Wheatley welcomes Walker, Johnson still on the right track

Thursday, February 4, 2016 - 8:36pm

Running back Kareem Walker expects to compete for playing time in his first season at Michigan.

Running back Kareem Walker expects to compete for playing time in his first season at Michigan. Buy this photo
Allison Farrand/Daily

 

As one of the nation’s top high school running backs, no one would be surprised at Kareem Walker’s high self-confidence. The Michigan early enrollee has boasted about his ability to recruit other prospects and didn’t shy away from saying he has no intentions of riding the bench for the Wolverines on Wednesday.

But Michigan running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley was still taken aback on a visit with Walker, when the discussion turned to Walker wearing Wheatley’s old number in the fall.

“He looked at me, and he said, ‘So, that was your number, No. 6 right?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, 6 was my number,’ ” Wheatley said to the Daily on Wednesday. “Then he looked right at me and he said, ‘You were pretty good, huh?’ and I said ‘Yeah, I was alright.’

“Then he said, ‘But I’m gonna show you how to rock No. 6, and I’m gonna show you how to rock it with swag. And, um, I’ll probably be the leading rusher when I leave here.’ ”

Though surprised at the audacity, Wheatley knew well before that moment that Walker’s confidence is more ambition than arrogance.

The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Walker finished his high school career with 4,563 rushing yards and 55 touchdowns, and enrolled less than a week after committing to the Wolverines in December.

“The thing about him is that he wants to work to back his words up,” Wheatley said. “That’s what I like about him, and that’s what you want as a coach. It’s not words with him, it’s work. He’s not afraid of it.”

If Walker wants to make good on his pledge to play as a freshman, he will need to surpass several experienced backs. Michigan returns its top three rushers from last season (junior De’Veon Smith, redshirt junior Drake Johnson and redshirt sophomore Ty Isaac) and bears plenty of underclassmen who Wheatley said should compete for carries.

But Wheatley also noted that the running back race is one of equal opportunity, and that Walker has a chance to run away with the job.

“He’s in it to win it,” Wheatley said. “He’s one of those guys that wants to be the best, and he’s also hungry to learn. He’s a sponge right now. He wants to be around the best, and that’s one of the top things I like about him.

“If Kareem sticks, then hell, we’re gonna go with Kareem.”

And though some might want unproven freshman running backs to hold back on the confidence, Wheatley said as long as the work is behind it, he doesn’t mind.

“It’s just one of those things that draws you closer to him,” Wheatley said. “It’s a confidence, not arrogance, just a confidence. …  The first time I met him, I knew I liked this guy.”

Even if Walker takes Wheatley’s old number.

Johnson back on track: One of Walker’s competitors, Johnson, has temporarily taken his talents elsewhere, joining Michigan’s track team as a hurdler.

Though it detracts from Johnson’s football focus, Wheatley — a former All-American track athlete at Michigan — had no hesitation signing off on the decision, and thinks it might even benefit Johnson.

“What it did for me, was it refreshed me. It gave me a reset,” Wheatley said. “It gave me a chance to get away from Schembechler (Hall). Different group of people, different environment, different competition level. Then all of a sudden, what it’s time to get back into Schem, I can’t wait to get back.”

Wheatley also noted that Johnson, who was an All-American hurdler in high school, could use the time to rebuild confidence in his speed. Johnson has already suffered two anterior cruciate ligament tears and said after Michigan’s Citrus Bowl win that his recovery took longer than he had hoped.

“I think he understands that football is a priority, and I think that’s part of why he’s running track,” Wheatley said. “To help liven his legs back up, get the speed back, get the agility back. Even though you’re racing against an opponent, you’re really racing against the time, against self-improvement.

“All those things that he’s doing (are) really to make him better at football.”