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April 5, 2013

Funchess continues to grow

In the early stages of his rookie campaign, tight end Devin Funchess flaunted all of the characteristics one looks for in a big-play tight end: size, strong hands, solid route running and the athleticism to stretch the middle of the field.

Now, heading into his sophomore season, Funchess's concentration is on cultivating the abilities necessary to become a complete tight end.

It all starts with the not-so-glamorous aspects of his assigned position, particularly doing the dirty work to open up holes for U-M's soon-to-be smashmouth run game.

"I was like a pretty boy, I didn't want to get hit," Funchess said of his work among the big uglies as a freshman. "Now I know I have to change my perspective of the game, change my mindset."

"This spring, he's taken a lot of pride in improving every phase of his game," said offensive coordinator Al Borges. "Devin Funchess during the season was featured more as a receiver because that's where the emphasis is. Whereas in spring football, we're not concerned about that. We're concerned about developing his overall game versus seeing how many passes he can catch. We know that's his strength.

"We want to shore up every other phase of his game. He's done a nice job. His footwork has improved in the run game. Every part of his game has gotten a little better."

Successfully evolving into this multi-faceted role will be heavily predicated on his willingness to grow, both physically and mentally, into a bull-headed blocker at the end of the line of scrimmage. So far, so good.

"I like it now," said Funchess of butting heads as an interior blocker. "At first I didn't like it, but it is kind of fun now to stick my nose in there and try to knock the linebackers and defensive ends off the ball. I just have to get more beef on me so I can really get in there.

"I have to do whatever I have to do to help the team. If I need to get bigger, I need to get bigger."

Funchess has bulked up five pounds during the offseason, and aims to max out between 235 and 240 pounds heading into fall camp. The additional size and toughness will also help him combat the physicality of conference play as a pass-catcher, which he readily admitted halted his progress a year ago.

In his second-collegiate contest, the budding phenom exploded for four catches for 106 yards (26.5 yards per reception) and a touchdown in a 31-25 win over Air Force. He rode the momentum in subsequent weeks, finishing the 2012 non-conference slate with 151 receiving yards and two scores.

But the Big Ten season presented unfamiliar and unique challenges. The lanky ball-catcher drew added recognition from opposing defenses, was roughed up and snatched just seven balls the rest of the year. He did not tally multiple catches in any of the Wolverines' final nine games.

"I believe that I wasn't ready for the Big Ten because it was a tougher game, especially with the speed of the game," he said. "I learned from my mistakes, and that is all I can teach [the younger players]; to learn from what I did wrong and to teach them what not to do."

Now a year older and a year wiser, his role as a mentor for the younger Wolverines is yet another step in Funchess's growth as a positive force in the locker room.

Fortunately, he can take notes from the evolution of redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner, who once carved an unselfish niche within the program as a potential big-play wide receiver before earning the honor of being Michigan's main man under center.

"He is pretty much the same dude," Funchess said. "I learn from him and he learns from me.

"He's taking control of the game. He comes in here and competes. He just wants to win, and that is all we can do at Michigan, try to win."

If the Maize and Blue are to win the cherished Big Ten crown for the first time since 2004, it will take every member of the roster doing his individual part - even when the task at hand isn't a stunning high-flying touchdown catch.

This concept seems to have clicked with the Farmington Hills (Mich.) native, made readily apparent when asked about his favorite catch from a year ago. No, it did not happen in the endzone or in a high profile clash.

Instead, it was 14-yard reception early in the second quarter of what would become a 44-13 decimation of a Purdue squad that never stood a chance. The one-handed grab during a redzone, third-and-long situation resulted in a first-and-goal from the one yard line. Redshirt senior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint barreled into the endzone the following play to give the Wolverines a 13-0 cushion.

"It was the Purdue game," Funchess said when asked about his favorite freshman-year reception. "It was a key third-down play. I reached back and caught it with one hand."

It was a spectacular feat of athleticism that, ultimately in the box score, was recorded as merely a 14-yard snag - his only catch of the day. Still, it was a critical play that fueled the dominant team effort.

"We want to win, we just try to compete as well as we can," Funchess said. "Whatever happens happens. I just want to help the team out as much as I can."

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