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93RD ROSE BOWL / USC VS. MICHIGAN

The word is out on Henne

The Wolverines' quarterback has become more vocal, and more of a leader, in his junior season

January 01, 2007|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

The whole "actions speak louder than words" thing wasn't quite working for Chad Henne.

Quiet by nature, the small-town kid from Pennsylvania preferred to lead by example, but, as the quarterback for Michigan, his team needed something more.

A vocal presence in the huddle. Someone to speak up on the sideline.

"Your coaches are really pushing you to do that," Henne said. "Your teammates want it."

No one doubted his football skills. When the Wolverines play USC in the Rose Bowl today, the junior will bring a strong arm and good football sense, the experience to audible to a better play at the line.

But approaching this season, his third as a starter, he thought that it might be time to turn up the volume.

His loquacious tailback, Mike Hart, wasn't sure Henne could pull it off.

"I didn't really know, because some guys don't talk," said Hart, who is rarely at a loss for words. "Some guys just play."

The same thing happened to Henne in high school back in tiny Wyomissing, beside the Schuylkill River. He started for the varsity as a silent, if not slightly cowed, freshman.

It wasn't until his junior season, he said, "I started becoming a more vocal leader. By my senior year, I really stepped it up."

His statistics -- 7,071 yards and 74 touchdowns -- spoke loudly enough to warrant a scholarship to Michigan. He made just as much noise in his first training camp, enough to take the field as a starter that September.

The Wolverines opened the 2004 season against Miami (Ohio) and Henne led them to a 43-10 victory. Four months and eight victories later, he threw four touchdown passes in the Rose Bowl, his team losing in the final seconds to Texas.

It was a season worthy of freshman All-American honors, albeit a quiet one.

"I pretty much kept my mouth shut and did whatever the coaches said," he recalled. "I let the seniors do the talking."

His teammates understood.

"As a freshman, you don't know guys and you're intimidated," offensive tackle Jake Long said. "Also, he was a shy guy."

The 2005 season didn't help him out of his shell.

Hart sat out several games because of injuries, leaving Michigan without much of a rushing attack. The defense gave up too many big plays.

There were close defeats against Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Minnesota. A loss to Ohio State sent the Wolverines stumbling into the Alamo Bowl, where they fell to Nebraska.

And Henne, once the golden child, took much of the blame for a 7-5 record.

Michigan is a program that holds quarterbacks -- even such former stars as Tom Brady and John Navarre -- to unusually high standards.

"The quarterback at Michigan is the person who wins or loses games in the eyes of the fans," Hart said. "When you come here as a quarterback, you've got to realize there are going to be people on your back.

"Last year, there were a lot of people on Chad's back."

Henne doesn't have much to say about last season, except that it took him by surprise and "wasn't a pleasant thing."

The experience motivated him to work harder in the off-season, throwing with his receivers every day and watching game film, going over all his missteps and miscues.

The biggest lesson to be learned?

"Don't make that dumb mistake and give the defense the ball," he said. "There are definitely times you need to take a sack. You realize it's better to punt than to turn the ball over."

A year older and wiser, Henne said he also realized that it was time to assume more of a leadership role on the team. And that meant more talking.

The quarterback who showed up this season had an assured sense about him, other players say. He left no doubt this was his team.

"If you make a mental mistake, he gets in your face," Long said. "Not in a negative way. He picks you up and gets you ready for the next play."

Coaches have been confident enough in Henne's experience to let him change plays at the line of scrimmage. It's something that USC has noticed in game films.

"It's a weapon they utilize every game," USC defensive end Lawrence Jackson said. "He's a leader out there."

Winning the first 11 games this season also opened some eyes and restored Henne to favored status.

But the loss to Ohio State on Nov. 18 opened old wounds. Henne did not make mistakes but missed on two critical passes. He is winless against the Buckeyes and 0-2 in bowl games.

"Not finishing these last two seasons has really been a hardship on us," Henne said. "We didn't finish off Ohio State, so now people are saying, well, what are we going to do in the Rose Bowl?"

The funny thing is, Henne cannot answer the question with words. The new, more-vocal quarterback realizes he has to play his way out of this one.

*

david.wharton@latimes.com

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