Lost in the disappointment of another losing season and a sixth consecutive loss to Ohio State was the final game of one of the greatest players to ever put on a winged-helmet. Brandon Graham’s career ended too early and unceremoniously on Saturday. Unlike most of the great Michigan players of the past, Graham has been saddled with the misfortune of playing for poor Michigan teams. In fact, his junior and senior seasons produced the worst two-year stretch Michigan has seen in 46 years. Unfortunately, that might overshadow Graham’s true brilliance. In the 20+ years I have followed Michigan football, Graham is the second best defensive player I have seen. Believe it or not, I think the gap between BG and Charles Woodson is much closer than most people realize. The only major difference between the two defensively (obviously, CW was a punt returner and wide receiver) is that Woodson played for a loaded National Championship team while Graham was a one-man show on the worst defense in school history.
Before I get into just how great #55 was, I want to commend him on his insatiable work ethic and enviable character. I would be willing to bet that no player in the history of Michigan football was double-teamed more often than Graham. I would be willing to bet that no player in the history of Michigan football played for more defensive coordinators. I would also be willing to bet that no great player has been less appreciated. The Michigan football of the last two years is not the football program that Graham signed up to play for. He was a five-star, can’t miss defensive powerhouse coming out of high school. He literally could’ve played football anywhere. The lows of these last two years could not have even entered his mind as a possibility when he committed to Michigan. How could they? Michigan had been to 31 consecutive bowl games when he made his commitment. Brandon Graham got a raw deal. Instead of bitching about it, transferring, or entering the NFL Draft like many of his Michigan teammates did, Graham hit the weight room harder than ever and came out a physical specimen that would make Mike Mamula proud. He took responsibility every week for the defense’s poor play, vowed to work harder in practice, and continued to give the effort of a player suiting up for a National Championship game. It’s easy to get motivated when your goals are still in front of you. It’s a whole different task to do so when they aren't. Graham deserves so much more credit than simply being considered an all-time great player. He has been one of the great leaders in Michigan football history, as well.
Graham, of course, has great character but I wouldn’t be writing about him right now if that was the end of it. He was a great football player, too. His senior season was one of the most prolific in Michigan football history. He leads the NCAA in Tackles for Loss (TFLs) with 25 which is the fourth highest total in the Michigan record books. He also added 9.5 sacks, two blocked punts, two forced fumbles, and a touchdown. He should be a lock as a First Team All-American and his NFL Draft status has skyrocketed as scouts have rapidly become familiar with his freakish combination of strength and quickness.
While there is little question that Graham’s senior season at Michigan was fantastic, it is his career that will be remembered for many years to come. He finished second on both the all-time career TFLs and Sacks list at Michigan which is impressive in itself but even more so when his wasted true freshman year is factored in. Graham’s redshirt was burnt in a year in which he was merely a bystander to a very deep and very good Michigan defense. He made three tackles as a freshman where he spent virtually all of his time on the sidelines. The fact that he didn’t play much was no surprise considering Michigan’s defensive line was stout with Alan Branch, Terrance Taylor, Lamar Woodley, Shawn Crable, Tim Jamison, Will Johnson, and Rondell Biggs. In retrospect, however, the fact that Graham had a year of eligibility wasted is a travesty. The fact that he was able to do what he did in just three years is truly phenomenal. Mark Messner—Michigan’s all-time leader in both TFLs and Sacks—started all 49 games of his Michigan career after redshirting as a true freshman. Graham—with his wasted redshirt and bowl-less junior and senior years—started just 31 games. I bet you know where this is headed…
Comparing Graham’s number at face value is a disservice to what he actually accomplished as a regular player. Not including his wasted freshman season, Graham is the greatest per game defensive lineman in Michigan football history. Messner—a two-time All-American—recorded 1.43 TFLs per game and .73 sacks per game as a starter. Graham—in his sophomore, junior, and senior seasons—averaged 1.51 TFLs/G and .78 sacks/G. That includes eight games as a sophomore in which he didn’t start. Despite being a full-time starter for just two seasons, Graham holds a number of distinguishable accomplishments. He and Messner are the only two players in Michigan history with two seasons of 20+ TFLs. Graham is the only player in Michigan history with three seasons of at least 8.5 sacks. He is the only player in Michigan history with three games of 3+ sacks. He is second All-Time to Lamar Woodley in Forced Fumbles with eight. His numbers are certainly impressive on their own but become even more so when put into context.
*All-Time Michigan leader, **2nd All-Time
Since Graham was the only star on two of Michigan’s worst defensive units ever, he was met with constant double-teams and run plays in the opposite direction. The fact that he was still able to put up over 2 TFLs/G over that time is amazing. It will be easy to overlook just how dominating Graham was at Michigan because of the turmoil that surrounded his junior and senior seasons. Fans aren’t exactly seeking out superlatives to describe the schools worst defense in history or the players who were a part of it. Still, an exception absolutely needs to be made for #55. As I mentioned earlier, he is the second best defensive player I have seen at Michigan just a half-step below Charles Woodson. Considering Woodson was arguably the greatest defensive player in college football history, that is saying something. Through a period of great struggle and change at Michigan, Brandon Graham left everything on the field. If his teammates want to honor his contributions, they can start by doing the same.