The alumni flocked to Ann Arbor this homecoming weekend like moths to a flame, and with plenty of students already resting comfortably at home on their Fall Break, the older Wolverines were more visible than ever.
They came to see the campus, to remember their glory years, and more than anything they came to see a football game, because that’s what Michigan is. They came to see a team, to be sure, but you knew they’d be focusing on certain players as well — Denard Robinson definitely, Taylor Lewan maybe, Fitzgerald Toussaint perhaps.
Unless his family happened to make it in for the game, nobody came to see Kenny Demens.
Nobody ever comes to see Kenny Demens.
It’s not like he’s some repulsive force, the fifth-year senior, but he’s definitely not an attraction either.
And it’s been that way his whole career here, save for when he first forced his way into the starting lineup in 2010. Fans looked to him as somewhat of a savior back then.
The backup is the most popular guy on the team when the starter falls into disfavor with the fans. That was the case then, when then-starter Obi Ezeh became a lightning rod for criticism (one of many) on what was the worst defense Michigan has ever seen.
Demens could do no wrong then, since anything was seen as an improvement over Ezeh. But the honeymoon never lasts long, and that was true for Demens.
He hasn’t been blasted by anyone. He hasn’t deserved to be, having played pretty solidly since then. But he hasn’t ever really been singled out for praise, and in the eyes of the fans, he’s never been considered a standout. If anyone outside the team has talked about Demens, it’s usually been only to express some dissatisfaction — mostly mild dissatisfaction, but dissatisfaction nonetheless.
This season, Demens entered the campaign as the full-time starter for the second straight year, and for the first time in his career, he was playing in the same defensive system for the second consecutive season.
It’s in those situations that veterans carry the highest expectations, and Demens was included in that. But early struggles by the defense as a whole led to some being ready to give the job to the young Joe Bolden, the hyped recruit who impressed in the spring and who had already forced himself into the rotation, his talent too great to keep on the sidelines.
Demens was now Ezeh, and Bolden was the upstart who everyone was clamoring to see.
But Demens wasn’t ready to concede.
On Illinois’ last meaningful drive of the second quarter, the Fighting Illini faced a 4th-and-1 just past Michigan’s side of the 50-yard line. They needed a score on this drive, or at least something to give them any bit of momentum heading into the second half.
Quarterback Reilly O’Toole handed off to Donovonn Young, who was met in the backfield by a rocketing Demens. It was a loss of one and a turnover on downs.
On Illinois’ first play of the second half, Demens saw the Fighting Illini’s formation and knew what route was coming because of the film study he had put in. He jumped the route and was rewarded with his first career interception, a turnover 44 games in the making.
“It felt awesome,” Demens said. “There’s nothing like that. Those guys just being happy for me on the sideline, that was incredible.”
The playing time for Bolden has steadily decreased since the third game against Notre Dame, and that is no coincidence. Demens, like the rest of the defense, has been improving ever since the hard-fought loss to the Fighting Irish, and in rapid fashion, too. After giving up 79 points in Michigan’s first three games, the unit has allowed just 26 in the last three.
On a defense without any real stars (save, perhaps, for fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs, and maybe redshirt sophomore linebacker Jake Ryan), Demens has toiled in relative obscurity his whole career, never doing anything to make himself a fan favorite.
But he has toiled. That’s how he’s improved his pass coverage, a task he said he put upon himself. He wasn’t ready to concede any more playing time.
“That’s the maturity that you like to see in your football team,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said of Demens’ preparation. “Kenny being a senior, you expect that, but when it works out, you’re excited about that.”
Some, perhaps, were ready to write him off, were ready to move on to the future of the position while the present was still here.
We’ll never know just how close Demens was to losing his job, but we do know that Demens, like he has always done, just kept on grinding when that appeared like a possibility.
Maybe he won’t ever be a star — maybe Demens won’t find his name on any All-Big Ten lists at the end of his final season. That hasn’t stopped him from giving everything he has to the Wolverines, from being a rock in the middle of a defense that suddenly looks like it can lead this team to a Big Ten championship.
But at a time when he’s playing some of his best football, after a game where his defense pitched a shutout and when he finally notched his first interception, one can only hope that those who watched were as happy for him as he deserves.