Even in this era of oversized players, there’s still a place at Michigan for linebacker Chris Graham.
The sophomore doesn’t have great size – at 5-foot-11 and 224 pounds, he’s much smaller than the prototypical inside linebacker. But over the years, coach Lloyd Carr has learned that size doesn’t always matter.
Carr said there was a time when his coaches looked almost exclusively at high school linebackers who weighed at least 235 pounds. Then the Wolverines recruited Ian Gold and Dhani Jones, two players who weighed in at no more than 205 pounds when they arrived in Ann Arbor. Carr now refers to Gold and Jones as “two of the finest linebackers we have had at Michigan.”
Graham certainly hasn’t played enough to be considered a member of that exclusive club just yet, but the success of Gold and Jones did lead Carr to look at the undersized linebacker differently.
“It’s still a game of instinct and toughness and quickness,” Carr said. “I think any time you put a player in any position in a mold that he can’t do this or he can’t do that because of physical measurements – I think that’s where you can make a mistake.”
In Graham’s case, his cornerback-like speed made his coaches forget about his small stature. The sophomore ran the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds and also bench-pressed 360 pounds. His natural combination of strength and speed was enough for Rivals.com to name him the top college prospect in Indiana his senior year of high school.
It was also enough to lure Graham away from his home-state school. Even though Graham wanted to go to Michigan, he said Indiana always remained an option. He visited Bloomington for a recruiting trip – where Indiana linebacker Jake Powers was his host – and some of Graham’s high school teammates currently don the red and white.
“I had the opportunity to meet a lot of those guys, and they’re very good,” Graham said. “It is going to be a good reunion, being able to see those guys again.”
To be sure, it would be an even better reunion for Graham if he can repeat his season-opening performance – as long as punter Ross Ryan stays out of his way this time.
When Ryan recovered a fumbled punt in Michigan’s season opener, it seemed as if everyone in the Big House was suddenly enamored with the senior punter.
That is, everyone except Graham.
After the game, Ryan described how he watched the ball come loose, sprinted up the field and dove into the pile. In all his excitement, Ryan said he may have snatched the ball away from Graham – securing the fumble recovery for himself.
Understandably, Graham was a little upset.
“It’s the first thing he said coming off the field,” Ryan said at the time. “But I think he was just happy that we recovered it as a team.”
Even though that particular play didn’t work out for Graham, the sophomore had little to be angry about that Saturday.
In 2004, Graham was one of eight true freshmen to earn playing time, but he spent most of it on special teams, where he finished the year with five tackles. But when linebacker Lawrence Reid was diagnosed with a career-ending nerve condition last season, a starting spot opened up in the lineup. Graham got the job and didn’t disappoint against Northern Illinois, notching a career-high 10 tackles, including two for loss.
“For a young guy getting a first start, I thought he played really hard,” coach Lloyd Carr said at his weekly press conference following the season opener. “He made a lot of plays.”
Graham has yet to replicate his impressive debut. In seven contests, the Indianapolis native has tallied 27 tackles, an average of four per game (He started against Iowa but missed most of the game with an injury.) But Graham has still made his share of key plays. In the Wolverines’ win over Penn State, he got a hand on a Nittany Lion pass in the end zone to record the first pass breakup of his career. Against Minnesota a week earlier, Graham recovered a fumble.
“He’s got great instincts,” Carr said. “He gets off blocks extremely well, and he does a great job of diagnosing plays. He has an instinctive ability to know where the ball is going.”
Carr doesn’t care how big – or small – Graham is, as long as he gets the job done.