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Ann Arbor — De'Veon Smith remains Michigan's lead running back even though his production slipped last week.

Running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley said practice and flow of the game dictate who he inserts into games. Last weekend against UNLV, Ty Isaac was the big gainer with 114 yards and a 76-yard touchdown.

Wheatley said Wednesday that Smith hasn't lost his spot for this week's game against BYU.

"I would say as of now, yes," Wheatley said when asked if Smith remains the lead back. "He's the guy who's going to go in and crack the cement, so to speak."

Smith leads the team in carries with 53, and is averaging 3.9 yards a carry with three touchdowns. He had 33 yards on 13 carries against UNLV.

Isaac, a transfer from USC, has 18 carries for 161 yards, with a big bulk coming on the touchdown run last weekend. And junior Derrick Green has 13 carries for 46 yards and a touchdown.

Drake Johnson is easing his way back into the rotation after rehabbing a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

"De'Veon wasn't having troubles (against UNLV), it was just the type of defense they were playing, and (it) just called for a little different runner style-wise," Wheatley said. "De'Veon was getting the tough yards, running hard."

Wheatley said that during Isaac's touchdown run, Smith nearly ran over Wheatley and a few others as he enthusiastically chased his teammate down the field.

"He's very caring of his running backs, he's very supportive," Wheatley said. "He understands this is team. Our ultimate goal is Big Ten championship, national title, those type of things."

Johnson, meanwhile, has done everything the coaches have asked, and Wheatley said there has been nothing tentative about how he has approached his return. The coaches have described his recovery as accelerated and ahead of schedule, but have not tried to rush him.

"Not saying his body can't hold up, but that's a little different than being able to come in and withstand the pressure of being an every-down back," Wheatley said. "As a term I use with him, he's been sick for a little bit, so he's not on solid foods yet. He's on a liquid diet. We'll try to introduce solid foods as we go."

Green arrived at Michigan as a highly recruited running back, but hasn't been the go-to back. Wheatley insisted he will make moves based on the flow of the game, as he did against UNLV.

He is not being slighted.

"Things stand really good with Green," Wheatley said. "There's nothing he's not doing, it's just the flow of the game. If the game was great and we had a four-hour game, all the guys would play. I wish I could get all the guys carries."

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said after the victory over UNLV the backs have not fumbled this season.

When asked about that Wednesday, Wheatley laughed and walked away shaking his head, and found some wood to knock a few times.

Wheatley said he tells his backs the two ways to get benched are to let the quarterback get hit and to fumble. He said the players go through drills to help them protect the ball, and he described wearing boxing gloves at practice and working to knock the ball out of their hands.

"You can't fumble it," Wheatley said. "You stress it in that way. You put one stigma in their mind about them sitting on the bench, and that kind of hits home with them."

achengelis@detroitnews.com

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