July 2, 2013

Borton's Blog: West Coast view

Curt Stephenson enjoys a little more access to his favorite football team than a typical member of The Fort, this website's premium message board. The former walk-on at U-M got up close and personal with the Wolverines recently.

Stephenson spoke to the Michigan seniors in Costa Mesa, Calif., as part of their leadership training venture to the West Coast. The night before the Wolverines veterans spent a morning with Navy SEALs, they heard from Stephenson and others about the opportunity they've been given, and about giving back.

He admits challenging them, even perhaps "getting under their skin" a bit, by talking about the hardware that ought to adorn a Michigan football player's fingers. Stephenson himself has four Big Ten championship rings, from his playing days in the mid-1970s.

The present seniors sport none. That could change come December, he insists.

"I want these guys to go out and win a Big Ten championship," he said. "They want to go out and win a Big Ten championship. I think this group is as hungry as I've seen a Michigan group in a long time."

Lots of teams are hungry. But when September rolls around, they can spring more leaks than Edward Snowden's rowboat.

This team, Stephenson stressed, possesses more than hunger. It features other intangibles, and a redoubtable dollop of talent.

"I can tell you directly, Devin Gardner struck me as a leader," Stephenson said. "He took control of certain situations and guys listened to him. Taylor Lewan, definitely a leader. He was very, very uplifting to the players.

"I was amazed at Fitz [Fitzgerald Toussaint]. I saw his injury on television, and what he went through, and he's back. I was so much impressed with him. There are some really quality individuals on this team and in this senior class."

Stephenson believes Michigan's defense will be its best in years. That fits with what U-M coaches and players are projecting, and the former Wolverine detailed why that's the word these days.

"They have got size, they've got speed, they've got strength and they've got quickness," he said. "That's really what you want to see from a defense.

"When I played, our defense swarmed to the ball. The whole thing was, get 11 hats to the ball, all at once. I think you're going to start to see that again. I love the underclassmen that we have. There are guys who are going to make big impacts, who are sophomores.

"You're going to see a couple of freshmen play, too. There is a good, solid core group of guys, and they're going to have good senior leadership. I expect a lot from the defense this year."

Offensively, the huge overhaul began late last season. Stephenson admits he's excited to see where it leads.

I loved [Denard] Robinson," he said. "I thought he was one of the best players who has ever played in the history of Michigan football. He was so electric.

"But I think we're going to have a much more balanced attack now. It was fun to watch, but this team is going to be more back to what you expect out of a power football team for Michigan.

"They're going to be big up front. They're going to be young, but they're going to be strong. They're going to run the ball and when they want to pull it down and go play-action, you're going to be impressed with what they have.

"They've got very athletic tight ends. I'm curious to see how the receivers do. Those guys have been kind of the question mark for me for the last year and a half. It will be interesting to see how those guys step up, because they're going to get a lot of opportunities."

Overall, Stephenson noted, he's more than ready to witness what unfolds. The Del Mar, Calif., resident wants to see the Wolverines - all of them - come to his back yard again when January rolls around.

Whether they do this year or not, he sees a lot to be excited about on the horizon under Brady Hoke and his staff.

"Brady has done a great job," Stephenson noted. "He will continue to do a great job. I think the world of Brady. He is doing it the right way. He's coming in and looking guys in the eye, telling them about the Michigan program, and there is a lot to tell. There are a lot of great things about the Michigan program.

"But he's looking at guys and saying, 'You know what? If you come here, you'll get a chance. You'll get a chance to be part of this team. Nobody is promising you anything. There's a lot of hard work, and you'll get your shot.'

"That's going to resonate with the right kind of player. Those are the kinds of players that Michigan wants and Michigan expects to have. I just think he's doing a fabulous job. I can't wait for the next season, and the next two or three after that.

"I'm as excited as I've ever been about Michigan football."

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