More confident Henne embraces leadership role

"What are you doing? You beat this guy easy last time."
"He ain't the same guy."
-- "Cinderella Man," 2005

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The idea that the University of Michigan, with its Big House, 860 victories (first in the nation) and 42 Big Ten Conference championships is a Cinderella anything is laughable.

But Michigan coach Lloyd Carr chose Ron Howard's Academy Award-nominated biopic, "Cinderella Man," as a motivational tool for his 2006 Wolverines, and his players immediately grasped the metaphor. The Michigan players and coaches, coming off a 7-5 record in 2005, took umbrage at how they got "beat easy" last time.

Carr showed his team the cinematic story of former heavyweight champion James J. Braddock before the season. Eleven times this fall, when Carr has shown the Wolverines highlights of their victories on the previous Saturday, he has also shown them clips from "Cinderella Man."

"I think it's a team-oriented theme even though you don't consider boxing a team-oriented sport," Carr said Monday.

Carr didn't have any single Wolverine in mind as the maize-and-blue embodiment of the boxer played by Russell Crowe. But as Michigan begins to prepare for its undefeated, top-ranked archrival, Ohio State, if you had to pick one player who looks markedly differently than a year ago, the player to choose is the quarterback.

Wolverines junior Chad Henne ain't the same guy.

The difference is not easily quantified in the statistics. The 6-foot-2, 223-pound Henne has thrown for fewer yards this season (1,932) than last (2,526), which was fewer than he threw for as a freshman (2,743), when he quarterbacked Michigan to the Big Ten championship and the Rose Bowl.

A year ago, when the Michigan offense stumbled, the public understood that its struggles coincided with the injuries suffered by tailback Mike Hart, who missed four games with leg problems. With Hart not healthy and the offense not productive, Henne became the target of the fans' wrath. Never mind that Henne's numbers dropped off only slightly from the previous season.

This year, with Hart already having 1,373 yards and 11 touchdowns, and sophomore wide receiver Mario Manningham emerging as a playmaker (20.7 yards per catch), Henne has been overshadowed. He has run the offense and run it to an 11-0 record even though he is throwing less.

The difference in him can't be quantified beyond wins and losses. But neither he nor Carr seems to care.

"Chad Henne is a great quarterback," Carr said at his news conference Monday. "I guess I evaluate it a lot different. For me it's not about stats. It's about how he manages the game, how he executes at his position."

Henne said he is better this season because he is "definitely a lot smarter, just identifying defenses and anticipating throws out there when I come to the line. Last year, I would kind of figure out what the defense was and just go out and react. But this year, it's just anticipating what's going to be open and just becoming more knowledgeable of it."

But his increased acumen in reading defenses is not what his coach and his teammates bring up when they talk about Henne. They talk about his improved leadership. They can't isolate any single reason for it any more than they could explain Crowe's acting technique in becoming Jim Braddock.

"I believe it's just confidence through experience," senior center Mark Bihl said.
"The biggest thing is the way that Chad stepped up vocally," senior tight end Brian Thompson said. "He really grasped his role on the team."

It is significant that Bihl and Thompson spoke up for Henne. They are fifth-year seniors, two years ahead of their quarterback. Just as Henne has become more comfortable reading defenses, he has become more comfortable reading his teammates. He is, at age 21, more willing to lead than to fit in.

"When you're 18 years old and you come into a program where there are a hundred other people and you don't know any of them, you don't come in and shoot your mouth off," Carr said of Henne. "You come in and try to execute the position and the responsibilities that you have, and he did that. But certainly, as he has been here, as he's had all the experiences he's had, as he has developed deep friendships on this team, there is a comfort there where he can feel confident that anything he says won't be misconstrued as some young guy shooting his mouth off, telling 23-year-old guys what to do.

"I never had a problem with his leadership. Look, you don't win a Big Ten championship as freshman, you don't take a team to the Rose Bowl unless you're confident and unless you know what you are doing."

Henne has started 35 games at quarterback, enough that he takes the praise of this season with the same boulder of salt as the epithets of a year ago. The mediocrity of last season is the spur that set these Wolverines into motion. Braddock found his motivation in the need to feed his family. Henne, more so than most of his teammates, has found his motivation in Braddock.

Asked if he saw a correlation between himself and the Cinderella Man, Henne said, "I think all the criticism that went on last year with the team and myself, it just proves we [aren't] the same person as last year and we worked even harder this year to get to where we are right now."

That would be the brink of the heavyweight championship of college football. Michigan is no more Cinderella than it is Madonna, but the Wolverines have found something that works. In Henne, they have found someone, too.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.