Graham finally stepping up as vocal leader of Michigan defense

Clif Reeder/Daily
Brandon Graham (55) charges in for a tackle on Saturday. Buy this photo

BY MICHAEL EISENSTEIN
Daily Sports Editor
Published October 5, 2009

The locker room was silent after the Michigan football team's overtime loss to Michigan State last Saturday.

But then senior defensive end Brandon Graham spoke up.

"When we got in the locker room after the loss, Brandon was just telling everyone, 'Remember this feeling,' " sophomore defensive tackle Mike Martin said Monday. "Just yelling it through the whole locker room, because everyone was just — it was silent. Brandon just cracked the silence and was just like, 'Remember this feeling.' "

It's something you would expect to hear from a senior in a shaken locker room. But in the past, words like those have rarely come from Graham's mouth, even though his candidness with the media and his joking demeanor during in practice would suggest otherwise.

Last season, Graham let his Saturday afternoon numbers do the talking: 20 tackles for loss (second in the country), 10 sacks (seventh in the nation) and 46 tackles (a career high). He also posted three sacks against Michigan State last year.

"Coach talked to him (saying) that he has to work on being more of a vocal leader, even though he does put leadership on the field obviously by making plays," Martin said. "But he's doing a good job talking to us. It's not his thing. He's told me, 'I'm not much of a talker.'

"But when it comes to actually giving some good leadership out there and saying the things he needs to say, he's getting pretty good at it."

And just as Graham, a preseason All-American selection, has started to embrace his role as a leader in the locker room, the opposing offensive lines have started to lock him down on the field. He routinely faces double teams or goes against max-protection blocking.

The extra attention has helped Martin, redshirt sophomore Ryan Van Bergen and freshman Craig Roh sack the quarterback a combined four and a half times. And Graham has still made it into the backfield, leading the team in tackles for loss (6.5).

But in sacks, the category by which every defensive end is judged, Graham has had a zero next to his name. At least until Saturday, when he caught Spartan quarterback Kirk Cousins four yards behind the line of scrimmage and forced him to cough up the ball with 11:15 left in the game.

"He hasn't said it, but I know he was getting a little antsy that he wasn't getting (any)," Martin said. "He was getting so close so many times in games, and BG, he doesn't like to not get his sacks."

Although he went through the first four games without a sack, Graham is still within range of former-Wolverine James Hall (1996-99), who has the second-most career sacks for Michigan. Graham, who has 20 career sacks, needs five to tie Hall and pass four former greats, including Lamar Woodley (2003-06). Mark Messner (1985-88) sits atop that list with 36.

But comparisons with the players on that list don't accurately quantify his impact on this year's young defense. Graham is leading a defensive line on which he has nearly twice as much game experience as any other starter, yet Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez called it "the most consistent group on our defense."

It's a tribute to Graham.

"Having him out there — he's a senior, he's been through it," Martin said. "I remember talking to him when it was a third down just looking at him, he looks over at me and is like, 'Come on, Mike. Let's go.' Just those little words that he says, little words of encouragement, you know, it just settles me down out there on the field."

Although opposing quarterbacks might not know what hit them as they fall to the ground, his presence is being felt more than ever on the defense with his words, especially when Graham told his teammates to "remember this feeling."

"When it comes next weekend and we're at Iowa, we'll remember him saying that," Martin said.