Wolverines looking for more leadership this season

CHICAGO — It didn’t take long for Frank Clark to put a fine point on Michigan’s 2013 football season.

In the locker room after the 31-14 loss to Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl last December, he unloaded about the lack of team chemistry and how that undid a season where the razor-thin margins cost U-M three or four games.

“Everything I said in that bowl game was true,” Clark recounted this week at Big Ten football media days. “We lost the will to play as a family and as a team and if you’ve ever played any type of organized team sports, you know that’s one thing you can’t do.”

It was lost because of lacking leadership among the anointed players, apparent entitlement where upperclassmen were handed the mantle because of their age and, as a result, didn’t properly jell the group.

“When you’ve got a lot of disagreements with your team, when you’ve got a lot of players fighting for leadership roles, that’s going to happen,” Clark said. “That happens to any team. You can’t have all these leaders on one team — all these guys who proclaim themselves as leaders and they’re not actually going to be leaders of the team. This year we’re going to need to change that.”

Clark said the successive disappointing seasons — eight wins in 2012 and just seven in 2013 — forced the self-examination.

But nothing was changing unless coach Brady Hoke embraced it. When Hoke admitted this spring that he should have gotten involved in the leadership void earlier in the season, it was a public admission that this was a repairable situation.

Some may improve with shifting personalities, as team chemistry changes with player departures, but it also was the active redesign of the leadership plan.

Strength coach Aaron Wellman talked in the weight room this offseason about “making Oreos” so that players on both sides of the ball, who would rarely mingle, would embrace each other.

Quarterback Devin Gardner tried to be more active with the players to join him in offseason workouts, hosting an barbecue for many of his teammates.

And Hoke forcefully redesigned the leadership plan.

“The way we are looking at leadership, leadership is not reserved for seniors,” Gardner said, embracing the idea, even though he is now a fifth-year senior. “Leadership has no age. You play a lot of football, you’ve been through the fire and you’re doing things right, you can lead a senior if you’re a sophomore. I think that’s helped us a lot developing as a team. It was something I always believed, that leadership doesn’t have an age. I feel like coach Hoke has really implemented it for sure this year with a leadership council with every class is represented.”

Hoke didn’t want to get specific about the offseason team bonding activities, alternate approaches contrasting the past. But the results are evident to the players.

“It’s not even about earning leadership,” Clark said. “It’s about showing the characteristics of a leader, on and off the field. If you’re a leader, you don’t got to prove nothing to anyone because everyone’s going to see.  These guys you see doing the right things of a leader and leadership qualities, these are guys you’re going to reach out and bring somebody with you.”

That’s the approach of this current group: Clark watching film with freshman Lawrence Marshall the night before heading to Chicago, Gardner running through the offseason sand pit with Freddy Canteen and Jake Ryan bringing along the younger linebackers.

Ryan is the bridge, the only 2013 captain on this year’s team, knowing as much what went wrong as right. With just a 12-man senior class, spreading the leadership is critical for joint ownership.

“I’ve learned a lot over the years,” Ryan said. “This year we’ve got a lot of younger guys and a lot of older guys, every single class has a lot of guys who can speak up and give their input. I think it’s awesome.”

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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