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March 21, 2013

Leadership building for U-M

Michigan senior wide receiver Drew Dileo thought something was lacking in his first year on campus. It wasn't playing time - he held on field goals, returned kicks and punt, and caught a pass as a freshman. Instead, what may have been lacking was leadership.

Since the arrival of Brady Hoke as Michigan's head coach, however, the Wolverines have made progress toward the right type of leadership atmosphere.

"When Coach Hoke and his staff came in, the whole mentality changed," Dileo said. "Obviously, it wasn't where it needed to be with the previous staff. I think just time will tell.

"Coach Hoke and Coach Wellman have done a really great job of changing the mentality of what it needs to be. I think our senior class has just kind of seen what the last two years have done, and we're kind of building on that."

As is the case every spring, it may be just as important for the Wolverines to continue building a culture of leadership and accountability as it is for them to install schemes. Over the years, several teams have won big without the best talent or execution, but few have won without the best leaders.

The Wolverines' potential leadership took a big step forward Jan. 9 when offensive lineman Taylor Lewan announced he would be returning for his fifth year of eligibility. Although the 6-8, 310-pounder had been projected as a top ten pick in the NFL Draft, he turned down millions for one last go with his teammates in Ann Arbor.

Dileo, Lewan's close friend, takes some of the credit for that return, if only in jest.

"I talked to him a little bit, my dad kind of talked to him a little bit too, just to give him a little insight from someone else's point of view or perspective," Dileo explained. "I don't really know how much Taylor took in of our conversation, but I think the friendships and bonds he has might be another part of the reason he stayed.

"For us, I think it was probably more of a selfish reason that we needed him to lead our offensive line if we wanted to get where we want to go next year. Really this whole offseason, his leadership has been outstanding from the offensive line standpoint, so I think we just needed him to be our left tackle this year, and that was kind of my main point hitting home with him."

If leadership is a theme of the offseason, it may reach its climax this summer. The 2012 seniors took a trip to California to train with Navy Seals and visit the Rose Bowl, and a similar one could be in the works this year.

One player for whom leadership had previously been in question is quarterback Devin Gardner. Previously known as a goofball or team clown, he's matured - while maintaining his easygoing personality. No longer in the shadow of Denard Robinson, Gardner is entrenched as the starter, and accepting the responsibilities that come with the quarterback role.

"I think he kind of needed to [step up his leadership], just because the quarterback position now is his," said Dileo. "I think he really had a good winter conditioning, and from that point in the offseason he did really well. I think he's becoming a little more vocal which he kind of needed to be, so he's doing a good job."

Dileo has grown comfortable with Gardner at the quarterback position - after he started the final five games of 2012 following Denard Robinson's elbow injury - and is anticipating a big year from the signal-caller.

"I've been catching balls from Devin for three years," he said. "Just because you don't really see it in the games the last two years that I've been playing doesn't mean I haven't been catching from him. Now it's certainly kind of getting more reps from him is nice. It's a little more of a comfort level."

Still, it's the quarterback's evolution as a leader that strikes the biggest chord with his teammates. Entering a 2013 season with high expectations, that's the biggest factor for U-M.

"I think Devin is going to be the guy for us," said fifth-year senior linebacker Cameron Gordon. "He's a good competitor. I feel like Coach Hoke has done a good job of raising everyone's compete level, and I think Devin gets it. I think he gets it."


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