BY NICOLE AUERBACH
Daily Sports Writer
Published September 2, 2010
Ask someone to define the relationship between Craig Roh and Taylor Lewan, and you’ll get all sorts of suggestions.
Lewan has jokingly called the pair “Romeo and Juliet.” Roh has said he is the “yin” to Lewan’s “yang.” Roh’s father thinks maybe Felix and Oscar from The Odd Couple might be the best comparison.
At the very least, it’s fascinating. You have a redshirt freshman offensive tackle – Lewan – who’s drawn comparisons to the best tackle in Michigan football history. On the other side of the line of scrimmage is his best friend, Roh – the only current defensive player to have started every game since he arrived on campus.
They go against each other nearly every day at practice. In their first year, they also came home to each other in their dorm room. Both are natives of Scottsdale, Ariz., and they played one year of high school football together in 2008.
They can finish each other’s sentences or get into shoving matches over buffalo wings – depending on the day.
Together, they are two of the most important pieces of the very young Michigan football team.
SOCKS, WINGS AND FISH TANKS
Lewan can’t forget the first time he met Roh. He had just transferred to Chaparral High School, where Roh had attended and played football since his freshman year.
“I was sitting in the weight room,” Lewan says today. “He comes up to me and just gives me a big hug and goes, ‘I’m Craig Roh.’ I was uncomfortable. I didn’t know what to do with my hands.”
Roh laughs and offers an explanation that doesn’t really explain the gesture – “He looked like he was a tall, strong, big guy, and I felt like he could do a lot so I went up and hugged him.”
Taylor fills in: “Not even a handshake. He didn’t go for the handshake. A real hug. It was good.”
“And that’s how our friendship started,” Roh says.
The two played their senior year together at Chaparral, leading the team to the state championship game. They committed to Michigan independently from one another, but after their fathers had had multiple conversations about what a great fit it could be for both of them.
The two decided to room together at Markley the summer before freshman year, and then they moved to West Quad for fall and winter semesters.
Roh and Lewan could do comedic routines describing that year spent in close quarters.
Their favorite story involves Lewan’s snoring. He’d often fall asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow, which wasn’t convenient for Roh, who couldn’t get a peaceful night’s rest if Lewan fell asleep first.
In the middle of the night, Roh would pick up one of the balled-up socks he kept in a pile at arm’s reach. He’d hurl socks at Lewan until he’d wake up and stop snoring. Smelly socks were most effective, he says.
That wasn’t the only time anger would take over their friendship. They once got into a shoving fight over leftover buffalo wings. To this day, both Roh and Lewan claim the leftovers were their own. In their cramped Markley dorm room, the two wrestled each other, reaching for wings the whole time.
But the silly fights didn’t hurt their relationship, they said, even though both players are living with different teammates this year.
“Sometimes, best friends aren’t always the best roommates,” Lewan said. “I’m going to take the brunt of that, too. I wasn’t the best roommate. A little messy, snored a little bit.”
The messiness once led to a leaking fish tank in their West Quad room, which led to mold. Until Roh’s mother visited and discovered the mold, Roh and Lewan couldn’t figure out why they kept wheezing and sneezing.
But through all of the messes, shoving and snoring, Roh and Lewan became very close. Lewan’s outgoing personality complemented the quiet off-field demeanor of Roh.
Their fathers are close, too, often spending time together when Roh’s dad, Fred, flies in from Arizona for home games. Lewan’s dad, Dave, lives in Ann Arbor now. Sometimes after games, the sons and fathers will go out for dinner.
Next weekend, plans are already in place for the Notre Dame game – Dave will pick Fred up from the airport and they’ll drive down to South Bend, Ind., together.
Craig’s father gets a kick out of his son’s friendship with Lewan off the field and fierce rivalry with him on the practice field, one complete with trash talking and some violence.
“It’s funny because they really do get really mad at each other, particularly on a football field,” Fred said. “I know Taylor has knocked Craig’s helmet off, and Craig has totally laid into him, punched him in the stomach. They just have that, and then when it’s all over, they’re just good friends again, doing their little routine that they do.”
It may feel like a routine, but it’s genuine, according to Taylor’s father.
“When they’re with each other, they really do play off each other,” Dave said. “What you see is what you get – it’s not an act.”
With the loss of one of the nation’s most feared defensive linemen – Big Ten co-MVP and No. 13 overall pick in April’s draft, Brandon Graham – there’s a big, gaping hole in the Michigan defense.
Roh, who started every game last season as a true freshman, is expected to fill part of that. Last season, Roh was tied with All-Big Ten lineman Mike Martin for the most sacks on the team (2.0) after Graham. Martin is the only returning lineman with more than Roh’s 7.5 tackles for loss.
Not bad for a freshman.
“He played last year at about 225 (pounds) as a true freshman, and did a good job,” Rodriguez said. Now that he has gained some weight, Rodriguez added, Roh is “running just as well, if not better. That, and the experience that he's been out there before, you can see it. He's a guy that we want to move around a little bit. Craig is a very active, high motor player.”
Rodriguez said Roh’s pass-rushing ability will help replace Graham’s impact on the defense.
This season, Roh is probably the only person who can define his new position. It’s getting a lot of publicity due to new defensive terminology and new schemes, like the 3-3-5 formation.
“I’m not just a pure linebacker,” Roh said. “I’m like a hybrid sort of player. I’ll be a linebacker some plays, really like a defensive lineman some plays. That’s how the defense is formed now. I can be used in a variety of ways.”
At 6-foot-5, Roh knew he needed to bulk up in the offseason to make this possible – and to make it easier to go against 300-pound offensive linemen. He went from 235 pounds last season to 251 now.
With his role expanding, expectations have grown, too. According to Fred, there’s a lot of pressure on his son.
“I just want to help lead this defense,” Roh said. “We lost a couple of key players last year, and I feel like I’m really expected to step up, so individually, I just want to make people better through knowing the defense as a whole and making myself better.”
Going up against Lewan in practice usually helps, too. Both put forth as much effort as their bodies allow – which, like Roh’s father says, sometimes ends in shoving or punching.
“The thing I like most about Craig is even when you think you’ve got him, you don’t have him,” Lewan said. “When you play against Craig, he has an ongoing motor. That’s something I think is huge to have in football. He will not stop. He will not stop until the play is absolutely over.”
THE NEW NO. 77
Lewan’s build and physique fit the mold of a prototypical offensive lineman under Rich Rodriguez – big, but agile, and able to block efficiently for a dual-threat quarterback.
After a year and a half of workouts with strength and conditioning coach Mike Barwis, Lewan said everyone on the line, including himself, is twice as athletic as they used to be.
Redshirt junior Mark Huyge is currently listed at the top of Michigan’s depth chart, but Rodriguez has said he has an eight- or nine-player rotation for the offensive line. Lewan may not be starting, but he will certainly see the field.
His football career didn’t start out on the offensive side of the ball, though. Until Lewan’s senior year of high school, he played nose tackle – to this day, he says he was “terrible” at that position. When he transferred to Chaparral for the 2009 season, he began playing on the offensive line.
That’s when the scholarship offers began pouring in. Players like former Wolverine Jake Long, the top overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, and Michael Oher, the subject of the book/movie “The Blind Side,” popularized the position of offensive tackle. Its role in protecting the quarterback from his blind side – for a right-handed quarterback, his left side – was immeasurable. Lewan fit the mold.
His father Dave had gone through the same experience. He, too, had started on the defensive line before transitioning to offensive tackle. Dave played at Minnesota in the 1980s.
Lewan committed to Michigan in December 2009, weeks after Roh did. For much of their first year in Ann Arbor, the two roommates went against each other in practice almost every day.
One of the best compliments Roh has given Lewan is this: nobody on Michigan’s defensive line actually enjoys going against him in practice.
“I never hear someone on the defense who says, ‘Oh yeah, Taylor’s a really nice guy to go against,’ ” Roh said. “Everyone’s like, ‘Yeah, he’s holding me. He’s knocking me over when the play’s over.’ He’s just a nasty guy, which is the kind of mentality we need on the offensive line.”
Those on Lewan’s side of the ball see things differently – or more forgivingly.
“Dirty? I don’t know about that, but he’s tough and he plays to the whistle,” senior guard Steve Schilling said after a laugh. “Sometimes, he’s got to get control of his energy that he brings when he’s playing out there. It’s good to have. The coaches say you’d rather say ‘Whoa’ than ‘Sick ‘em.’ You’d rather that than having to go motivate him to hit somebody.”
Whoa sounds about right.
In high school, Lewan received quite a few “excessive blocking” penalties.
“I’ve never seen that before,” said Roh, laughing. “He drove a guy 30 yards down the field, and they said it was excessive blocking. We were confused, too. I guess you can’t dominate someone that much.”
Lewan explained the motivation behind such a play besides the obvious intimidation factor. He said getting a penalty like that – or holding a guy a few moments after the whistle and not getting called for it – jumbles the defensive player’s mind. He becomes focused on Lewan, not on his duties, like rushing the quarterback.
Lewan’s No. 77 Michigan jersey has attracted many Long comparisons since last spring when it became clear he would get playing time this fall. Listed at 6-foot-8, 294 pounds, Lewan is a similar physical specimen – Long is 6-foot-7, 317 pounds.
Though Lewan didn’t know much about Long’s dominance as a Wolverine until his father told him, he learned quickly what Long has done for the position he plays.
“Any offensive lineman that doesn’t look up to him, that’s not good,” Lewan said. “He’s a first-round draft pick. You can’t get too much better. If you fall just a little bit short of what he did, you’re still an amazing player. I feel that everyone’s goal is not to be like Jake Long, but to play like Jake Long.”
Roh and Lewan are just two of the young players expected to take over key roles for Michigan this fall.
Certainly, the two sophomore quarterbacks, Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson, and true freshman Devin Gardner have been the center of attention. Which young signal-caller will lead the Wolverine offense through the trenches of the Big Ten football season?
Behind them, which of the five fairly inexperienced running backs will step up to become the go-to guy?
And what about the secondary? Who will step up to replace departed Donovan Warren and injured Troy Woolfolk?
With so many questions, it’s almost terrifying for Rodriguez, who is in his third season and a make-or-break one at that.
"I know eventually what we'll have, but in the first game or two, with all of the nerves out there and all that kind of stuff, big Johnny (Falk) will probably have to bring a couple extra pairs of pants in case they make a little mess," said Rodriguez, referring to the team's equipment manager.
For the young guys, though, it’s a lot more exciting than scary. Besides Forcier, Roh is the only sophomore with 12 starts under his belt.
Lewan, like other redshirt freshmen who are expected to play important minutes this fall, is simply looking forward to contributing to the Michigan football program during a game.
“From (high school) freshman year on, playing football you’re starting, you’re starting, you’re starting,” Lewan said. “Freshman year here, you’re redshirting. It’s kind of a reality check almost. You have to realize you can’t help the team during the game. You have to do everything you can during scout team. I’m excited to play this year. I’m excited to get in there.”
With excitement comes potential impact.
And maybe some excessive blocking penalties.