Throughout Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez’s tumultuous two-year tenure, one player has almost always been able to flash a smile, even in the toughest of stretches.

Senior defensive end Brandon Graham jumps at any opportunity to make someone laugh.

This week, with the Wolverines in the midst of a six-game conference skid, Graham was asked what he would tell his children about the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry.

“I don’t want to talk about no kids right now,” Graham said, letting out a jocular laugh.

It’s not that Graham — who leads the nation with 21 tackles for loss — doesn’t take Michigan’s struggles seriously. Rather, he’s excelled and turned into a surefire first-day NFL Draft choice because of his attitude.

“Brandon would probably be the best player I ever coached for one reason: He made the game fun,” said Tim Hopkins, Graham’s high school coach at Crockett Technical. “He always had fun playing football.”

This season, Graham became the second Wolverine ever to post back-to-back seasons with 20 tackles for loss. He will likely pass LaMarr Woodley in career tackles for loss Saturday (he needs just 1.5) to move into second place all-time. He also moved into second place for career sacks with 27.5.

Statistically, Graham is second to just one player in Michigan’s vaunted defensive history: Mark Messner.

“For somebody to be able to be as dominant, regardless of what team you play on, to be as dominant as he is at times is just a heck of a personal feat,” said Messner, a Michigan defensive lineman from 1985 to 1988. “The talent level across the board in college football and beyond is so close that when you have somebody that can take it to the next level like he has, that’s a real shining star.”

But in some ways, it may not seem too difficult to be a shining star on a defense that gave up the most points ever last season. Furthermore, that record could be broken by this year’s defense if the Buckeyes score 39 points Saturday.

“Sometimes, when you’re dealing with a defense that seems to be a little bit porous, it opens up some doors for you to come in the back way,” Messner said yesterday. “So realistically, I think he’s in an advantageous situation where they don’t just have to focus on stopping him, they can go somewhere else and have success.”

But the paradox of Graham’s success and the unit’s failings isn’t on Graham’s mind, and the talkative senior essentially clams up when asked about it.

“I ain’t think about it,” Graham said. “I’m a team player. We all had a bad year ’cause our goals weren’t fulfilled. My personal goals was okay, but it’s not about me.”

Graham says it’s not about him, but he’s one of the few players to excel under Rodriguez since he arrived in Ann Arbor — and is a positive reflection of Rodriguez’s strong focus on conditioning. Graham “didnt realize how out of shape he was until Rich Rodriguez came in,” according to Hopkins.

Ohio State coach Jim Tressel thinks Graham’s choice to forgo the NFL Draft is a testament to Rodriguez and his staff.

“Quite honestly, I was hoping a year ago he’d go out early to the NFL,” Tressel said yesterday. “It says something about his character and his relationship with his staff that he wanted to be a part of this building process.”

Though Graham may have just one game left as a part of that process, the vocal leader of the Wolverines has been the one to stay positive through this year’s emotional rollercoaster.

“He’s a leader in a way that losing, winning, down or up, he plays like it’s the last play of his career,” redshirt sophomore Ryan Van Bergen said. “That’s really amazing, especially for a guy in his position that has the future he’s probably going to have.”

Yet the realization that his Michigan career is almost over is one of the few times Graham’s smile briefly disappears.

“It’s kind of sad,” Graham said. “Growing up, you’ve been dreaming for this moment in your life. And now it’s gone. This is my last game. I’m trying not to cry right now.”

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