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July 25, 2013

No news is good news

The annual Big Ten Media Day in Chicago is not a fun experience for coaches and teams who are dealing with a lot of offseason baggage.

Far enough from spring practice for any improvements made there to be old news but before fall camp begins and coaches can oversee practices, the event will bring up questions of arrests and behavioral issues - if there are any to consider.

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer certainly knows that. In the two weeks leading up to Big Ten Media day, several Buckeyes made mistakes that led to legal issues, and the majority of Meyer's trip to Chicago was dominated by off-the-field questions.

"When you get phone calls at 3:30 in the morning, those are never fun," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said.

But for Hoke, there were no such issues of which to speak at Big Ten Media Day this year.

It's been a quiet summer in Ann Arbor. After the Wolverines saw running back Fitzgerald Toussiant and defensive end Frank Clark had issues leading into the 2012 season - which led to one-game suspensions for each of them - Michigan has committed to staying out of trouble - and out of the headlines.

"It's nothing you rejoice about - it's just what we expect from ourselves," Fifth-year senior safety Thomas Gordon said. "We expect that no one is going to go out and act a fool and get in trouble. No one has made bad decisions this summer - everyone knows what's on the table this year, and we don't want to mess that up."

When asked about the Wolverines' lack of trouble this summer, Hoke said, tongue in cheek, "Why are you saying that right now? That's a knock-on-wood situation. There is still some summer left."

But he knows the players are buying into his "no-tolerance" policy, and says he's proud of that they're doing the right things and making smart decisions.

"We know the standard, and we always want to keep it quiet in Ann Arbor," Gordon said. "We want to stay out of the headlines. There is so much stuff going on, and you want to stay off the ESPN Ticker during the summer, because it's not going to be a good deal for you. We want to stay under the radar. I'm happy we have, and we will continue to do that through fall camp."

"It is very important," added redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner. "Coach Hoke always talks about it - not having any distractions, and that's what those issues are: distractions that are not needed. And they're not tolerated, either. I'm happy that our team has been walking that line and being Michigan Men, the way we know we should."

The Wolverines' calm summer can be attributed to two areas of focus.

First, the veteran leaders on the team have taken ownership of the squad - and they have stressed the importance of staying on the straight and narrow to the younger players on the roster.

"When you have young guys, they just want to have fun in college and things like that," Gardner said. "We have really instilled in them that they have an opportunity to help us win a Big Ten Championship. I feel like that is what's different from a lot of years. When young guys don't feel like they're needed, they just want to have fun and do whatever they want to do, When they feel like they're needed, and they have an opportunity, the will focus a little more.

"If you're focused and determined to do well when you're not playing football, then it's much easier to get into that mindset when you are playing football."

Fifth-year senior offensive tackle Taylor Lewan - who, by his own admission, was a handful as a young player - has taken charge, as well.

Lewan says he's "a college athlete who lives like an NFL player," staying on a strict diet, working out obsessively, staying driven and, of course, not getting into trouble. And he has made it his mission to get younger players on the same page.

"You're 17 years old and going to college for the first time - away from your parents - with the opportunity to do so many different things that are crazy and different and fun," Lewan said. "But you're here to play college football and get an education, also. Alcohol is still going to be around for you in a few years - but college football is not, so you have to be smart.

"Other schools might have a problem with that, but at Michigan we really understand that our goal and focus in a Big Ten Championship, and you can't do that with those kinds of distractions. Guys are doing a very good job of staying out of trouble, but in the past, we haven't. This year, knock on wood, we're doing all right."

Secondly, the coaching staff is identifying recruits who not only fit the mold athletically - but also academically and socially.

"It starts with the character of the guys you're inviting to your campus and onto your team," Hoke said. "Then it's the consistent, clear message that you're going to send to your team. … As a coach, the message you and your assistants send about expectations is important. We have people come in and speak to them, and we try to educate them about social media and everyone else. It's part of a phase that some kids have, but we are held responsible. You have to do a good job with them.

"Your seniors, the veterans who have been through the struggles, they're the ones who have to monitor and police those things. We talk about commitment, accountability, respect and trust - and we have to have those things. If we achieve those things, we're going to have a team that makes better decisions, a team where someone will grab his buddy and say, 'Hey' let's get out of here. You're being a jerk' or whatever it might be."

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