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Backs by Popular Demand: A look at Michigan's crowded backfield

Daily Sports Editor
Published September 2, 2010

In the middle of a summer of hard work, this group of friends needed a break. Michigan’s running backs just wanted to kick back and put up their feet.

They gathered at Fred Jackson's home for some dinner and the usual ribbing.

Jackson, who has been the Wolverines’ running backs coach for the last 18 years, has had this group over before. And before them? Mike Hart used to break bread with Jackson. Before Hart, it was Chris Perry, Anthony Thomas, Tim Biakabutuka and Tyrone Wheatley — All-Americans, All-Big Ten guys, all workhorses.

A framed Sports Illustrated cover of Hart hangs on Jackson’s wall amongst the other treasured memories from his coaching past. The walls are littered with proud history. He showed the group a helmet signed by Michigan’s 1997 National Championship team, to which Thomas contributed during his freshman year.

But on this night, the running backs are relatively anonymous with no real history of their own yet.

Sophomore Vincent Smith, redshirt sophomore Mike Cox, junior Mike Shaw, redshirt freshman Fitzgerald Toussaint and true freshman Stephen Hopkins will all have their shot at making a mark on Michigan football. But the question is: can they shine all at once?

The group enjoyed the evening at Jackson’s home, still in the dark about who will carry the load this year, or whether it will even be one man at all. Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez declared at Michigan media day that the group will play as a committee of backs. Days before the season opener he said that three to four backs will get carries against the Huskies.

Jackson has typically used one or two feature backs the Wolverines could ride to the Rose Bowl. He used to like it that way.

Not anymore.

“You can ask any one of them — they won’t tell you if they play (first), second or third team,” Jackson said. “Because I’m always rolling. I roll them all the time. One time, when a guy does something great, I take him out. And he wonders why he comes out. When a guy does something bad, I leave him in. They don’t know, and that’s the fun part about being a coach. You’ve got them right where you want them.”


Four years ago, Steve Slaton was “the guy” in Rodriguez’s spread offense at West Virginia, dashing his way to a fourth-place Heisman trophy finish in his sophomore year.

The following year, when Slaton was a junior at West Virginia, five-star recruit Noel Devine was just beginning his career as a Mountaineer. So in the span of one offseason, Slaton went from being a feature back and a Heisman trophy runner-up to sharing carries with a true freshman.

He had to deal with a situation that Michigan’s current group faces: multiple talented guys jockeying for carries.

“You want to be on the field,” Slaton said last month. “(But) when Devine came in, he was definitely a benefit to the team. … (He) was making too many plays in practice not to have him on the field. You don’t want to waste that talent.”

Soon enough, Slaton discovered the benefits of having a legitimate partner-in-crime at running back.
“It’s harder on the defense,” he said. “You’ve got more guys to touch the ball. With one guy, he gets tired toward the end of the fourth quarter. With two guys you stay fresh.”

Meanwhile, at Michigan, Hart was carrying the load for the Wolverines. He, too, was in the hunt for the Heisman in 2006, finishing fifth. And even though he was playing in former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr’s pro-style offense, he also was a zone-scheme running back — which is the same scheme as in the spread offense.

He began his freshman year in the middle of a running back-by-committee situation. In Hart’s first two games as a Wolverine, he was an afterthought, running for a measly 37 yards on eight carries. But in the third week, against San Diego State, Hart ran for 124 yards on 25 carries. He went on to become the school’s all-time leading rusher.

“After that, I just kinda knew (I was the guy),” Hart said. “They didn’t have to tell me.”

Hart came out on top of the group and went from an unknown to the furthest from it. They gave him a chance and he ran with it. Could that be a potential outcome for this year’s Wolverines?

Jackson says that the running back should serve as a security blanket for the quarterback in the spread. And Hart had some advice for this year’s group of Wolverine running backs.

“They’ve got to work hard,” Hart said.