When Ty Isaac broke free for a 76-yard touchdown run against UNLV last September, it looked like he was announcing his arrival as a force to be reckoned with in the Michigan football team’s backfield.
But after a two-fumble performance at Maryland two weeks later, and later an “internal matter” that led to him being temporarily left off the team’s dress list, Isaac plummeted down the depth chart. After getting just two carries each against Northwestern on Oct. 10 and Michigan State on Oct. 17, Isaac didn’t touch the ball again for the rest of the season, leaving his future in the Wolverine backfield in doubt.
Fast-forward six months later, though, and the redshirt junior has burst right back into the picture.
As the featured back for the Maize team in Michigan’s Spring Game on Friday night — last year’s top backs, senior De’Veon Smith and fifth-year senior Drake Johnson, both found themselves on the Blue team — Isaac picked up 10 carries and made the most of them.
Early in the second quarter, after netting zero yards on his first two attempts, Isaac took a handoff at midfield for a 29-yard gain down the right sideline, setting up a 13-yard touchdown pass for the Maize team’s first score of the game. On a nearly identical play in the third quarter, Isaac broke outside again, threw a stiff arm in the secondary and picked up 30 yards to the Blue 21-yard line. Five plays later, redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight found the end zone on a bootleg run that ended up being the game-winning touchdown.
Isaac looked like a different player under the lights Friday, and he felt like one, too. So far this offseason, Isaac has shed 14 pounds and five percent body fat.
“I feel a lot better, just all around, physically,” Isaac said. “I dropped some weight, lost some body fat and I just feel really good physically. I can play faster. … The difference between 10 pounds or 15 pounds is huge — I could even tell during conditioning stuff.”
It might be difficult to get carries in a backfield that already has a starter set in stone — after Smith picked up 753 rushing yards and six touchdowns last season, the coaching staff has made it clear that it’s his job to lose.
Smith didn’t play much in the Spring Game, though, saying he was trying to “get (his) body all the way healthy before the season.” With no other back getting more than five carries, it was Isaac’s time to shine. Lighter and faster, he showed signs of the skill set that made him a five-star Southern California recruit before he ultimately transferred to Michigan.
Smith has noticed the dramatic changes in Isaac’s appearance and playing style, too. Smith’s mindset hasn’t wavered with Isaac’s resurgence — he’s dead set on keeping his job as the lead back — but he understands the benefits of a capable complementary option, and he thinks Isaac could be that player.
“Ty’s 6-(foot)-3, 230 (pounds). It’s gonna be trouble for teams, with two power backs,” Smith said. “We have a stable of backs — everybody could play right now. I’ll be happy whoever’s backing me up.”
As the only running back to gain more than 11 yards on the ground — he had 78 — Isaac certainly took advantage of his opportunity Friday night. His strong performance in the Spring Game was just the culmination of an improved spring, one that had Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and fifth-year senior offensive lineman Kyle Kalis raving about his improvements over the last few weeks. Still, Isaac knows it’s going to take more than that to stay in the backfield mix in the fall.
“It’s good to hear it getting noticed,” Isaac said, “but it definitely can’t be something that you hear one time and think, ‘I’m all right, I’m good, I can lay back.’ I want to continue to be like that.
“Every time I come out, I want it to be noticed. I don’t have to talk about it. I’m just going to do it.”