Smith, Michigan backs not afraid to fight for carries

Tony Paul
The Detroit News


De'Veon Smith

Ann Arbor — They call the running-back room "Las Vegas."

What happens there, stays there.

Yet, a couple Michigan running backs were willing to describe the scene, at least vaguely, ahead of this week's Big Ten opener against Penn State in Ann Arbor.

"Our running-back room is a very open group," senior De'Veon Smith said. "It's all fun, but it's serious at the same time."

And, it turns out, it can get a little confrontational, as well.

Position coach Tyrone Wheatley apparently is just fine with that.

"You can voice your opinion," senior Ty Isaac said. "It's never been anything negative.

"Sometimes if a guy feels like he's got the hot hand, he'll let Coach know, 'Hey!'"

This is what happens when you've got such a variety and deep pool of talent with which to work.

Detroit News predictions: Michigan vs. Penn State

Freshman Chris Evans leads the rushing attack through Michigan's 3-0 start, with 157 yards and two touchdowns, just ahead of Smith, with 152 yards and a touchdown.

Smith's score, his first of the season and 13th of his career, was one of several big-ticket plays in the come-from-behind, 45-28 victory over Colorado last Saturday.

Just after Colorado had taken the 28-24 lead early in the second half, Smith took the ball, rolled to his left and — thanks to some crushing lead blocks, including from senior fullback Khalid Hill and senior tight end Jake Butt — scampered 42 yards down the sideline and into the end zone. Michigan, tested early by Colorado, never trailed again.

Smith finished with 87 yards on a team-high 11 carries — the most any Michigan running back has had in a single game this season. It was the sixth-highest total yards of his four-year career.

Michigan's leading rusher last season and the season before, there's not always been a tremendous amount of hype about him — because the 5-foot-11, 228-pounder from Warren, Ohio, isn't the fastest man on the field most Saturdays, if any Saturdays.

Michigan vs. Penn State preview: Snuff out big plays

But Smith has developed quite the reputation for being able to break one tackle after another. When it seems the run is over, it often isn't. On a couple runs a couple weeks ago against Central Florida, he broke at least four tackles on each. And, of course, who can forget that sick run last season against BYU, when Smith, amazingly, emerged from a mob scene still on his feet, and finished the play 60 yards later, in the end zone?

"He's such an effective runner inside the tackles," coach Jim Harbaugh said.

It's not something Smith, 21, a 2015 All-Big Ten honorable-mention honoree, really brags about, though.

In fact, if he had his way, he'd never have to break a tackle.

Not that such a scenario is realistic, especially in rough-and-tumble Big Ten play.

"If you're gonna have nine guys in the box, you're gonna have to make a couple miss," said Smith, who battled some rib soreness early in the season. "It definitely complements my game, but I've gotta make sure I stay healthy.

"I don't want to be banging into guys. I don't want to run toward guys. I want to have guys miss and have guys not touch me.

"That's really the main focus."

Evans led the team in rushing the first two games, before Smith led the way against Colorado.

Wheatley has rotated in several guys, without overusing any of them. That's by design, of course — you don't want to suffer injuries, especially early in the season.

The running-back group already remains without Drake Johnson (undisclosed injury), who hasn't played this season.

"I'm not mad about it," Smith said of the workload.

But isn't it tougher to get into a rhythm when the carries are so limited, and so spread out?

"Coach Wheat actually doesn't believe in a rhythm," Smith said. "He calls it more so a 'groove.'

"He knows exactly what he's talking about. We argue with him a lot about that, but it's coming from Coach Wheat. He's done things that we all want to do."

Michigan had a good running performance in the opener against Hawaii and the last game against Colorado. The passing game was more on display against Central Florida, because Michigan knew Central Florida was going to focus on stopping the run.

This week, against Penn State, the run game likely will be featured again.

The Nittany Lions (2-1) have allowed an average of 176.3 yards through three games; that's 4.2 yards per carry.

Who'll carry the load? Smith? Evans? Isaac, who was thrilled to score his first touchdown of the season last week? Sophomore Karan Higdon? Hill, a fullback who leads the team with three TDs?

The Michigan running backs, in all likelihood, have had a spirited debate about that very topic in the position room this week.

"I think it's good that we can give a lot of different looks," Isaac said. "Also, it's a very long season, you know what I'm saying? At some point, I'm sure everybody in the room will get rotated in out of necessity, just because guys get banged up.

"Everybody in that room does things differently."

Said Smith: "Honestly, I don't know how they rotate us. ... We're all cheering for each other."