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Ann Arbor — Michigan has gone with a running back rotation this season, but one has distinguished himself — in pass protection.

Senior De’Veon Smith.

“It’s a process to become a good blocker as a running back,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said of Smith, who also leads the team with 27 carries and has run for 152 yards and one touchdown. “I’ve seen that process from not being able to do it at all to becoming very good at it. (Smith) takes a lot of pride in it.

“He’s very far along at being a good pass-protecting back, which is something that, when you draft guys into the NFL, when you see good running backs coming in, we’re starting at the beginning here and teaching this youngster how to pass protect.”

And Smith’s pass protection ability might come into play today when No. 4 Michigan hosts No. 8 Wisconsin, which allows an average of 80.5 yards rushing a game. The Badgers, however, suffered a big blow — Vince Biegel, their most experienced linebacker, will miss the game after having foot surgery.

On one early play against Penn State last week, he picked up a defender in a third-and-long, allowing quarterback Wilton Speight to convert.

Smith is, in throwback terms, a hard-nosed runner. And that’s what Harbaugh and the staff like about him.

“He just works extremely hard,” Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison said this week. “When you’re going against our offense in practice, it’s like, ‘Who’s this guy? He’s going hard.’ De’Veon’s been out there, you see him out there every day and he brings his lunch bucket and goes as hard as he can.”

Harbaugh loves the fact the running backs have produced the first four games — and the fact they have protected the football, too. Freshman Chris Evans leads the team with 157 yards, Ty Isaac has 76 yards, and Karan Higdon has 64 yards.

“They’ve all done a great job,” Harbaugh said. “And that’s a big factor in this game because Wisconsin, the way they pursue and the way they hustle and the way they run, and really attacking downhill and side to side and in pursuit.”

Smith has been particularly efficient, impressive considering how hard he runs.

“As much as De’Veon gets yards after the carry and as much as he fights for that extra foot or inches and breaks tackles, he’s really doing a good job of not putting the ball on the ground,” Harbaugh said. “And that is hard to do.”

achengelis@detroitnews.com

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