The first carry of CJ Stokes’s Big Ten career couldn’t have gone much worse. In Week Four, during his first snap against Maryland, Stokes fumbled.
The freshman running back, while attempting to make a case for himself as the third-string back for the No. 3 Michigan football team, committed the cardinal sin for his position. Consequently, he didn’t see playing time from the backfield again until the Wolverines’ Week Seven matchup against Penn State.
Stokes didn’t view the lack of snaps as a punishment.
“I wouldn’t even say I was necessarily in the doghouse,” Stokes said Tuesday. “It was more them making sure that I was mentally ready to go back in because I was harder on myself than anybody really could have been on me about the fumble.”
For Stokes, the fumble was “demoralizing,” but it hasn’t deterred him, in large part thanks to the support he’s received from the running back room. And that support system has been prevalent for Stokes Michigan began to recruit him.
Stokes was an unheralded prospect coming out of Hammond High School in South Carolina. His production never lacked, as he rushed for over 1000 yards his sophomore, junior and senior years and led his team to three consecutive state titles. But for whatever reason, the recruiting acumen didn’t follow.
He was just a 3-star recruit and the 63rd ranked running back in last year’s 247 Sports Composite. Michigan running backs’ coach Mike Hart, though, wasn’t concerned with Stokes’ lack of national attention. Hart’s recruiting philosophy targets good players and doesn’t focus on the stars or lack thereof — and Stokes fit that mold perfectly.
“I don’t think Coach Hart ever cared about my ranking,” Stokes said, “If he did, he wouldn’t have recruited me. He just trusted me as a player.”
The Wolverines had a vested interest in Stokes, and he took an official visit to Ann Arbor in June 2021. The moment Stokes stepped foot on campus, Michigan’s staff rolled out the red carpet, treating him as the player they believed he could be — not the one recruiting rankings had deemed him as.
“I committed halfway through my official visit,” Stokes said. “I didn’t want to go anywhere else and they didn’t want me to go anywhere else. So it’s kind of a perfect fit.”
Stokes joined the program this summer and knew he had a lot to learn. However, he also knew he was entering one of the best running back rooms in the country. In addition to working under Hart’s tutelage, he was teaming up with junior Blake Corum and sophomore Donovan Edwards, two of the most dynamic backs in all of college football.
It wasn’t a situation that presented immediate opportunities for Stokes, who’s had just 42 carries so far this season. But that doesn’t impact Stokes’s mindset.
“I take pride in being behind those guys,” Stokes said. “I don’t really see it as me being behind them. I see it as me getting the opportunity to learn from some really great backs.”
For now, Stokes is content to be a sponge, soaking up information from the rest of the Wolverines’ talented backfield. It’s a position Corum and Edwards were once in as well.
That willingness to learn, and step up when called upon, is exactly what Hart wants out of his running backs. In Stokes’s eyes, that trust Hart puts in them deserves to be reciprocated.
“I’ve got to play hard for him to prove people right and defend him,” Stokes said. “At the end of the day, it’s a business so he has to produce talent. I gotta go out there and put out a return on what he brought in.”
Hart is only in his second year on the Wolverines’ coaching staff, but between Corum, Edwards and former running back Hassan Haskins, he’s gotten a solid return on his investments so far.
And while it’s still early, Stokes’s stock is looking up as well.