Lone senior (Big Ten Football)

Jim Martinho

Mike Lehan runs a 4.39-second 40-yard dash. He played in every game of his first three seasons at cornerback. He’s tied for Minnesota’s school record with 30 career pass breakups while consistently drawing the opposition’s best receiver.

But if you ask him, Lehan will tell you he’s just an “OK” player.

At a time when terms like “modest,” “selfless” and “team player” are thrown around almost constantly to describe collegiate and professional athletes, Lehan is a true example of what it means to put the team first.

“They give me a job to do each and every week, and I do my best whenever I’m out there,” Lehan said. “In a game like this, there are 11 players out there at a time, so one guy can’t do it all on his own. And a regular guy like me needs the help of the other 10, so it’s all about us coming together and making sure we get the job done.”

Eleven seems to be the only number that matters to Lehan — the lone senior on a young Golden Gophers defense — except maybe the number of Minnesota wins he can contribute to in hopes of returning to a bowl game after last year’s disappointing 4-7 record.

“That’s what is most important, the team goals,” Lehan said. “Any personal goals that I have, if they happen then that’s great, but first and foremost I want to go to a bowl game. That’s our team goal and my No. 1 goal.”

Lehan and the Gophers (5-1, 1-1 Big Ten) are well on their way to reaching that goal. Minnesota is seeking its sixth win Thursday against Northwestern behind the Big Ten’s top pass defense.

But the Gophers may have to play for the second consecutive week without their co-captain. Lehan missed last Thursday’s 31-10 win over Illinois with what head coach Glen Mason described as a “mysterious knee injury.” Lehan came into the team physician’s office last Wednesday with swelling in his knee, and although infection has been ruled out, Mason said he is still unsure if his best cornerback will be on the field against the Wildcats.

The Gophers contained the Fighting Illini’s pass attack without Lehan, but will miss him sorely on and off the field if the injury persists. In only his fourth year on the defensive side of the ball, the Hopkins, Minn., native has developed into one of the Big Ten’s premier cornerbacks.

“In his position, where you’re kind of out there on your own going against some of the best players, the pressure can get packed on,” said Minnesota defensive coordinator Moe Ankney. “But he handles it well, physically and psychologically. He’s one of the better defensive backs in the country. He’s definitely one of the good ones and I think he proves that week after week.”

As a mentor for the rest of the defense, Lehan has also grown to be one of the team’s most vocal leaders.

“You’re always looking for leadership, and on defense he’s the only senior, so he’s a majority of one,” Mason said. “Mike is well respected in our program because he does everything right. He does a great job in the classroom and in the community. He’s one of those guys you never have to worry about — he’s a model citizen.”

Lehan came to Minnesota as a highly touted running back, having rushed for 1,490 yards and 25 touchdowns his senior year at Hopkins High School. But after redshirting his first season, Lehan was switched to defensive back, where coaches felt he could better help the team.

Naturally, he accepted the difficult change, returning an interception 45 yards and blocking a punt in his first Big Ten game against Northwestern.

After seeing time as a backup defensive back and a key special teams player for the Gophers, the then-sophomore Lehan was ready to challenge for a starting spot at cornerback. He battled with senior Trevis Graham for playing time, though the relationship between them was hardly adversarial.

“Trevis Graham has probably been the most influential teammate to me,” Lehan said. “We were kind of vying for the same starting position, and I ended up starting 10 of the 12 games that season. But he helped me out a lot, helping me learn the position. I can’t say enough good things about him.”

Lehan led the team with eight pass breakups that season, and was fourth in the Big Ten with another 18 as a junior — including six while defending Michigan State’s Charles Rogers. With four breakups in 2002, Lehan is currently tied for the school record with a current member of the Denver Broncos, Willie Middlebrooks.

But Lehan said he doesn’t want to be remembered for individual accomplishments.

“The best aspect of football is the team camaraderie,” he said. “There are 11 guys always out there on the same page. You can’t get any better than that.”