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August 21, 2013

Countdown To Kickoff: Day 11

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. 38

Bob Wiese, fullback (1942-44, '46)

Wiese jumped right to action, starting eight games in his first season with the Wolverines (at the time, freshmen were ineligible to play). Before the season, he won the Meyer Morton Award, as the player who showed the most progress through the spring practice session.

Showing extreme versatility, Wiese took over at quarterback for five games in 1943, when coach Fritz Crisler asked him to make the switch because of an injury. He also started three games at fullback.

Leading the offensive charged, Wiese helped the Wolverines scored 302 points that season, which was more points than Michigan had scored in a single season in 25 years.

The Wolverines went 8-1 on the year, winning the Big Ten. Wiese was the team's MVP.

Wiese was named captain for the 1944 season. He reprised his role at fullback, helping the Wolverines to a 6-1 record in the first seven games, including a win over Minnesota in the Little Brown Jug game.

With three games left, Wiese was called into active duty for the United States' World War II effort and missed the rest of the season.

Wiese was granted another year of eligibility when he returned from the war, starting six games at fullback during the 1946 season.

No. 37

Jim Smith, wide receiver (1973-76)

Smith was a versatile threat for the Wolverines, gaining 1,687 receiving yards and 394 rushing yards in his career, while also returning kicks and punts.

As a junior in 1975, he averages 7.6 yards per carry, including a 77-yard touchdown run on an end-around against Indiana.

But his specialty was pass catching, in an era before Anthony Carter opened up the passing game for the Wolverines.

Smith caught 21 passes for 392 yards and four scores as a sophomore, improving those numbers each year after that.

Smith averaged 28.3 yards per catch in 1975, catching 24 passes for 678 yards and four touchdowns. His yards-per-catch average from that season still stands as a Michigan single-season record.

The next season, Smith averages 27.5 yards per catch, which is the second-best single-season number in Michigan football history.

He caught 26 passes for 714 yards and six touchdowns that season. Smith was voted a first-team All-American after the season.

No. 36

Ralph Heikkinen, offensive guard (1935-38)

Heikkinen, or "Hike" as he was known on the team, was a hero in the Gogebic Range in the Upper Peninsula, where he hailed from.

Although the Detroit News once referred to him as a "pygmy," because he stood just 5-8, 155 (almost 100 pounds lighter than Albert Benbrook, the guard he replaced along the line), Heikkinen was a tough, scrappy player.

After not excelling on the freshman squad, Heikkinen had to tryout for varsity before the 1936 season and played only sparingly on the year.

But he fought through and earned a starting spot along the line in 1937. The team finished a disappointing 4-4, but Heikkinen earned praise, being described as "the smallest but best lineman in the Michigan forward wall."

As a senior in 1938, Heikkinen opened running lanes for sophomore Tom Harmon, and the team bounced back, going 6-1-1 in coach Fritz Crisler's first season.

After the season, Detroit News columnist H.G. Salsinger wrote, "Heikkinen was probably the best offensive guard Michigan ever had, and fitted perfectly into the new Michigan running attack. Fast and powerful, Heikkinen frequently blocked out two defensive players. … He outmaneuvered opponents. On defense, it was impossible to gain through his position, and he had a way of jamming opposing lines and making holes so that his secondary could break through and stop the ball carrier."

That's a long way from being called a "pygmy."

Heikkinen earned consensus All-American honors after the season.

No. 35

Thom Darden, safety (1969-71)

No Michigan player has returned more than two interceptions for touchdowns in his career.

Darden did it twice within a month, returning a pick 92 yards for a touchdown against UCLA on Sept. 25, 1971 and taking one to the house 60 yards against Indiana on Oct. 30, 1971.

Darden went on to pick off two more passes that season - both against Ohio State, in a 10-7 win that sealed a perfect 11-0 regular season and a Big Ten Championship (the Wolverines lost 13-12 to Stanford in the Rose Bowl).

Darden was named a first-team All-American after the season. He finished his career with 11 interceptions, which is tied for sixth in program history.


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