with low football IQs, and 15 wins combined from 2008-2010.
When Brady Hoke arrived in 2011, many of these young men knew things would be changing not only from a schematic standpoint but from a cultural standpoint as well. Hoke was seen as the ideal “Michigan man” to get the program back to playing “Michigan football,” something that most players from the previous regime did not fully understand. As it turned out, many players bought in. Fitz Toussaint rushed for just over 1000 yards in 2011 along with 9 touchdowns. Jeremy Gallon became the 2nd leading receiver on the team with over 450 yards and 3 touchdowns. Brendan Gibbons hit the game winning field goal in the Sugar Bowl. Courtney Avery and Thomas Gordon – two players recruited specifically for Rodriguez’s 3-3-5 defensive scheme – thrived as defensive backs under Greg Mattison. Taylor Lewan flourished and emerged as the leader on the offensive line, becoming one of the best offensive lineman in the country and a perennial 1st round pick in next year’s NFL Draft. It’s clear that Hoke’s culture change resonated with Lewan, whom, upon choosing to return for his senior season this past January, said, “I was asked why I would come back and my answer was, ‘Have you ever played for Michigan?’”
As the last of the Rich Rodriguez recruits begin to trickle out of the program, many fans can’t wait to see Brady Hoke’s highly rated recruiting classes shuffle through the system and ideally produce Big Ten contenders for many years to come. With many looking toward the future for renewed success, the question that’s becoming increasingly difficult to answer is, what will the 2013 seniors be remembered for? What exactly is their legacy?
On the field, their legacy consists of many ups and downs. The Sugar Bowl victory remains the highlight of their 4-5 year tenure, closely followed by the 2011 victory over Ohio State that ended an eight-year drought against the Buckeyes. However, this unit only boasts one victory against Michigan State in the past 5 years along with the lone victory over Ohio State. Road performances have been abysmal since Lloyd Carr left Michigan and the Wolverines have had their fair share of close calls against inferior opponents since the Carr era as well.
Regardless, the legacy of the 2013 seniors transcends performance on the field and simple win/loss records. Men like Lewan, Gallon, and Thomas Gordon were the leaders who bought into Brady Hoke and the renewed meaning of what it means to be a Michigan athlete. These men were responsible for educating every Michigan recruit and every incoming freshman on what it means to play for Michigan. This job was essential, considering the turmoil and uncertainty surrounding the program after Rich Rodriguez was fired. With highly rated recruits showering the program amidst a culture change, the veteran players who saw how highly recruited players failed under the previous regime were left with the task of humbling the youngsters and teaching them how to become winners again under the guidance of Hoke and his coaching staff.
As these seniors take the field against Ohio State on November 30th for their final game, keep in mind (despite all the missed opportunities over the past three seasons) how far Michigan football has come, broadly speaking. From the depths of a 1-win Big Ten season to becoming Sugar Bowl Champs, these players exemplify the speed with which Brady Hoke has turned around a program many thought was destined to remain subdued for quite some time. Even though this season might not have lived up to expectations, and even if Michigan football isn’t where many want it to be, Hoke did an incredible job turning losers into winners who understand what the block M represents.