Script by Inside The Huddle.
On Sunday, Michigan held Media Day, its unofficial kickoff for the 2016 season, and while coach Jim Harbaugh believes strongly in his meritocracy, it was made clear by running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley that senior De’Veon Smith begins the season No. 1 on the depth chart.
The 5-11, 228-pounder deserves that after finishing with 482 more yards rushing than his closest competitor last season, fellow senior Drake Johnson, who figures to factor more prominently in the ground game this season.
Smith rushed for 100 yards or more in three contests last year, including 109 in a bowl win over Florida, and now has five career 100-yard efforts.
He is consistently knocked for what he isn’t – largely a home-run threat that had just one run over 30 yards last season – and even Wheatley admitted that Smith’s impatience can be a detriment as the ball carrier sometimes forces his way into a pile.
But what Smith has always been is a kid that gets the most out of his ability, moves the chains, will fight through arm tackles (ask BYU’s defense about that), has good hands as a receiver and is, arguably, the best blocking tailback in the last quarter century of Michigan football.
Though the decades, there have been other backs like Smith that probably didn’t get the respect they deserved, like Ed Shuttlesworth, who never had a 1,000-yard season from 1971-73 but had more than 700 in three straight years while sharing the offensive backfield with Chuck Heater, Gil Chapman and quarterback Dennis Franklin.
There was Leroy Hoard, who was part of a 1-2 punch in 1988-89 with speedester Tony Boles. Hoard was 6-0, 220 pounds and got plenty of run in Bo Schembechler’s run-heavy offenses.
The player that compares most favorably to Smith, though, is Chris Howard.
Howard had 38 yards as a rookie in 1994 on a loaded Michigan team that had Tyrone Wheatley, Tshimanga Biakabutuka and Ed Davis. In 1995, he had 175 yards during a season in which Biakabutuka rushed for a program record 1,818 yards.
In 1996, Howard and Clarence Williams split carries, with Howard getting 160 for 725 yards and 10 scores, and Williams earning 202 attempts.
Howard, however, took over the role of the No. 1 back in 1997, and while he never had his 1,000-yard campaign, finishing with 938 yards as a senior, he established himself as one of Michigan’s most valuable ball carriers, doing whatever was necessary for an underrated offense on the Wolverines’ national championship team.
Now, here comes Smith, who had 117 yards as a rookie, 519 yards in a bigger role as a sophomore and 753 last season. He may or may not get to 1,000 this year – probably not if Johnson, redshirt junior Ty Isaac, and a true freshman or two end up grabbing a bigger chunk of snaps – but Smith could prove himself invaluable to a team chasing a Big Ten title and possibly even a college football playoff berth.