Ann Arbor – Before preseason camp began, Michigan running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley frequently referred to his position group as a "work in progress."
Wheatley's criteria for what he's looking for from the Michigan backs don't vary much from what most coaches seek. But Wheatley's bottom line is that he needs to develop production from a group that includes juniors Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith, and USC transfer Ty Isaac. Drake Johnson, recovering from a torn knee ligament suffered in the Ohio State game last November, will be part of the mix when he can fully participate.
The Wolverines haven't had a consistent threat at running back since all-time leading rusher Mike Hart, whose last season was 2007.
"It really just boils down to, who's going to be there every day in terms of durability, trust, no mental errors, who can hold onto the ball, all the ancillary things that people don't see that go into making a first-string running back," Wheatley said. "Last but not least: Overall, who makes the plays? That's what it is, and it's open."
Wheatley was the Big Ten's Offensive Player of the Year in 1992 and was the Rose Bowl MVP after rushing for 235 yards in the 1993 game. He rushed for 1,357 yards that season and had 13 touchdowns and caught three touchdown passes. In each of his final two seasons, he rushed for more than 1,000 yards.
Certainly, he would like a back to emerge and separate from the group. But while he calls this a work in progress, he also said he won't sit patiently during a game waiting for a back to find his rhythm.
"The thing I've always said is, and it kind of goes back to when I was here, there's no such thing as a rhythm," Wheatley said. "Let's throw that out. There's no such thing as a rhythm: 'Well, I have to get a couples carries, have to get into a rhythm.' No, you don't. Because your first play is the most important play.
"Your rhythm is practice. Your rhythm is game film. Your rhythm is studying. All those things have put you in a rhythm. So when you practice, you must practice like it's a game. Practice must be intense. That's your rhythm, so on game day, you can say I'm already in stride.
"While I was here, if I had to wait to get into a rhythm, I wouldn't be talking to you right now."
Wheatley praised the players for how they approach their day-to-day work, and credited former running backs coach Fred Jackson, who coached Wheatley at Michigan, for their sound running and blocking ability.
He said he doesn't get caught up in styles.
"I get caught up in what produces," Wheatley said.
Green (5-11, 234) missed the second half of last season after breaking his collarbone at Rutgers. He averaged 78.5 yards a game and scored three touchdowns. Smith (5-11, 228) took over as the lead back and scored six touchdowns and rushed for 519 yards.
The 6-foot-1, 207-pound Johnson had a strong final month of the season, scoring four touchdowns and rushing for 361 yards before he tore a knee ligament in the final regular-season game. Isaac (6-3, 240) is the biggest of the backs but was limited in the spring because of injury.
Wheatley would not commit to a timeline for picking a No. 1 back.
"That's a hard question, and the reason it's hard is because I could say I would like to have seen it during the spring," Wheatley said. "But it's a process, so I'm not going to put a timetable on it. I'll leave that one up to Coach Harbaugh. I'll sit down with him and Coach (offensive coordinator Tim) Drevno at some point and he'll say we need to solidify this thing early or later. It's really his timetable."