From the time junior running back De’Veon Smith played in his first career game in 2013 to the beginning of fall camp for the Michigan football team this year, there always seemed to be someone in front of him.
Smith was a contender in the running back competition as soon as he set foot on campus as a freshman, but he carried seven times for just 12 yards, while then-fifth-year senior Fitz Touissant rushed 14 times for 57 yards and two touchdowns. Touissant beat out Smith and then-freshman Derrick Green for the job, and Smith didn’t touch the ball again until November.
Then Touissant graduated, and Smith had another chance. This time, he made more of an impression, scoring twice on eight carries in the season opener. But Green rushed 15 times for 170 yards, earning more touches in five of the first six games.
Then Green broke his collarbone Oct. 4, ending his season. Smith had three games in the spotlight before Drake Johnson entered the fold, and Smith had to split time again.
“I really didn’t pay attention to any of that,” Smith said. “I was just trying my hardest to be No. 1.”
Still, three times, he had his chance. Three times, someone else took it.
This past spring, he came back under a new head coach, new offensive coordinator and new running backs coach, and the competition was tighter than ever before. Green was healthy, Johnson was on his way back and junior Ty Isaac became eligible after transferring from Southern California in 2014.
This time, Smith emerged as the victor.
Thursday brought his reward: In the season opener at Utah, Smith earned 17 carries to Isaac’s four and Green’s two. He again appeared as the No. 1 back on this week’s depth chart. Asked if he considers himself the No. 1 back, he finally got to simply say yes.
“I always go into the game expecting and hoping that I get a lot of carries,” Smith said. “Any running back in our room right now expects to get a lot of carries if they’re in the game. So it really wasn’t that big of a surprise for me. It was more of a humbling experience. First game, first time I’ve really started at Michigan, so I learned from my mistakes and just try to get better every week.”
Smith’s performance wasn’t his best, with just 2.8 yards per carry with a long run of seven yards. He broke a number of tackles, more than Green or Isaac, but struggled to find open space.
“Just reading the holes, I try to improve my vision,” Smith said. “The vision that I watched on film, that wasn’t really how I play from the point of seeing stuff. That’s something I’m trying to improve on this week.”
Smith only has one game in his career with more than the 17 carries he had Thursday. In fact, Michigan’s running backs had just two such games all of last season.
If Smith can improve along with the rest of the team, he may be establishing himself as a workhorse going forward. He already has items on his list to improve upon.
“One of those plays (against Utah), I missed a hole that a bus could drive through,” Smith said. “That’s probably one of the bigger ones that stuck out to me, kind of got under my skin. And also the dropped pass that I had, that’s not characteristic of me at all. Just making sure I keep my eyes on the ball, tuck the ball in before I catch it.”
Smith said at one point in reviewing film, he asked running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley what the offense could change to have more success. Wheatley told him to stick with the game plan and eventually it would work.
Results came slowly in the opener, but in his third year, Smith may finally have a chance to make some improvements.