BLOOMINGTON — If it hadn’t
happened already, Saturday had to be the day that Lloyd Carr no
longer considered Braylon Edwards a player who had not yet reached
his potential. And the receiver’s eight receptions for 168
yards and two touchdowns had nothing to do with it.

Sharad Mattu

Even though his two touchdowns were 69- and 38-yard plays where
Edwards blew past a true freshman, who for some reason was covering
Edwards all by himself.

Even though he had to fully extend his arms to make a catch and
then, with his momentum taking him out of bounds, reach to his left
with the ball to get a first down.

Even though on another play, Edwards reached around a Hoosier
who had an interception in his hands, put his own two hands on the
ball, ripped the ball away and then reached out for the first down
while fighting off tacklers.

No, on the two plays in which Edwards may have quieted his
harshest critic, he never even touched the football.

On a running play to his side of the field in the first quarter,
Edwards cut diagonally across the field, lined himself up with a
potential tackler and trampled him.

Then, in the second quarter, he one-upped himself with a hit
Michigan’s defensive players must have been jealous of.
Edwards flattened Indiana’s punter during a return by Leon
Hall, opening up the right side of the field for a 76-yard
touchdown.

“When he came off the field, I told him that’s the
way an All-American plays,” Carr said of the play. “An
All-American can play without the football, and he made an
All-American play there that certainly every coach and every player
on this team will appreciate. It was a magnificent
block.”

When Edwards decided that the NFL could wait one more year, he
said that the opportunity to be the team’s leader played a
role in his return. He saw the way seniors John Navarre and Chris
Perry led the Wolverines last year to Michigan’s first Rose
Bowl in six years and wanted that same opportunity.

He also knew that, while his junior year ended spectacularly,
its start was as big a struggle as he’d ever experienced. In
his first games in the No. 1 jersey he asked to wear, Edwards found
himself in Carr’s doghouse. Edwards’s senior year would
also be an opportunity to be a true No. 1.

“I just knew this was going to be a young team this year
and they would need leadership and guidance,” Edwards said.
“Coming back, I knew this was something I could provide for
them.

“It’s something I love doing — I love being a
leader. I love being responsible for what happens, whether
it’s good or bad.”

Now, after saying all the right things, Edwards is doing the
right things on the field, in the huddle and anywhere else he can.
Sure, he cut his hair in the offseason in the hopes of convincing
any doubters of his new ways. But willingly sacrificing his body to
make key blocks on punt returns is far more convincing.

Edwards is in a far tougher spot than it may appear. It’s
natural for a quarterback or running back to be a leader — no
defense can keep the ball out of their hands.

But a receiver needs an offensive line to give the quarterback
time. A receiver needs the quarterback to read defenses and make
accurate throws. A receiver needs a running back to be a threat so
that the offense can be balanced. Michigan has two freshmen at
quarterback and running back, and already has switched players at
three of the offensive line’s five positions.

But Edwards, who also came back to improve his position in the
NFL draft, is not worried that about how the changes will affect
his statistics.

“Because we’ve got a freshman at quarterback and
running back, a lot of times I have command of the huddle,”
Edwards said. “I have to make sure everyone is calm, and I
have to tell people to be relaxed.

“When they throw me the ball, I have to make plays.
Leaders have to make plays with the ball.”

While it’s rare and difficult for a wideout to be a
leader, Edwards is doing it and doing it well. From the start of
the season, it’s been clear that quarterback Chad Henne knows
what he has in Edwards.

“He’s just a playmaker,” Henne said.
“You give him the ball and he’ll get you YAC —
yards after the catch. I just have to give him the ball in an open
area and he’ll just find his way to the endzone.”

Edwards’ teammates know how good he is. They’ve seen
him make acrobatic catches and break tacklers before. They know he
is bigger, faster and stronger than any just about anyone he faces.
That if there’s a Heisman candidate at his position,
it’s him. But what they’ve seen this year that they
hadn’t seen before is the other things. Like devastating,
touchdown-creating blocks.

“He could have gone to the NFL if he wanted to, but he
didn’t,” linebacker Roy Manning said. “He wanted
to come back to play college football. He wanted to finish out his
senior year at Michigan. He wanted to be a leader on this team.
He’s doing everything a leader is supposed to do and
more.”

 

—Sharad Mattu can be reached at
“mailto:smattu@umich.edu”>smattu@umich.edu.

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