On his bedroom door, Ty Isaac keeps a list of goals for himself as his redshirt junior season on the Michigan football team nears. Every day as the running back leaves for class, he looks at everything — personally, physically, football-related — he needs to improve this season. Or, put another way, to avoid where he ended up last season.
The Southern California transfer began last season as arguably the most highly touted player in the Wolverines’ backfield. He came in prepared to revive Michigan’s struggling ground game. Instead, he finished fifth on the team in carries in 2015, behind three other running backs, fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Rudock and even senior fullback Sione Houma. Rising senior running back De’Veon Smith ended the season with 180 carries, six times Isaac’s total.
“I obviously got humbled a little bit last season, but you still gotta work the same, just as hard,” Isaac said Tuesday. “It’s De’Veon’s job to lose, which gives you a little bit of extra motivation, but my mindset hasn’t changed. I’m still going out every day trying to compete to get that starting spot and be ready to carry the load when the season comes.”
At his lowest point, Isaac was left off the depth chart for two consecutive games last November. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh called the issue an “internal matter,” adding that it was “none of your business.”
Isaac said that at one point last season, the disappointment got to him, and while he declined to say exactly when, he acknowledged that it was around the time of the depth chart snub.
Then, he turned to people close to him in his life who would tell him what he needed to do to turn it around. He found his way back onto the depth chart later that month, and after the season, he met with running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley to iron out more of the issues.
“Just being more intense, more focused,” Isaac said. “Paying attention to the little details — stuff that I knew I needed to work on, but we kind of went over it together just to be clear about everything that I needed to do for myself.”
Isaac came back, dropped some weight and turned up his intensity in practice. He’s further down the depth chart than where he started last season, but to him, that only means he’ll have to work harder to make up the deficit. He believes in his own skill set, and if one thing is certain on Harbaugh’s team, it’s that everyone will have a chance to compete.
Isaac admits, though, that it won’t be easy.
“De’Veon’s been doing really well, so it’ll be tough, but as long as you can play within yourself and do that on a consistent basis, I think you got a shot,” he said.
Wheatley insisted Tuesday that Isaac’s decreased workload last season wasn’t a result of anything the running back did wrong. He worked hard; Smith and others worked harder.
And for a player who was in serious contention for the starting job at the beginning of the season, that wasn’t easy to handle.
“It’s something in life you have to deal with,” Isaac said. “You just kind of sit back and say, ‘OK, this isn’t where I thought I was going to be, but how can I start moving forward? What do I need to do?’ ”
For Isaac, the answer to that came in the form of his list. Isaac had one of the Wolverines’ early highlights last season with a 76-yard touchdown run against UNLV, but he almost disappeared after that. After fumbling twice at Maryland on Oct. 3, he carried the ball just four times in the following two weeks and not again for the rest of the season.
The list of goals is his way of putting those struggles in the past. Smith, redshirt junior Drake Johnson and even others may be ahead of Isaac in the competition this season, but Isaac is ready to give them his best shot.
“I wouldn’t say reset, but I had to gather myself,” Isaac said. “It’s one of those things where it’s never as good as you think it is, and it’s never as bad as you think it is. I just had to calm down, relax and understand that there were things I needed to work on.
“It’s not like it was going to be the end of the world for me. I still have opportunities.”