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August 4, 2013

Countdown To Kickoff: Day 28

Since the final play of the Wolverines' Outback Bowl loss to South Carolina, Michigan coaches, players and fans alike have eagerly awaited the start of the 2013 season - and another chance to win the program's first Big Ten Championship since 2004.

Now, with the calendar turning over to August, the season is just around the corner.

To count down to the season, The Wolverine is naming the best player to ever wear each jersey number, No. 99 to No. 1.

We'll highlight 3-5 jerseys a day, all the way to the morning of Aug. 31, the day the Wolverines finally kick off the season at The Big House against Central Michigan.

No. 90

Mike Keller, defensive end (1969-71)

Keller came to Michigan from Catholic Central High School in Grand Rapids, Mich., joining the team the year before legendary coach Bo Schembechler's first season in 1969. As a sophomore in Schembechler's debut, Keller broke into the starting lineup.

He was a three-year starter, compiling an impressive 140 career tackles. During Keller's run as a starter, the Wolverines went 28-4, won two Big Ten Championships and played in two Rose Bowls.

During his senior season, Keller racked up 63 tackles on his way to first-team All-Big Ten honors. The Wolverines finished the regular season a perfect 11-0, capped by a 10-7 victory over Ohio State. Michigan lost the Rose Bowl, 13-12, to Stanford and finished the year ranked No. 6 in the AP poll.

No. 89

Dick Rifenburg, tight end (1944, 46-48)

In the 1940s, college football fans weren't quite as tuned into recruiting as they are now. But Michigan supporters took notice when Rifenburg joined the team before the 1944 season.

The UPI ran a story about Rifenburg before the season, saying, "Another great end has made his appearance on the Big Ten horizon, in the person of Dick Rifenburg, 18-year-old Michigan freshman. Every so often, a great offensive player comes along, a player who has the speed, smooth actions, height and big hands that mark an outstanding pass receiver. Rifenburg has laid claim to that rating."

And he lived up to the hype, catching two touchdown passes in a season-opening win over Iowa Pre-Flight.

Rifenburg enlisted in the Navy after the season to fight in World War II and missed the 1945 season. He came back with three years of eligibility and helped the Wolverines cap off consecutive undefeated, national championship seasons in 1947 and '48, earning first-team All-American honors in his final season.

Rifenburg held the records for single-season touchdown catches (eight) and career touchdown catches (16) for 32 years, until Anthony Carter smashed them.

No. 88

Jim Mandich, tight end (1967-69)

After two seasons as a starter - from 1967-68 - Mandich had already proved himself as one of the best tight ends in the Big Ten, if not the country.

In those two years, Mandich caught an impressive 67 passes for 813 yards and three touchdowns. As a junior in 1968, "Mad Dog" Mandich averaged 13.5 yards per catch.

But Mandich took it to another level as a senior in 1969, becoming an integral part of the Wolverines' run to a Big Ten title and a huge upset over Ohio State in Schembechler's first season as coach.

That year, Mandich caught 51 passes for 676 yards and three touchdowns, accounting for 43.5 percent of the Wolverines' receiving yardage.

For his efforts, Mandich earned first-team All-American honors during his senior year. His 119 catches and 1,494 receiving yards are the most by any Michigan tight end in program history. Mandich was inducted to the College Football Hall Of Fame in 2004.

Mandich was the 29th overall pick in the 1970 NFL Draft (Miami Dolphins). He played eight seasons in the NFL, including the 1972 season, when he and the Dolphins went undefeated.

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