When Chad Henne trotted out onto the field
for Michigan’s season opener against Miami (Ohio) on Sept. 4
as the Wolverines’ starting quarterback, just about every one
of the 110,815 in attendance was caught by surprise.

Rick Leach was at Michigan Stadium to watch that game, and, at
the sight of the true freshman, immediately thought back to Sept.
13, 1975, when he started in the Wolverines’ season
opener.

Leach and Henne are the only two true freshmen to start a season
opener at quarterback in Michigan football’s 125-year
history. Now, five games into the season, Henne has completed
83-of-135 passes for 1,096 yards and nine touchdowns, and Leach,
like others, sees Henne progressing at a rapid pace.

“The way he handles himself, his poise, his leadership in
the huddle — it’s just a gift that he’s been
given,” Leach said. “I don’t think he would be
the starting quarterback at Michigan as a true freshman if he
didn’t have those things. He has tremendous upside, and it
looks like he’s just going to get better and better. To get
to the point that he’s at right now — to me you can
already see him getting more comfortable. He’s doing a
fantastic job.”

Leach, whose 47 starts at quarterback are the most in school
history, set nearly every Michigan passing record during his
playing days. He also played baseball at Michigan and was an
All-American in both baseball and football his senior year. After
his time in Ann Arbor, he played 10 years in the Major Leagues with
four teams (Detroit, Toronto, Texas and San Francisco).

Leach believes that growing pains are inevitable for a
quarterback, and that by learning the ropes now, Henne will be
better off for the next three years.

“A lot of adjustments (that) I had to make, Henne is
making right now,” Leach said. “You can look at the
films and work on things in practice as much as you want, but what
I found out — and I’m sure Chad is finding out —
is that the coaches on the other side of the ball understand they
will be playing a true freshman.”

Leach also faced a myriad of defenses trying to make his
decisions as difficult as possible. Today’s defenses are
faster and even more varied, which makes the poise Henne has shown
look even more remarkable.

“I think, especially early in the year, it looked like a
lot of teams came after Henne with a lot of blitz packages and
pressure,” Leach said. “It was pretty much the same for
me my freshman year.

“As a true freshman, your learning curve has to come on
the field. As much exposure as the quarterback position has,
sometimes it’s going to be difficult. You just have to rely
on your instincts to get you through it.”

While Henne was effective in his first game, completing 14-of-24
passes for 142 yards along with two touchdowns and one
interception, Leach’s statistics pale in comparison. Against
Wisconsin in the 1975 opener, he completed just 2-of-10 passes and
threw three interceptions to go with one touchdown. But
Leach’s best efforts weren’t necessary, and Michigan
won easily.

“For your first game, it’s like you’re in a
whole new world,” Leach said. “(Playing) against
Wisconsin, a Big Ten team, on the road, was such a tremendous
challenge. But at the same time there wasn’t too much being
asked of me. We had a lot of experience up and down the lineup, and
I was comfortable with what I could do. But until you get out
there, you just don’t really know what you can do, so that
day was pretty nerve-wracking.”

Leach’s first game in the Big House came one week later
against Stanford. Although his numbers were only slightly better,
it’s a day he still remembers fondly. And for a person who
achieved athletic success his entire life, that truly means
something.

“When you put on the uniform in the lockerroom for the
first time, it’s something you always remember,” Leach
said. “It’s an experience unlike any other, and, in my
opinion, there’s nothing like that. When I came down the
tunnel that first time, and could feel the enthusiasm of the crowd,
it was great.”

While Leach sees similarities between Henne’s adjustment
to college football and his own, there are also clear-cut
differences. When Leach was Michigan’s quarterback, it ran
the option and was known for a dominant running game and stingy
defense. These days, Michigan is also known for having a string
seven consecutive of quarterbacks play in the NFL.

Leach passed the ball just 100 times during his 12-game freshman
season. Henne eclipsed that number early in Michigan’s fourth
game against Iowa.

“That should tell people all they need to know about the
different styles of football,” Leach said.
“There’s definitely similarities between our
experiences, but at the same time, some things are drastically
different.”

Only a handful of college football players face more pressure
than Michigan’s quarterback. Leach, who beat Ohio State three
of four times but lost four bowl games, was well aware of the
criticism then, and believes it’s only intensified since.

Former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler “had been there for
about five or six years going into my freshman season,” Leach
said. “They had had tremendous success and had developed into
a top team year after year. So the pressure was there back then
just like the pressure is there right now. There’s always
pressure at Michigan, and that will probably never
change.”

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