Last spring, Michigan running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley compared a ball carrier taking hits to a car depreciating. When you drive the car out of the lot, it loses value, and when a back goes down for the first time, his body starts to wear.
Wheatley — a bruising back at Michigan in the 1990s in his own right — has a strong, physical runner in senior De’Veon Smith. And while Smith has suffered his share of bumps and bruises, he still proves that he runs just fine, barreling through tackles for big gains.
An injury in the first game has limited Smith to 16 carries so far this season, though, and the Wolverines have plenty of other backs to help out. Smith played for almost all of last season as the feature back, but Wheatley and the coaching staff are still managing to work several players into the mix at that position.
“Happy with the four,” Wheatley said. “Four-headed monster. Four horsemen. What other things are there? I don’t know. But I’m happy with the four.”
The group consists of Smith, freshman Chris Evans, redshirt junior Ty Isaac and sophomore Karan Higdon. If he’s healthy, Smith takes the lion’s share of the workload. He also has the most physical running style, but Wheatley doesn’t mind the variety that the other backs bring.
“De’Veon is a special guy,” Wheatley said. “Every back is special in his own unique way. Those two runs, the two runs that De’Veon had, were incredible. You can’t take anything away from it. This guy breaks two or three tackles, stiff-arms a guy, spin out of it and he goes.
“But it would be very unfair for me to go back and say, ‘Chris, see this? This is what you should do.’ That’s not Chris. Chris can do some things that I look at Chris and say, ‘Well, damn, De’Veon…’ — no. It’s unfair.”
Evans, meanwhile, is Michigan’s leading rusher. He’s averaging 8.6 yards on 17 carries for a team-leading 147, more than double Smith’s 65. Excitement about the true freshman was mostly internal during fall camp, but Evans justified it in the season opener against Hawaii, rushing for two touchdowns in his debut.
At 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds — lighter than Smith by 28 — Evans also provides a change of pace. He has a quick burst that allows him to get to the second level and gain yards in the open field. On his second touchdown run against Hawaii — a 43-yarder that extended Michigan’s lead to 42-0 with 13:44 left in the third quarter — Evans broke through the line and scampered to the end zone almost untouched.
“He’s like my Steph Curry in the room, meaning that he can create his own space,” Wheatley said. “He can win one-on-ones, and most surprisingly, and I said this earlier, I didn’t realize how tough he was between the tackles. That was one of my things coming in, to see how could he run between the tackles, his toughness, his strength. He’s surprisingly strong.
“But you go in there and next week you have Chris run in (the game) trying to run everybody over, and you’re like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ ”
Just as Smith’s power is a handful for opponents, so is Evans’ speed. The freshman’s first chance came with about 3:30 to go in the first quarter of the opener, when Smith came off the field holding his ribs and only touched the ball once the rest of the afternoon. Playing four backs gives Wheatley the luxury of always having another one to come in and spell the others. To that end, Isaac and Higdon have each taken 12 carries in two games, rushing for 58 and 56 yards, respectively.
With all four players, there are constants that Wheatley tries to teach: effort, intensity, feet movement, perseverance. But he reiterated that he likes that each one has his own skill set. He doesn’t want any of them to try to conform to one prototype.
“This is the way I tell them: I love each and every one of you the way you are and where you are,” Wheatley said. “That’s how I coach you. I coach each guy individually, can’t coach them all like one.”