Nobody ever beat Jake Long.
Long, the eventual first team All-American, No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft and Pro Bowl left tackle, an always impenetrable wall, stood tall against all challengers — literally and physically.
The 6-foot-7 behemoth served as the gatekeeper of the left side of Michigan’s offensive line from 2004-2007.
Then-head coach Lloyd Carr would always pit a defensive lineman against an offensive lineman in one-on-one practice drills throughout the season.
Long was king, that is, until Brandon Graham lined up across from him.
The 6-foot-1 defensive end, two years younger than Long, unleashed his arsenal of moves against the tackle — speed rush, bull rush, whatever it took. Graham tested his will against Long’s to get to the quarterback.
“Once you got around him your confidence went up and you see him get mad for real,” Graham recalled. “Then it’s like, ‘C’mon I’m serious now,’ — like he wasn’t serious before.”
These epic struggles lasted just two years. Long eventually went on to play for the Miami Dolphins, while Graham was left to develop his game. A quarterback-hungry defensive end with an insatiable appetite, Graham’s work ethic and motor became legendary to those around the program.
“Brandon is a very humble guy,” Carr said. “Nobody beat Jake Long, very much. That was infrequent. Even if you could do it, once a month, you’d feel awfully good. So he did have, occasionally, some success against Jake, which told us all that he was the real deal.”
Graham ripped and clubbed his way through Michigan’s opponents throughout his career and was named co-winner of the Chicago Tribune Silver Football last season, given to the best player in the Big Ten as voted on by the coaches.
The 29.5 career sacks and 56 career tackles for loss speak for themselves. And all that production came in just 28 starts at defensive end.
On Thursday, the first round of the NFL Draft will take place in primetime and Graham has a good chance of being among the first 32 selected.
His sights are set on NFL quarterbacks now.
“What happens if you watch a game, and all of a sudden a guy appears to come from nowhere, and he did that I can’t tell you how many times,” Carr said. “All of a sudden, the quarterback is there, he’s looking down the field and bang! He’s on the ground. And somebody has hit him and knocked him (down). That’s what I remembered when I watched him.”
If you saw Graham around Ann Arbor he’d come off unassuming, humble even, certainly not the monster that came to play on Saturday afternoons in the fall — no, not him, they couldn’t be the same guy.
“He’s just all smiles every time,” fellow captain Zoltan Mesko said. “I didn’t know someone could have so many smiles in them throughout the day.”
Graham’s impact was felt on the field during his junior and senior years as his teammates voted him Bo Schembechler Team MVP twice (the first time for a defensive player in school history).
As a captain this past season, Graham was the one who would get up in front of his teammates and deliver speeches after tough losses.
“They weren’t forced, and that’s what I liked about it,” Mesko said. “He really came from his heart. People paid attention because it’s generally what he meant, what he felt about that certain situation, so he spoke his mind and put it the right way.
“It’s easy to talk off adrenaline before a game, but who’s going to be the guy to pick the rest of the guys up after a game. He’s not about getting the attention because it’s before the game, ‘Look at me how hyped I am.’ He’s the guy who really loves to get up one more time than he’s fallen.”
Graham tried to instill in his teammates the same fire, love and passion for the game that he played with every snap. After his junior season in 2008, Graham could have made the jump to the NFL, but he decided to stay at Michigan to accomplish more.
“He was a guy who had humility,” Carr said. “You know when you make the transition from high school to college, if you have those qualities, it makes your adjustment a lot easier. Because (you) realize, ‘I’ve got a lot to learn, (but) I’m confident in my ability.’
“And the same thing applies when you leave college and (go) to the NFL. … You have a better chance of fitting in and being accepted and you have a work ethic (too), then you’re on your way.”
The way Mesko and current coach Rich Rodriguez talk about the graduating senior, it’s as if there’s a conversion chart for Graham’s impact on the Wolverines. Mesko said Graham was worth at least three to four seniors, and Rodriguez said last month that it would take all 12 of next year’s seniors to fill Graham’s spot.
He led the team on the field through his play and off the field with his speeches and by example. NFL teams won’t have to spend too much time checking Graham’s background or being concerned with him away from the game.
“I tell them, if you get me, I’m about football and I’m about my business,” Graham said. “You won’t have to worry. I’m not a risk off the field because I’m all about football.”
Before the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, back in January, Graham started to get a little nervous. The guy who was known for bone-crunching hits was letting doubts about his own abilities creep into his mind.
So he went and talked to his strength coach, Mike Barwis.
“Man, this is my first time I’m gonna be on stage,” he told his coach.
“Do what got you there, and you’ll be fine,” Barwis responded. “You play in front of a hundred thousand people. The same people you see down there will be watching you on TV, or watching you in the stands, from scouts to just coaches. They know what you’re about. Just go out there and do your thing.”
And Graham did, to the tune of five tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble in a game featuring the country’s top senior college football players. Graham took home the game’s MVP.
On display for all to see was what Michigan fans have been witnessing for the past two seasons — Graham’s motor. It’s the first thing analysts talk about when Graham is mentioned and it has almost become synonymous with his name.
“When you say motor, you’re talking about a guy who’s going as hard as he can as fast as he can from the snap of the ball to the whistle,” Carr said. “And he doesn’t seem to allow fatigue to factor in and that’s due to his work ethic. But the natural explosiveness and the motor, those are God-given talents.”
Graham never takes a down off, and he does a lot of his damage in the fourth quarter after wearing down opposing tackles throughout games.
“I don’t think there’s a guy in this draft who plays with a better motor than Graham,” Director of college football scouting for ESPN Scouts Inc. Todd McShay said. “It starts with the effort. From the first play to the last play, he’s just nonstop. He really is. And I think he’s technically sound. He’s the one guy who’s in the position he should be, doing the right things and all that. I just think really the effort and the toughness are what will impress scouts the most.”
When Graham got to Michigan in 2006, Carr probably gave him the best advice to advance the young defensive lineman’s development.
“Hey, if you don’t know what to do, just watch LaMarr (Woodley),” Carr told him. “Watch the way he practices. In meetings make sure you’re paying attention and you can always ask him because he knows he’s been here. And if you try to model yourself after him, then you couldn’t have someone better.”
Woodley, who was a senior when Graham was a freshman, was selected as a first-team All-American that year and was drafted 46th overall in the second round of the NFL Draft by the Steelers.
Since being drafted, Woodley has made the transition from predominantly playing defensive end in college to a full-time outside linebacker in the 3-4 for the Steelers. And he has done it masterfully.
Woodley had six sacks in the 2008 playoffs as Pittsburgh won all three of its playoff games, including the Super Bowl. He was an instrumental part of the modern-day Steel Curtain.
Graham heeded Carr’s advice and soaked up everything he could during his one year as Woodley’s teammate.
Before Woodley graduated he gave his protégé some advice of his own.
“You’re going to be a good player,” Woodley told Graham. “Eventually you’re going to have to lead this team. You’re going to be the man on this team.”
And Graham did just that, following in the tracks that Woodley had laid before him.
The comparison is something Woodley sees and acknowledges.
“It’s a big similarity,” Woodley said of his play on the field and Graham’s. “The only thing is Brandon is faster than me. I tell you that. Brandon is faster than me, hands down faster than me. Other than that, everything is the same.”
In the NFL, Woodley made the Pro Bowl for the first time in his career this past season, and has posted 29 sacks in his first three years in the league.
The two still stay in touch via text messages. Woodley will make sure Graham is doing alright off the field and will also offer advice on how Graham can improve on it.
Woodley, at 6-foot-2 and 265 pounds, is the physical and logical comparison to Graham and he could be considered one of the poster boys for making the switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4.
“They always compared us,” Woodley said. “When (Graham) came out of high school, they compared us. Leaving college, they’re comparing us again. It’s actually a good thing, because the team’s that passed up on me better not pass up on him.”
Michigan’s tradition of producing NFL caliber talent is continuing with Graham. He had a chance to compete early on against the likes of Long and alongside Woodley — and other future NFL players. Now, carries the pro-bound tradition that has been ingrained in the historic program.
“It felt good because just watching him those two years before I got there, it was like, ‘Man, I’m playing with Woodley, I’m playing with Mike Hart, Chad Henne, all those guys,’ ” Graham said. “I was scared, because it’s like I’ve got to really come up there and be able to fill their shoes. It felt good, once I started seeing that I could do it.”
Before he even played a down of football for Michigan, Graham found himself in Carr’s office facing a tough decision. The Detroit native was recruited as a linebacker coming out of high school and weighed about 240 pounds during his senior year of high school, as Carr recalls. But when Graham showed up for summer practices, he had gained 20 to 30 pounds.
So Carr decided to meet with the young man.
“Now look, there’s no way from a conditioning standpoint that you can come in here and play linebacker,” Carr told him. “I mean you’re going to have to cut some weight.”
He didn’t cut any weight. So Carr gave him an ultimatum.
“The best we can (do), is we can redshirt you, or if you want to play, we’ll put you down and put you on the defensive line,” Carr told him.
He wanted to play — was there any doubt that he would?
The move paid off. But Graham feels right at home now despite questions from reporters, scouts and general managers speculating whether he can make the transition from defensive end to standing up and playing linebacker in a 3-4 defense. He’s been playing linebacker since he was seven years old — it comes natural for Graham.
“He’s one of those guys, he’s got wonderful explosion and burst and so he was a natural,” Carr said. “As I look at him, I’ve had a lot of people call me from the NFL, as I look at him, he can be a 4-3 defensive end. But there’s no doubt in my mind that he can also be a stand-up linebacker, because he’s very athletic, very quick. So I don’t know what’s going to happen to him. But he gives any defensive coordinator incredible flexibility.”
With the growing popularity of the 3-4 defense in the NFL with the league split about 50-50 between teams that predominantly run the 4-3 versus the 3-4 scheme, the need for ‘tweeners’ like Graham has soared in recent years. The transition from playing with your hand on the ground to starting every play standing up and having to drop into coverage more as a linebacker is a big move for defensive ends.
Guys who can play defensive end and outside linebacker are valuable, but it’s an inexact science when it comes to evaluating who can make the switch to the 3-4.
“There’s a little bit of a leap of faith there with a lot of players who come into the league and play outside linebacker in a 3-4 system,” Denver Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels said. “A lot of them are defensive ends and you’ve never seen them stand up.”
Green Bay Packers General Manager Ted Thompson added: “There’s more projecting of pass rushers to those 34 outside linebacker positions, it’s a very difficult thing to do. Because if a guy has never stood up and played before, just because he can run fast or do drills, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he can stand on his feet and play the game. But it does work out sometimes. As much as we can, we try and stick with guys who have proven they can play the game.”
The switch doesn’t work for everyone.
Before the 2009 season, when the Packers switched to a 3-4 defense, they decided to keep their premier pass rusher Aaron Kampman in the mix and shifted the 6-foot-4 260-pound defensive end to outside linebacker.
Kampman’s season was cut short due to injuries and in nine games he recorded only 3.5 sacks.
Known for a motor of his own, Kampman was a force off the edge for the Packers in the 4-3 defense, racking up 37 total sacks the previous three seasons in the system and was probably one of the reasons he was signed by the Jacksonville Jaguars this past offseason after leaving the Packers.
Graham, on the other hand, has had experience standing up before his time as a Wolverine, and even stood up a little in some plays while at Michigan and dropped back into coverage.
“I knew I always wanted to stand up, because that was my dream, coming out playing that linebacker (position),” Graham said. “On the D-line I had to adjust. I think I’ll fit straight in as soon as I get back.
“I feel good coming off (the edge). I got the speed and strength to come off that ball. And most tackles are scared of that. After every game I always get a compliment about (my) tackling. That’s always been my dream for somebody to come compliment me after a game.”
It all came together for Graham: the pursuit, the motor, the pass-rush moves and the ability. It might not matter which position he plays in the NFL — he can do either.
There’s one thing that’s never going to change no matter what scheme a team runs — getting to the quarterback is important.
“That’s unbelievably valuable in our league,” Thompson said.
When Graham’s name is called during the NFL Draft he may have to send thank you cards to the Denver Broncos’ Elvis Dumervil and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ James Harrison. The pair paved the way for Graham to make an impact in the NFL despite narrow-minded general managers who prefer their pass rushers to be the taller prototype ends.
At just 6-foot-1, Graham is comparable to the 5-foot-11 Dumervil and the 6-foot-0 Harrison.
Dumervil easily led the NFL in sacks last year with 17, and Harrison is one year removed from being the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, helping the Steelers win a Super Bowl.
“That has changed with the growth of the tackles,” Steelers Director of Football operations Kevin Colbert said of the sterotypical thinking. “As the tackles get taller, they have a little more trouble with the Elvis Dumervil’s and James Harrison’s who aren’t quite 6-(foot)-3 because they’re great leverage players. I don’t think you ever want to get locked into a prototypical size, we all want that, but you can’t shut out a good player just because he might not be 6-(foot)–3.”
But both of those players play as outside linebackers in 3-4 defenses, a position Graham might be asked to switch to because of his lack of height.
Graham plays with leverage though, even against tackles who are much taller than him and often have more than 50 pounds on him. One way to combat a lack of size is having long arms to work around bigger tackles. But Graham’s arms are just over 32 inches long, almost four inches shorter than Dumervil’s. It’s those long arms that McDaniels attributes to Dumervil’s success.
Without the arm length, Graham has to play with that leverage and avoid staying in the shadow of towering tackles when the ball is snapped. In the NFL, there is no shortage of tall good offensive tackles, especially considering that the average height of offensive tackles selected to the 2010 Pro Bowl was over 6-foot-5.
Either way, whether he stays as a 4-3 defensive end or switches to become a 3-4 outside linebacker, Graham knows how to get to the quarterback. Scouts and coaches who have watched his tape leading up to the draft can see that, he’s a pass rusher no matter where you play him.
“I look for a good player,” Thompson said. “There are probably ideal heights and lengths and stuff like that in terms of the body makeup that you look for, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into the best 3-4 outside linebacker.”
With his stout stature and sneakily fast speed, Graham can use a whole book of moves on a left tackle when trying to get to the quarterback. It may have helped him best Jake Long years ago, and it makes up for his lack of height at the position.
“Leverage and hands,” McShay said of how Graham overcomes his size. “He does a good job of staying low not letting offensive linemen get into his body as much. And he does a great job of getting offensive linemen’s hands off, swim moves, rips, clubs, all those different techniques. He has a lot in his bag he pulls out in terms of pass rush moves and just ways to disengage, and I think that really helps him.”
Like Dumervil, who was initially undervalued because of his size and widely considered a situational pass rusher instead of an every-down player, and like Harrison who went undrafted, Graham is a guy anyone would want on their team because of the heart, because of the motor, and maybe most importantly because of his will.
“Even though I’m 6-1, or whatever size I am, I’ve got the heart to go out there and compete with everybody any size, it don’t matter,” Graham said. “Because between those lines it doesn’t matter, it’s all about mentality.”
It’s almost fitting that the start of Graham’s Michigan career didn’t exactly go the way one might have expected.
The intense worker, who always brought his best on the field, fell asleep while sitting at an abdominal machine in the early afternoon of one of his first workouts on the football team. Mesko said the guys gave him a hard time about it, but Graham’s career as a Wolverine certainly finished with a bang.
Graham had seven tackles and two sacks in his last game at Michigan, wrapping up a senior year with 26.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks.
“I think he’s a great football player,” McShay said. “He’s a monster. He’s strong, tough, technically sound.”
McShay said that he would easily take Graham somewhere in the top-20 picks in the draft. But Graham’s goal is to be picked in the top 10. Still, his mindset is going to be the same, no matter where he goes or what position he plays.
“I’ve just said that I’m going to go out there and compete,” he said. “And I’ve asked them what they want to see from me, since I’m so small. I think they want to see (me) to go out there and work hard.
“I just go with my motor, I just know I’m going to get to the ball on every play. I’m going to be around the ball on film on every play. That’s what I take pride in.”
The motor man is going to keep on going, and going and going.