In Part 2 of my interview with former Michigan co-captain Kevin Koger, we take a deeper look at the 2010 and 2011 seasons. He talked about the coaching change, his own leadership, and the teammates that helped him along the way.
You have the reputation has being a very positive, team-oriented guy. To what do you attribute that? Which teammates had a positive impact on you?
I think I’ve always wanted to be in that leadership role. In high school I was never the guy who was afraid to run guys the wrong way. I guess I’ve always embraced that role. I’ve always wanted to help guys get better. It’s just the mentality I have – being part of a team is such a great thing. I understood at an early age that it is one thing for a coach to say those things, but it is something completely different when one of your fellow peers says, “You can do better. And I’ve seen you do better. So you need to do better.”
I’ve always been a fan of leadership in all its forms. I love to read books on different leadership styles. It comes from my parents – they have a strong work ethic. It’s something we never talked about growing up, but they never missed a day of work for anything, and I guess that rubbed off on me.
The teammates that I remember who helped me on my way are from my freshman year. Two guys in particular had an impact on me, and one was Mike Massey. For one reason or another I was playing over Mike Massey as a freshman. On the road we would share the same room and he would talk to me about different stuff, and I thought it was so awesome that this 5th year senior was taking his time and investing it in me. He helped me out a lot because there was a lot about football that he knew and I didn’t.
Another guy was Carson Butler. I’ll never forget when I was a freshman and we were playing 7-on-7. I was running a crossing route and Jonas Mouton absolutely decapitated me. He just put me parallel, feet up in the air. I got up and had to go to the sideline and I was in obvious, visible pain. Carson looks at me and said, “Hey – you never let anybody know that you’re hurt. Never let them know.” That stuck with me through workouts and conditioning. I adopted this mentality that “Hey, it’s going to hurt. Running wind sprints is going to hurt, but the quicker you embrace it, the better.” It is going to hurt a lot more for a guy like Devin Gardner, who, as a freshman really struggled at conditioning and the weight room, but he got a lot better. And I took it upon myself to help the younger guys not just survive the workouts but get better and better at them. Those older guys – Carson [Butler] and Mike Massey helped me develop into a leader.
The offense took a massive leap forward from 2009 to 2010, starting with a 30-10 win against UConn to open the season. Was that leap something you anticipated in spring practice the year before?
You probably saw how awful we were awful in 2008 and the later half of 2009. In 2010 we had a comfort level with the offense, having run the same thing for three years. As a player, you know what to expect, and you know what the coaches want out of you on certain plays. Honestly it had a lot to do with Denard. Denard was such a special player. We knew how good he was, but with [the UConn game] being his first start we kind of didn’t know how to react. We knew we believed in Denard. So when he went out there and did what he did the next week on a national stage against Notre Dame, we knew the offense was ready to take off. I know personally my attitude was, “Hey, if Denard’s going to go off, I want to do everything in my power to make sure I do my job to help him have a great game.”
I remember in 2010 we played Bowling Green, and we won by a bunch [65-21]. On one of his touchdowns, he ran to the left and stopped on the dime and cut across the field and ran like 50 yards for a touchdown. I remember that was the first time on the field where I really stopped and was just watching a guy play football. I thought to myself, “This is unbelievable.” As his teammate, I just thought that he was so fun to watch, and you want that success for him because he’s such a great guy.
I also remember in 2011 we were playing Eastern Michigan, and my helmet came off [during a play], but I wasn’t thinking about finding it or protecting my face, I was thinking about picking up a block to take another hit off of Denard. As a quarterback, he doesn’t need to be hit repeatedly every snap, so if I can pick up a block, that’s one less hit he has to take. So I was out there trying to block a guy with no helmet. It wasn’t about me or how many catches I had, it was more about the team, and Denard succeeding.
What was the attitude of the team coming off the 7-6 season in 2010? Did you expect a coaching change, or were you expecting to take the next step forward with Rich Rodriguez after 3-, 5-, and 7-win seasons?
After the bowl game [52-14 loss to Mississippi State] it felt like the change happened pretty quickly. Some of the other guys may have expected a change more than I did. The end of that season had a different feel to it. We saw [in 2008] what a coaching change did to a team. We saw how it divided guys, and that some guys weren’t bought in. And the seniors decided “Hey, we’re not going to let that happen.” So whoever comes in, we’re just going to do whatever the hell they tell us to do. If they tell us to run through a wall, we’re going to run through a wall, even if we don’t agree with it. The biggest thing was that, as seniors, we were all on the same page. The team had to know that we were all pulling in the same direction. The seniors adopting that mentality really helped us that last year.
Was it difficult learning a new offense as a senior? Or was it exciting to be in a system that might use the TE more?
For me personally it wasn’t that hard to learn a new offense. I always enjoyed the X’s and O’s, and I always enjoyed learning more. I picked it up pretty quickly because I had an awesome position coach in Dan Ferrigno who helped me learn the offense. I did realize that it could potentially result in the tight ends catching more balls, and it did. That really helped as an incentive.
Your senior class saw some pretty high moments, like beating Ohio State in 2011 and winning the Sugar Bowl, but also some pretty low moments, too. Can you talk about the character of that senior class?
Coach Hoke made it abundantly clear [during the Sugar Bowl practices] that we could be one of five teams in Michigan Football history to win 11 games. I had no idea about that. We were the 132nd team, and to be one of the 5 with the most wins meant a lot to all of us. Quite frankly, when we got down there we kind of lost sight of that early in the week. We were shouting distance from Bourbon Street, so we probably had too much fun when we were down there the first day or so. I remember David Molk bringing the seniors together and and reminding us that we came down there to win a football game. It was an interesting senior class. David Molk, Mike Martin, and I were captains, and I think we did a decent job of being a voice for the team. I think that showed throughout that season.
People talk about “Those Who Stay Will Be Champions” and I feel like I’m a testament to that. I’ve been on a team that went 3-9, and was the worst team in Michigan Football history. I’ve been part a team that went 11-2 and was one of those 5 teams that had won 11 games. And I’ve been on everything in between, with coaching changes and all that. The Sugar Bowl was a great way to leave.
Talking to Kevin was a ton of fun. He his affable and passionate, and loves to share his stories about Michigan Football. For next week’s interview I’ll speak to another impact player on that 2011 team: Ryan Van Bergen. Hope you enjoyed my conversation with Kevin!
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