For fans outside of the Michigan area, it's hard to recall much of Tom Brady's playing career in Ann Arbor. Brady was stuck deep in the trenches of the Wolverine depth chart his first two seasons before finally getting the opportunity to start (although he occasionally split time with back-up Drew Henson). Of course, Brady did some great things while at Michigan including leading the Wolverines to a thrilling victory over Ohio State in the season finale in 2000 to advance the Wolverines to the Orange Bowl against Alabama. In the Orange Bowl, Brady threw for 369 yards and 4 touchdowns, including the game-winning score in overtime. So it was clear that Brady was clutch even during his brief time in college.
But there was a reason that Brady fell to the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft. It was because his game just didn't jump-out on tape and his measurables were well below the averages for a starting NFL quarterback. Much like during his college days, Brady was overlooked and found himself near the bottom of the New England depth chart looking up at then-starter Drew Bledsoe. Again, when Brady finally received his opportunity in the NFL, he seized it and the rest is history. Brady is now considered one of the NFL's all-time great quarterbacks and recently won his 5th Super Bowl.
Still, if it's difficult for you to recall ever hearing about Brady while he was at Michigan, you're not alone. He didn't receive the hoopla that many of the guys on this list did while they were playing for Big Blue and that is simply because he wasn't as good as these 15 players during their respective careers at Michigan.
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15 Jim Harbaugh, QB
When Jim Harbaugh took the Michigan head coaching position in 2014, he declared it was his "dream job." This makes sense given Harbaugh's long standing history with the university, stemming from his time as the starting quarterback for the school in the 1980s. Harbaugh was a major recruit coming out of California and was known for his trademark accuracy and ability to learn different schemes.
Although Harbaugh finished his career at Michigan with a devastating Rose Bowl loss to the Arizona State Sun Devils, he left Ann Arbor as the school's career leader in passing yards (5,449) and held the NCAA Division-I quarterback rating record (149.6). He went on to have an impressive NFL career before making his way into the coaching ranks. Harbaugh was like a coach on the field during his time as the Wolverines quarterback, so it's only fitting that he now lead the school's renaissance as their head coach.
14 Mario Manningham, WR
Many people remember Mario Manningham for the insane, toe-tapping sideline catch that he made in Super Bowl XLVI that helped the New York Giants march down the field in the final minutes and score the game-winning touchdown. Without Manningham's incredible catch, it's likely that Tom Brady (the Giants beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI) would have six Super Bowl rings now instead of five. Classic case of one former Wolverine edging out another.
But Super Bowl XLVI isn't the only time that Manningham out-shined Brady's star power, as Manningham was also better than Brady during their respective times at Michigan. Unlike Brady, Manningham was immediately given great responsibility in his freshman season at Michigan. His role continued to grow and in his junior season he caught 72 passes for 1,174 yards, and 12 touchdowns. Given his incredible success, he chose to forego his senior season and enter the 2008 NFL Draft. Manningham was a stud at Michigan.
13 Devin Gardner, QB/WR
Coming out of high school, Devin Gardner was a major 5-star recruit who committed to Michigan with the idea of running a spread offense under then head coach Rich Rodriguez. Gardner struggled to find the field during his first two seasons in Ann Arbor but performed well in limited duty, often showing flashes of brilliance with his arm and legs.During his Junior season, Gardner was converted to wide-receiver and was leading the team in reception when star quarterback Denard Robinson injured his throwing arm.
Gardner took the reigns of the high-powered offense and put up incredible numbers. In a 2012 game against Iowa, Gardner had six touchdowns, tying a school record. After being named the full-time starter in 2013, Gardner accumulated 3,443 yards of total offense, which was second all-time for a single season in Michigan history. Although his style of play didn't mesh with the NFL, Gardner was one of the most exciting players in football during his time at Michigan.
12 Brian Griese, QB
What makes Griese's story in Ann Arbor so special is that Griese was not offered a scholarship to attend Michigan and actually turned down offers from other major schools in order to walk-on at the university. It took Griese several seasons to become the full-time starter for the Wolverines, but once he did he led them to the highest peak in college football.
During his senior season in 1997, Griese helped lead the Wolverines to an undefeated season and a National Championship, after winning the Rose Bowl against Washington State. Griese was named the MVP of the Rose Bowl for his performance. His career record at Michigan was a solid (17-5) and more importantly, Griese had a perfect (3-0) record against rival Ohio State. Griese went on to the NFL where he enjoyed moderate success as a starting quarterback and won a Super Bowl ring as a back-up for the Broncos.
11 Steve Hutchinson, G
Originally recruited to Michigan as a defensive tackle, Steve Hutchinson made the switch to offensive guard during his red-shirt season and what a good decision that turned out to be. Hutchinson would go on to have one of the most prolific careers for an offensive lineman in college and won a vast array of awards for his efforts, including being named to the All Big 10 team all four seasons, being a 2 time first-team All-American, and being named the Big 10 Offensive Lineman of the Year.
Needless to say, Hutchinson was as dominant as they come in college football. In fact, he was so rock solid in the middle of their offensive line that he didn't allow a single sack in his final two years in Ann Arbor, for which Tom Brady can thank him. After graduating, Hutchinson continued his dominance in the NFL and was ultimately selected to 7 Pro Bowls before retiring in 2013. Surely he's glad he switched to offensive line when he did.
10 Ty Law, CB
It was clear right away that Ty Law was destined for bigger things after his playing days at Michigan were over given his pure athleticism and high football IQ. Law played for three seasons in Ann Arbor before foregoing his senior year to enter the 1995 NFL Draft. In only three seasons, Law was named a first-team All American as a Junior and was a unanimous selection for all first-team Big 10 in two of his seasons.
Law finished his career at Michigan with 6 interceptions and an impressive 17 passes defended. His interception numbers would have been higher but opposing offenses would often throw away from whatever side Law was covering. He was a clear shut-down corner and went on to have a phenomenal professional career. Law teamed up with Brady in New England and the two were instrumental pieces in the team's success and near-dynasty Super Bowl run in the early 2000s. Law is now a candidate for the NFL Hall of Fame.
9 Mike Hart, RB
As a freshman in 2004, Mike Hart took the Big-10 by storm when he rushed for 1,455 yards (a Michigan freshman record) and 9 touchdowns. Although Hart was lost for much of his sophomore season because of injuries, he was still effective and appeared ready to regain his role in the rushing attack in 2006. As a junior, Hart rushed for over 1,500 yards and 14 touchdowns, on his way to being named team co-MVP and finishing fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
He finished his career strong with another 1,300 yard and 14 touchdown season in 2007, again being named team MVP. In all, Hart left Michigan as the career leader in carries (1,015) and rushing yards (5,040), which still hold their place today. What made Hart so valuable to the Wolverines was his dependency and ability to continuously fight for yards after contact. While his NFL career was forgettable, his career with Big Blue was certainly something special.
8 Chad Henne, QB
Unlike Brady, Chad Henne was named the starting quarterback of the Wolverines in his first year in Ann Arbor, becoming only the second true-freshman ever to start at quarterback for Big Blue. Henne went on to start nearly every game for the Wolverines over the next four seasons and broke every career record while doing so (granted he had an advantage by starting as a true-freshman).
Henne threw for 9,715 yards, 87 touchdowns, and only 37 interceptions during his four years as the starting quarterback. His one failing statistic is that he failed to beat rival Ohio State in any of his four seasons. Regardless, Henne remains the career passing leader in nearly every major statistical category to this day. He is currently the back-up quarterback for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
7 Braylon Edwards, WR
Following in his father's footsteps, Braylon Edwards committed to the University of Michigan as a major recruit. After being born and raised in Detroit, Edwards took his talents to Ann Arbor and provided the Wolverines with the big play receiver they needed. Although his Michigan career would get off to a slow start his freshman year (3 catches, 38 yards), Edwards would transform into the most dynamic receiver in college football by his senior year.
In his senior season, Edwards set the Michigan record for receptions (97) and receiving yards (1,330), although the latter was surpassed by Jeremy Gallon in 2013. He also scored 15 touchdowns, including a 3 touchdown performance in the 2004 Rose Bowl. Edwards was given the Fred Belitnikoff award for being named the top receiver in the nation. In all, Edwards left Michigan as the leader in just about every major statistical category for receiving and his records don't look like they will be broken anytime soon. It was recently reported that Edwards is now back on the Michigan campus completing his degree.
6 Mark Messner, DT
When Mark Messner became the starting defensive tackle as a redshirt freshman in 1985, he remained the starter for every single game over the next four years. In total, Messner started 49 straight games for the Wolverines and put up gaudy numbers during that stretch. As a freshman, Messner recorded an incredible 11 sacks from the defensive tackle position. He was the face of the Wolverines defense and inspired fear in opposing quarterbacks with every snap.
Messner remains the career leader in many defensive statistical categories at Michigan, as he compiled 36 sacks and 70 tackles for loss during his four seasons in blue and maize. Because of his tenacious style of play and statistical dominance, Messner was named to the All-Big Ten team in all four of his seasons, which was unprecedented. Sadly, Messner's NFL career was less heroic as he suffered a career-ending knee injury in just his first professional season. Regardless, Messner is enshrined in the Michigan Athletics Hall of Honor for being one of the greatest players in the programs history.
5 Denard Robinson, QB
It's hard to think of any player who generated more buzz around the Wolverines program than Denard Robinson (aka "Shoelace" in his time in Ann Arbor. Robinson was recruited as a quarterback was used primarily as an athlete/wildcat formation type of player his freshman year. In his first snap ever, Robinson rushed for a 43 yard touchdown and from that point on it was clear that Robinson was as explosive as any player in college football.
During his first start at Michigan, Robinson tallied a school record 383 yards of total offense, only to break his own record the following week when he compiled 502 total yards (258 rushing, 244 passing). Robinson was just a gamer, plain and simple. In 2010, he set a record for most yards in a season when he threw for 2,570 yards and rushed for 1,702. Robinson is the only quarterback in NCAA history to throw for over 1,500 yards and rush for over 1,500 yards in a single season. He also holds 7 of the 10 highest single-game yardage totals in Michigan history. Robinson currently plays running back in the NFL.
4 Desmond Howard, WR/KR
During his three seasons at Michigan, Desmond Howard created a buzz for being the most explosive player on the field whenever he touched the ball. Howard was originally slotted on the depth chart as a running-back, but wisely accepted the decision to move to wide-receiver. As a receiver, Howard would go on to set numerous records and set the college-football world on fire with his 1991 season.
During that season, Howard caught 62 passes, for 985 yards, and 19 touchdowns. He also made a splash in the running and kick return games, adding 2 rushing touchdowns and 2 return touchdowns. It seemed like every time he touched the ball, something good was going to happen. For his efforts, Howard was named the 1991 Heisman Trophy winner, along with also winning the Maxwell Award and Walter Camp Award. He went on to have a great career in the NFL as return specialist, even becoming the first special teams player to win the Super Bowl MVP award (Super Bowl XXXI). Howard is an all-time great for Michigan.
3 Dan Dierdorf, OT
What else needs to be said about the legendary Dan Dierdorf? The emotional leader of the Wolverines during his time in Ann Arbor and consensus first team All-American, Dierdorf is an icon for the University of Michigan. During his four seasons with the team, Dierdorf was so dominant as an offensive lineman that NFL scouts couldn't find any flaws in his game. He won basically every award imaginable for offensive lineman and was invited to play in every post-season all-star games around at the time.
Dierdorf went on to play professional football for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1971 to 1983, being named to 6 Pro-Bowl teams in the process. The University of Michigan realized Dierdorf's importance in the program when the inducted him into the Michigan Hall of Honor in 1996. Dierdorf was also named to the College Football Hall of Fame and the NFL Hall-of-Fame in Canton, Ohio, which is Dierdorf's hometown. It's like he was destined to be one of the greatest of all-time and end up enshrined in the town he grew up in. Brady would have loved to have Dierdorf in his prime blocking his blindside.
2 Tom Harmon, RB
Tom Harmon is an old-school icon for the University of Michigan. Playing in the late 1930s, Harmon was an unstoppable offensive juggernaut for the Wolverines and led the NCAA in scoring in consecutive seasons (1939, 1940). During his three years at Michigan, Harmon rushed for 2,151 yard on 399 carries, equaling a solid 5.3 yards per carry average. He also added 1,396 yards and 16 touchdowns passing. Essentially, Harmon was the original wild-cat player.
Harmon was drafted #1 overall in the 1941 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears, but Harmon declined in order to pursue a career in film and entertainment. He would eventually continue his football career in the American Football League (AFL), but his career was quickly derailed by the onset of World War II. Harmon's famous #98 jersey was retired by the University of Michigan in 1940 and remained that way until 2013, when Devin Gardner wore the number in honor of the Michigan football legend. It's unlikely that Tom Brady's #10 will ever be retired by the University of Michigan.
1 Charles Woodson, CB
Charles Woodson was perhaps the greatest college cornerback of all-time and was easily the most memorable performer during his time at Michigan. It seemed like every time the Wolverines needed a big play, Woodson was there. Whether it was picking off multiple passes a game, returning kicks for touchdowns, or just being in the right place at the right time, Woodson always came through.
In fact, Woodson was so good during the 1997 season that he won the Heisman Trophy award, as well as numerous other awards for being the best defensive player in the country. Woodson is the last defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy, which shows just how incredible he was in blue and maize. He finished his career with an eye-popping 18 interceptions and 30 passes defended. Those numbers are even more incredible when you factor that Woodson declared for the NFL draft after his junior year. Predictably, Woodson went on to become of the greatest cornerbacks ever in the NFL and just recently retired in 2015. For his incredible collegiate career, Woodson comes in #1 on this list.
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