Michigan backs compete for position behind No. 1 Smith

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Earlier this spring practice, Michigan running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley said De’Veon Smith is the lead back and it is “his job to lose.”

Smith still is the leader at the position heading into Friday night’s spring game at Michigan Stadium, but what about the backs behind him?

“I think all those guys by committee in there,” Michigan offensive coordinator Tim Drevno said Tuesday night after practice. “In spring ball you do a little bit of live stuff but it’s not all live all the time. It’s a different deal when a guy’s ready to tackle you, you’ve got to find that soft shoulder. You kind of find what a guy’s made of when that happens.”

Kareem Walker and Kingston Davis are early enrollee freshmen who have been able to participate in spring practice. Ty Isaac and Drake Johnson also are back.

Michigan had big rushing numbers the first half of last season, but those declined the second half during Big Ten play. Smith was dealing with a foot injury, Johnson was playing but still working to come back fully from a torn ACL suffered at the end of the 2014 season, and Isaac struggled.

The Wolverines finished the season ranked 83rd nationally in rushing, averaging 158.2 yards. Smith, looking physically healthier, ran strong against Florida in the Citrus Bowl and had 109 yards on 25 carries.

Harbaugh: Satellite-camp vote could lead to ‘dumb rule’

Perhaps the running game got a lift in the bowl game because the offensive line played its most cohesive game. Michigan guard Kyle Kalis said the backs have been productive this spring practice.

“De’Veon’s been dinged up here and there but every time he’s in there he’s his same self,” Kalis said. “Ty’s had some real good days. Kareem’s still learning. Drake’s Drake — he’s an awesome back.”

Johnson said early during spring practice that running hurdles on the Michigan track team has helped him strengthen his legs, which helps strengthen the knee. He has looked more like the back who gave the Wolverines a spark toward the end of the 2014 season.

But what about Isaac? He ran for 115 yards against UNLV, including a 76-yard touchdown run, but in his first start at Maryland, he fumbled twice and had 17 yards on six carries. Isaac, who was off the depth chart one week for what coach Jim Harbaugh called an internal matter, played in six games last season, his last appearance against Northwestern in mid-October.

Isaac said earlier this spring he was humbled last year but is determined to make a dent this fall.

“He definitely came out hungry,” Kalis said. “That’s what drove him the whole offseason conditioning. He wasn’t going to be the guy who was going to sit back anymore. He wanted to assert himself. He dropped some weight, he’s looking good, he’s looking faster. He’s learning. He’s getting a lot better.”

Drevno said it’s been clear Isaac wants to improve.

“Maybe it’s just his growth as a football player and his growth in this system and what we’re doing,” Drevno said. “As you get a year older, the light kind of goes on a little bit brighter and they start to figure it out.”

For Drevno, having a solid base with Smith, Johnson and Isaac along with the freshmen, gives him and Wheatley options to help the running game evolve.

“They’ve all brought something to the table,” Drevno said. “It’s really neat to see that and you have some depth there, which makes it nice. You can rotate guys through.”

Harbaugh not after headlines

Jim Harbaugh has made plenty of headlines since becoming head coach at Michigan, but he said that has not been by design.

Harbaugh appeared on “The Huge Show,” syndicated across Michigan, on Wednesday to preview the spring game on Friday at Michigan Stadium. Several players and assistant coaches also were interviewed.

He was asked if he was surprised by all the headlines he has generated.

“It’s irrelevant,” Harbaugh said. “We don’t strive for that. We don’t set a goal. We’re not trying to impress the media. We’re trying to impress the teams we play.”

Harbaugh also reiterated how much he has enjoyed coaching his alma mater.

“Definitely enthusiastic, happy, very blessed to be doing a job I love to do,” he said. “Have an infinite amount of gratitude for that. We’re chasing our dream and actually living our dream.”

Jeff Gordon visits Michigan

Retired four-time NASCAR series champion Jeff Gordon was on campus Wednesday to help announce a research partnership involving Axalta, U-M and Hendrick Motorsports, and he stopped by Harbaugh’s office and visited with Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins and her team.

Very appropriately, Tera Blanco, who wears No. 24, presented Gordon, who drove the 24 car, with a Michigan softball T-shirt.

Salary released

New Michigan defensive backs assistant Brian Smith, who played and worked for Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown when he was at UMass, will make $150,000 this year, according to information released Wednesday and obtained by The Detroit News through an open records request.

Smith’s contract, however, is not yet available. He joined Michigan’s staff after working as the Philadelphia Eagles’ assistant linebackers coach.

“He was a tremendous player, a tremendous leader,” Brown said Tuesday night when asked about working with Smith. “Won a (FCS) national championship as a player and helped me coach a team that went to the national championship. I’m glad to be back with him. He’s a great dude.”