Every year, the bowl game serves as the end of the road for more than a handful of seniors for the Michigan football team.
This season, the upcoming Rose Bowl is no different.
Key players like seniors Leon Hall and LaMarr Woodley will be forced to hang up their jerseys following the Jan. 1 contest.
But four-year contributors may not be the only Michigan athletes to say “sayonara” to Ann Arbor following the team’s matchup with Southern Cal.
Juniors Alan Branch, Mike Hart and Chad Henne and redshirt juniors Shawn Crable and Jake Long have all had their names tied to NFL Draft speculation over the past few months.
Even though the interest in jumping to the professional level varies from athlete to athlete, the distraction is still there.
Michigan coach Lloyd Carr is in the awkward position of balancing the individual players’ best interest with the team’s.
“If they need me to facilitate them in any way, as far as that decision or any information I can get to them, I’m happy to do that,” Carr said. “I’m happy to give them my opinion if they ask for it. But the most important thing for our team is to deal with that in a private way, so it does not become a distraction for us as we pursue this bowl game.”
The Rose Bowl could serve as an especially crucial point in one Wolverine’s decision.
Many professional scouts will have their eyes on Long, who will match up with Southern Cal’s explosive defensive end Lawrence Jackson as Michigan’s starting left tackle. Jackson leads the Trojans with 11 tackles for loss this year, and has 20 career sacks in three seasons.
If Long can protect Henne’s blind side, it could be enough to raise his stock in a draft class already stacked with offensive tackles.
Branch is the Wolverine arguably receiving the most buzz. Nearly all projections place the Rio Rancho, N.M., native in the draft’s top 15. The defensive tackle is listed as the No. 6 player in the draft by NFLdraftcountdown.com. The same website has Long going ninth overall.
Branch, a first-team All American, corralled both an interception and a fumble recovery against Ohio State on Nov. 18, and has been described as the heart of the highly touted Michigan defense on several occasions.
Carr acknowledged that a number of Michigan players could potentially leave for the NFL, but would not talk about anyone individually prior to the Rose Bowl.
“First of all, you care about him because you’ve gotten to know him,” Carr said on Friday, not mentioning a specific player. “You want to have him around. You want him to do some more things here. And yet, I always tell them that I’m not going to talk anyone into staying. I don’t want to do that. I want that to be their decision.”
Safety Ernest Shazor, the last underclassmen to leave and test the NFL’s waters, went undrafted (2004).
Even though Branch and Long are the two Michigan players whose names pop up most in NFL conversations, other Wolverines have been mentioned, too.
Henne made sure his status wasn’t up in the air for long. On Nov. 19, just a day following Michigan’s 42-39 loss to Ohio State, the three-year starter came to Carr’s office and assured his coach that he’d return for his final year at Michigan.
Hart said after the Ohio State game that he would stay on for his senior season.
“I’ve got one year left, and I’m going to get them next year,” Hart said at the time.
Crable is the final Wolverine who could potentially make the jump. He’s the lowest ranked Michigan underclassman in NFL draft projections, but also has something that can’t be taught: size.
His 6-foot-5 frame, along with his speed, could be enough to have an NFL team draft him as a long-term project.
“What I want to be able to try to do, if they care about my opinion, is tell them what I would tell my son if he were in that same position,” Carr said. “So you try to remove the bias out of it because when you can get drafted at a certain position, you have an opportunity to do some things financially that you’ll never get a chance to do again. But it’s a complicated issue for a coach.”
And it is for the players, too.
Just in case, Michigan fans watching the Rose Bowl in a couple weeks might want to keep a special eye on a couple juniors – it may be your last time you’ll ever see them donning maize and blue.