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Quiet Koger morphs into leader

ANN ARBOR, Mich -- Kevin Koger has never been one to brag about his game.

Yes, he made that catch on the fourth-and-20 that led Whitmer High School to a win over Massillon Washington. It's a play Joe Palka, his high school coach, still describes as one of the most impressive and clutch plays he has seen a high school kid make.

But Koger didn't call that for himself. There were supposed to be two other options first, but Palka pointed to Koger after the huddle. So there was no question. The ball was going to Koger.

Afterward, Koger didn't say anything to his team. He allowed what he did on the field to speak for him so he didn't have to get in his teammates' faces to inspire them to rally and beat Massillon.

"In high school, he wouldn't speak up until it was necessary," Palka said. "He didn't have to say a lot loudly. … But he's a soft-spoken kid, so when he does talk, everyone listens."

Coming out of Whitmer, Koger was a top tight end, but he came to Michigan in 2008 and joined a unit that featured senior captain Mike Massey, redshirt junior Carson Butler and sophomore Martell Webb.

"I was ready to accept my role," Koger said. "I wasn't overly confident about anything."

Rich Rodriguez, then Michigan's coach, approached the freshman after fall camp and told him that he shouldn't expect a redshirt season. Throughout his freshman year, Koger was getting significant minutes, despite the fact that, as he believes, he was undersized at 220 pounds.

"I think I got tougher that year, being thrown around like that," Koger said. "I learned a lot by just being thrown into the fire, and because of that I'm a big believer in learning on the run."

That season, against Wisconsin, Koger caught a 26-yard touchdown pass that sparked a 27-point, come-from-behind victory.

That would be one of the lone highlights for the Wolverines in Koger's first three seasons, as Michigan played in just one bowl game and suffered losses to nearly every Big Ten opponent.

It was a difficult time to stay positive, Koger will admit, but he was determined to be as positive as possible. And he did that by playing hard every snap, hoping his teammates would do the same.

And then came a change of coaching staff. Brady Hoke entered the picture with a mantra for the team: We will play for our seniors.

And at the end of August this season, the team voted for who they believed should lead the Wolverines during the 2011 season. Hoke counted the ballots on the spot and announced that Koger, along with fellow seniors David Molk and Mike Martin, would be team captains.

"For them, my teammates, to think of me in that way meant a lot," Koger said.

It made him more comfortable in stepping up and becoming a vocal leader. No longer could he just lead by example and let only his on-field play be what he was known for.

Koger says he's not outspoken and that he's almost the antithesis of Denard Robinson, the quarterback who smiles and talks to everyone. J.B. Fitzgerald, Koger's roommate, gave him the nickname of Hypeman 86 (from Koger's jersey number) this year, Koger's almost alter ego that appears when he does get vocal with his team.

"I think leadership is being able to step outside of your box, doing stuff you're not comfortable with," Koger said.

He has made it a point to lead the freshmen. He knows that not everyone comes to Michigan as humble and ready to redshirt as he was. He knows that every player on Michigan's team was probably the best on his high school team, and for that he's mostly thankful.

But he makes sure to tell those players, especially when they're not playing, that they need to be ready, that they're one snap away from being on the field.

It's what Massey did for Koger. And it's what Koger hopes the freshmen remember as they get older.

"I just think back to the seniors that have been here before me, and what they've done well and what they haven't done well," Koger said. "And I just try to put my own twist into it."

Koger's twist involves a bit of originality and lightheartedness. Because he has been at Michigan for the "lowest of the lows," he tries to make sure that none of his teammates treads close to that line. If his team needs a pregame speech, like it did during the Eastern Michigan game two weeks ago, he does that. If the team needs to lighten the mood, he'll tell a joke.

And recently, it has been Robinson who needed the lightening the most, so Koger tries to bring him back to earth and make him laugh. He knows Robinson needs to be comfortable if the team is going to feel comfortable.

Even though, according to Koger, Robinson will laugh at anything.

"I'm Hypeman 86," Koger said. "Not a standup comedian."

Chantel Jennings covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. She can be reached at jenningsespn@gmail.com.