After three seasons of coming up short, Mike Hart, Chad Henne and Jake Long were supposed to redeem the class of ’08. But three years of anticipation led up to one major disappointment. Now Michigan’s top leaders must look ahead.

Angela Cesere
Angela Cesere
Angela Cesere
Angela Cesere
(PHOTOS BY PETER SCHOTTENFELS/Daily)

The storybook ending wasn’t supposed to come 12 chapters early – and the celebration wasn’t supposed to be in the visitors’ locker room.

A trio of players that put its childhood dream of playing in the NFL on hold for a year wasn’t supposed to be immediately punished for it.

And a talented group’s already-tainted legacy wasn’t supposed to take on more questions before it found answers.

Three seniors – running back Mike Hart, quarterback Chad Henne and offensive lineman Jake Long – came back to Ann Arbor for one last season to win a National Championship and prove they could win the games that count.

0-3 against Ohio State.

0-3 in bowl games.

Both of those stigmas attached to the team, especially the senior class, were supposed to be shed this season.

Instead, now there’s a new one:

0-1 vs. D-1AA teams.

Appalachian State changed everything last Saturday by shocking Michigan in what may be college football’s biggest upset ever.

Now the group’s goal has shifted, and unless the trio of returning Wolverines act quickly, the legacy it came back to improve could become more tarnished.

Back for one last shot

It was just a day after one of the program’s most turbulent weeks concluded – one where the Wolverines lost not only a shot at a National Championship, but also a legend in Bo Schembechler.

But on the Sunday after Michigan’s 42-39 loss to Ohio State last season, things seemed to look up almost instantly.

Michigan coach Lloyd Carr summoned Henne, then a junior, into his office. That’s standard for the coach when he’s dealing with a player who might leave early. He brings the player in question to his office to hear about his plans for next year.

If said player stays, great. If he leaves, it’s time for Carr and his staff to hit the recruiting trail to find a replacement.

Henne was projected to be one of the top quarterbacks in his draft class, and many thought he would test NFL waters. But the Wolverines’ only starting quarterback since 2004 drained the drama out of his decision by telling Carr right away he would return for his senior season at Michigan.

“I had no feelings of being anywhere else but Michigan,” Henne said.

Despite his solid numbers when healthy, no one thought Hart was a serious threat to make an early jump. Fans assumed he’d return, since many experts didn’t even have him as a day-one pick in the draft.

They were right. Hart returned.

But as Hart revealed last month, his departure to the NFL was closer to happening than many believed at the time.

“If Jake would have left, I would have left,” said Hart, who before last year’s Rose Bowl said he was 99.9-percent sure he was coming back. “He’s that great of a player, and he means that much to me. When he said he was coming back, I was back, too.”

Hart’s one-tenth of a percent was actually much larger than anyone could have imagined – about 315 pounds larger.

Hart’s decision essentially rested on the broad shoulders of Long, who some considered the top offensive lineman in last year’s draft.

Carr said last month that immediately following the Ohio State game, he felt Long was going to leave for the NFL. But some time between Michigan’s loss to the Buckeyes and the Rose Bowl, Long had a change of heart.

Whether it was pressure from teammates, wanting to pursue a degree or not being ready to say goodbye to college life and his teammates, Long stayed.

In short, Long passed up guaranteed millions in the NFL to return to Michigan for his teammates and one last shot at glory. But don’t tell Long the only reason he stayed was because he buckled under the pressure from his teammates.

“They never had to persuade me,” Long said. “We kind of just stayed away from each other and let each other make their own decision. The biggest thing Mike said was he was coming back if I came back.”

Just how much money did Long pass up?

Most figure he’d have been selected in the top five since he was rated ahead of Penn State’s Levi Brown in most projections. Brown signed a six-year, $62-million deal with the Arizona Cardinals as the fifth pick of the draft.

“There would have been no Levi Brown at five, I can tell you that,” Hart said. “Levi better send Jake some of his signing bonus.”

By the Rose Bowl, all three had committed to returning to Michigan for their senior seasons. With the exception of Alan Branch, who left and was drafted as the first pick in the second round of the draft, every key contributor from the heralded class of 2008 was ready to come back for one last shot at a National Championship.

Leading the way

As different as the trio may be on the field – a small running back with a huge heart, a giant lineman with quick feet and a pocket quarterback with a strong arm – the three may be even more different in the way they lead.

Long is the silent leader, the standard lead-by-example man. He’s just the 11th multi-year captain in Michigan history.

He shared the honors with LaMarr Woodley last season and led Michigan back to the Rose Bowl after a disappointing 2005 campaign. His efforts as a leader extend past his offensive line. Whether it’s the offense, defense or special teams, Long’s teammates take note at the example he sets.

“Jake has amazed me how good he can run,” punter Zoltan Mesko said. “He beats some of our linebackers in our runs. He’s so above everyone else that it’s a good example he sets and he pushes others to get better. I think that’s the best way to lead – by example.”

What the team may not get in terms of vocal leadership from Long is more than made up by Hart. The Syracuse, N.Y., native’s mouth has been running since he stepped on campus and won the starting running back job within the first month of his freshman season.

Following spring practice, where Hart sat out after having shoulder surgery, Carr joked that Hart’s shoulder may be injured, but his mouth certainly wasn’t. His teammates and coaches could hear him constantly talking, whether it was during practice or on the sidelines during games. Hart even jokingly got in a confrontation with an official during April’s spring game.

Cornerback Morgan Trent, Hart’s roommate, says Hart loves talking so much he even does it in his sleep.

And the talk doesn’t stop within the team – if you’re an opposing player, don’t expect to be spared from the wrath of Hart.

“He’s definitely an emotional, enthusiastic guy,” Henne said. “He’s always trash talking different teams. He’s just there to boost our energy and get on his level to play at his level.”

Both Hart and Long were honored by their teammates at the beginning of this season when they were elected captains, along with linebacker Shawn Crable.

Henne may not have the distinction of being captain – Michigan has never had more than two captains on one side of the ball in the Carr era – but it doesn’t mean he doesn’t do his part, too.

Even the boisterous Hart knows that when he and his teammates are in the huddle, it’s Henne time.

“I haven’t seen him upset at all that he wasn’t voted captain,” Hart said. “He knows what he has to do. He knows it’s his offense. I know it’s his offense. Jake knows it’s his offense. So, we’re going to let Chad lead when it’s his turn. When we’re in that huddle, it’s his offense, and I’m not going to say anything.”

Henne admits it took him a couple years to break completely out of his shell and take charge. He made a conscious effort going into the season to extend his leadership outside of the huddle and into practice every day.

While Long may lead silently and Hart plays the role of the vocal leader, Henne has embraced his role as “team disciplinarian.” If someone’s not where he should be or is out of line, Henne’s there to let him know it’s unacceptable.

“It’s kind of like being a prick at all times when we’re practicing,” Henne said. “If you’re not being a prick to them, it’s not like they won’t respect you, but it’s a different look in their eyes -that, ‘OK, we’re here to concentrate, we’re here to focus and we’re here to play hard all the time.’

“If you’re laid-back and letting it go sometimes and then be a prick other times, it’s tough. So you have to always be on those guys to get the best out of them.”

Unexpected setback

It was gone before it even started.

Michigan’s dream of grabbing a National Championship a decade after its last run at glory had all but vanished just three hours into its season.

Leading up to the first game, the leaders of the team had talked about the team’s focus at reaching its goals. Many experts thought it could be done, too.

A senior-laden, weapon-filled offense with eight home games is expected to succeed at a high level.

Who could trip this team up?

A late-season road game against Wisconsin seemed to be the top pick. Tough home tests against Oregon, Penn State and Ohio State were others.

But those potential suitors to play spoiler to Michigan won’t even get their chance.

The dreamcrusher was Appalachian State, a tiny college in a mountain town.

Last Saturday’s 34-32 loss to the Mountaineers not only put Michigan on the front page of every newspaper nationwide for all the wrong reasons, but all but ended any of the returning senior’s chances at making it to New Orleans – the site of the BCS Title game.

The team went from fifth in the nation to unranked in days, and all three who “stayed to be champions” will almost certainly have to lower their expectations to shoot for a different championship – the Big Ten variety.

Henne, Lou Holtz’s preseason pick as the Heisman-trophy winner, looked more like a freshman than a four-year starter. He completed just 51 percent of his passes, threw an ill-advised interception deep in Mountaineer territory in the game’s waning minutes and fumbled a two-point conversion snap.

Henne also had to endure some shots from blitzing Mountaineers, even a few from his blindside – which is ultimately the All-American Long’s responsibility.

And while Hart heroically ran for nearly 200 yards and three touchdowns through the pain of a bruised thigh, he watched half of the game helplessly from the sidelines.

Now, winless and facing three straight tough games before the end of September, the team must regroup, and fast.

The three offensive leaders know they’ll have to rally the team both on and off the field to get back in the rankings and reach at least some of the team’s goals.

“It’s only one of our goals,” Long said of the National Championship. “We still have a lot more goals that we can accomplish.”

And his teammates seem willing to follow his and the other leaders’ rallying call.

“That’s why we chose the captains that we did,” tight end Mike Massey said. “Those guys are the guys we’re going to follow and those are the guys that we need to follow. That’s how you regroup, you need leaders to step up.”

Salvaging the legacy

Now the team faces a challenge many feel is more difficult than its original one: regrouping from the program’s most embarrassing loss and salvaging the season.

It may be difficult, but the trio of Hart, Henne and Long have the ability to guide the offense to lots of points each Saturday.

With a defense that has allowed 32 or more points in each of its last three games, the Wolverines’ only shot at winning consistently depends on how far Henne’s arm and Hart’s legs can take them.

Hart said before the season that 50 points a game isn’t out of reach, and realistically speaking, the team might almost need that much on some Saturdays.

Judging by how willing the trio was to take on pressure and responsibility heading into the season, the Wolverines’ chances to achieve most of their goals aren’t dead yet.

The plot may have twisted a bit, but the characters are still the same. There’s still a shot at a tweaked storybook ending.

“It’s hard to sit here and say that Chad might be the best quarterback in history, Jake might be the best lineman, I might be the best running back – and we haven’t even beat Ohio State yet or won a bowl game,” Hart said. “How can we say that we’re the best class in the history, and we haven’t beat Ohio State? You can’t.”

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