Leadership is a quality that's often talked about, but it's also a quality that's often just talk. That's not the case for the Michigan Wolverines, who have a steadfast core of take-charge players that will guide the program to success in 2013.
While Jake Ryan may not see the field due to an ACL tear, his presence, attitude and demeanor are absolutely vital when it comes to what the Wolverines will do on the field this fall.
True "team players" don't let injuries derail them from having a positive mindset. He'll be sorely missed at linebacker, but the defense's depth should take over and allow the Wolverines to remain on the fast track to Big Ten supremacy.
When left tackle Taylor Lewan announced that he planned on staying at Michigan for his senior year, a collective sigh of relief echoed from Ann Arbor. The soon-to-be senior is the anchor of the offensive line, a unit that will be the No. 1 factor separating winning from losing in 2013.
Because of Lewan, the rest of the underclassmen that man the O-line (and other positions) will have an exceptional example to follow.
His athleticism and talent stand alone. He's easily one of the greatest to ever play left tackle for Michigan, a program with a rich history of producing top-notch tackles and guards.
However, the essence of Lewan is much more than simply battling in the trenches. He's a classic "Michigan Man," one that puts the program over anything else—that was evident when he chose to stick around rather than opting for a lucrative NFL contract, along with the fame that comes with being a pro.
The All-American has the attitude that coaches love. Fans adore Lewan for his selflessness. Well, most do. One called him "dumb" for skipping the draft and staying in college (via TheWolverine.com).
Sure, he could have taken the leap to the NFL, but he feels that developing under coach Brady Hoke is more important that money.
Dumb? Depends on who's giving the answer.
Incredibly brave, determined and committed to becoming the best college player that he can be? That's not even up for debate. Lewan absolutely made the wise decision. During a recent interview with TheWolverine.com's Chris Balas, Lewan stated his case for remaining with Michigan:
I need to work on everything. Have I hit the top? Absolutely not. But this is not about me; it's about the team. Everything I do is going to help or hurt the team. A younger Taylor Lewan might do things that possibly hurt the team, but everything is now about helping the team on and off the field. I'm going to bed earlier, keeping in shape during spring, summer, winter.
Lewan doesn't sound "dumb" by any stretch. He sounds like a leader that even Bo Schembechler or Lloyd Carr would be proud to have on their team.
The quarterback position is arguably the most important to a program. As the signal-caller, the quarterback does just that—calls the shots and takes responsibility for the offense.
Devin Gardner's progress has been met with mixed reviews. Some feel that he's evolving into a legitimate star, while others suggest that he's simply not as good as some Wolverines fans would like to believe.
You don't need any sort of allegiance to Michigan to understand or see that Gardner takes his role seriously as the Wolverines' general of the offense. He has two more years to prove his critics wrong—not that he hasn't done so already.
He's already won over the legions of Michigan fans because of his heart and desire to improve each and every season.
While some stars in the making simply go through the motions in spring, Gardner sets the tone for his teammates by spending hours in the film room with offensive coordinator Al Borges.
It'd be easy for Gardner, a former Inkster High standout, to rest on his laurels—the No. 1 job is his. That's not what leaders do, though. No, they act as if they're trying to make their way up the depth chart rather than sitting on top of it.
Gardner recently spoke of his film sessions during a recent interview with TheWolverine.com's Andy Reid:
I watch every practice twice, for sure. Sometimes, I watch a little more, when we get a chance to watch it with Coach Borges. By myself, I watch the practice twice. It depends, because some practices are longer than others and sometimes you play better than other times.
I watch it twice just to make sure you don't miss anything. If you watch a movie, you might not see everything - you might be laughing and miss a line or something. I try to watch it as many times as possible before I get with Coach Borges
Does that sound like a young man who knows that he has the starting job in the bag?
Gardner sounds just like a player that's hungry to get his first snap as a starter. That's how it should be.
This piece isn't meant to pump the Wolverines' tires by any means. They're not the only kids on the block with players willing to put the program before themselves. Michigan football is in need of tone-setting veterans. The only way that Michigan football will return to being Michigan football is through character development, not athletic development.
The incoming class of recruits is filled with phenomenal athletes. Those recruits wouldn't be at Michigan if they weren't heads and shoulders above the rest of the competition.
At this juncture, giving them a strong foundation as freshmen should be the goal of Gardner, Lewan and Ryan—the "leaders and best" at their respective positions.
Ryan's unfortunate circumstances could catapult an underclassman to want more. Lewan's team-first mentality will likely inspire others to really think about what playing for the Wolverines means—it's an experience that former players wish never ended.
I know this because I've spoken with past greats like Marcus Ray and Andre Weathers, and they said suiting up in the Maize and Blue was by far the most memorable time of their football career.
From Denard Robinson's understudy to the face of the offense, Gardner's transformation from "What do we with this guy?" to "this guy will be sensational" has been, perhaps, the most intriguing storyline within the past two years.
Programs have leaders. Michigan, though, can do one better. It can make a "Michigan Man."
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81
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