THE BLADE/JETTA FRASER
ANN ARBOR -- In two weeks, when Michigan's football players gather to vote on team captains for the upcoming season, head coach Brady Hoke will refrain from submitting a ballot.
That's because Hoke entrusts his players to make the right choice. It's not because he is wishy-washy on the issue.
Sunday, speaking before a swarm of reporters at the team's media day at Schembechler Hall, Hoke endorsed one candidate more than any other.
"Kevin Koger is one of the better leaders that we have because of who he is, his character, and his integrity," Hoke said.
Koger, a Whitmer graduate, is one of six Toledo-area players on this year's roster, and nearly all of them have elicited strong reviews from their peers or coaches during preseason camp.
Clay's Jordan Kovacs, a junior safety who is expected to start for the third straight year, is both the brains and brawn of the defense, says Hoke. Wauseon's Elliott Mealer, after three nondescript seasons on the offensive line, has emerged as a candidate to break into the unit's rotation at any number of positions.
Freshmen Jack Miller, an offensive lineman from St. John's Jesuit, and Greg Brown, a cornerback who starred at Fremont Ross, have been praised for strong practice habits.
Not to be forgotten is tight end Dylan Esterline, a second-year walk-on from Blissfield.
Among the highlights of Hoke's almost 30-minute news conference was his unabashed gushing of Koger.
"All you have to do is spend a half hour with him," Hoke said. "He's a tremendous guy. I'm talking about things not on the football field because that will take care of itself. He's a guy that has impressed me with what he does in the weight room, what he does in winter conditioning, and what he does all year long. He's always been on point."
Reviews of Kovacs were extremely positive too.
"He's a guy that can get things lined up for you, and he's a tough guy, and he will go attack the football," Hoke said of the former walk-on. "He has a great deal of pride in his performance on a daily basis. He's one of those guys who has an urgency about getting to the football. I'm pleased with what he's done to this point. I would guess that he won't take a step backward."
Among those taking a step forward is Mealer. Now a redshirt junior, Mealer is not expected to crack a veteran starting lineup, but he could provide immediate assistance at various spots should a starter succumb to injury. Mealer is practicing at three positions -- right guard, center, and for the first time in his career, right tackle -- and finds himself competing with classmate Rocko Khoury to be the unit's seventh man. Seven linemen is the "magic number" line coach Darrell Funk plans to proceed with.
In addition to developing his body, Mealer has welcomed a recent boost in confidence he may have been lacking previously.
"One of my goals over the summer with the new staff was to have a chance to contribute to the team, and I'm at the point in my career where I think I'm ready for that," Mealer said.
Mealer (6-foot-5, 310 pounds) has taken a liking to Miller, the former St. John's standout, because of his willingness to work hard during practice.
At the relatively small size of 6-4, 263 pounds, Miller seems like an obvious candidate to redshirt, which is standard for most freshmen linemen anyway.
"He's doing great," Mealer said. "I know he's worked hard before he even got here over the summer. He's stepped in and done some nice things for being a freshman."
Brown, from Fremont, is the lone member of the incoming freshman class who began taking classes in January and participated in spring practice. The early introduction, Brown says, allowed him to accelerate his development and gives him a chance of earning playing time at a position that is as muddled as any on the team. Brown's coaches regularly singled him out in the spring for making plays in practice.
"It helped tremendously," he said. "I'm getting more used to everything on and off the field and continuing to compete with other defensive backs."
The list of Wolverines from the area could grow from six to seven next year. Replacing Koger will be two freshmen entering their senior year of high school, Whitmer's Chris Wormley and Southview's Allen Gant.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: email@example.com or 419-724-6160.