Braylon Edwards has been amazing this year. Chad Henne has been solid. But Mike Hart has been Michigan’s MVP.
Hart had eight carries combined in the Wolverines’ first two games — and Michigan went 1-1. Since then, the diminutive freshman has rolled his season total up over 1,300 yards on the ground and Michigan is — somewhat remarkably — 7-0 in the Big Ten and one win away from a second straight trip to the Rose Bowl.
And yet, Hart continues to get about as much national attention as my intramural team.
The biggest slap in the face came on Tuesday when the semifinalists for the Doak Walker Award — annually awarded to the “nation’s best running back” — were announced, and Hart’s name was nowhere to be found.
Ronnie Brown of Auburn made it with 704 yards rushing and 264 yards receiving and nine touchdowns on the year. So did his teammate Carnell Williams, who has compiled 963 yards rushing. So did Reggie Bush — who is without question one of the nation’s best athletes — but he has had just one game with more than 15 carries and has eclipsed 100 yards on the ground just once in his career.
Meanwhile Hart, who has 1,333 yards rushing and 1,527 total yards along with nine touchdowns — both tops in the Big Ten — is nowhere to be found on the semifinalist list.
But as the rest of the nation continues to ignore the youngster starring in Michigan’s backfield, Hart’s teammates and coaches are well aware where this team would be without him — and it’s not one win away from Pasadena.
“I can’t say to you that I thought he would be leading the Big Ten in rushing this late in the season because I didn’t,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “But I didn’t have any question that he was the kind of kid that was going to be successful.
“This guy, to walk in here, into this conference and carry the football as many times as he has and still be strong at the end of the season, I think that’s the test of a great back.”
Now, as of last week, we couldn’t even have had this conversation. But on Monday, according to CBS Sportsline, the Doak Walker Award board of directors voted to amend their long-standing rules and let true freshmen into consideration.
It’s a rule that came just in time to allow Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson as one of the semifinalists. But not Hart.
Which is a pretty big disappointment. In addition to his stats — which are better than just about any running back in the country — Hart has probably done as much for his team as any player in the country. Without Hart shakin’ and bakin’ Michigan’s opponents for the last two months, the Wolverines could be in a situation similar to Ohio State’s — struggling for six to eight wins and heading to a mediocre bowl game.
“It’s unbelievable the way he’s come out and played the way he has,” fullback Kevin Dudley said. “As young as he is, he just keeps getting better and better every week and is really proving that he is a good back.”
It’s really unfathomable that Hart hasn’t received more attention. The combination of Hart barely playing in Michigan’s first two games and Peterson exploding onto the national scene early has made Hart’s Big Ten domination a non-story. While Peterson has spent the year trying to accumulate Heisman votes, Hart has spent the year fighting to simply be mentioned when people talk about the nation’s best backs.
Maybe on Saturday, when he plays in the best rivalry in college football, Hart will finally receive some national attention.
Or maybe it doesn’t matter — to Hart or to the rest of the Wolverines — as long as the freshman’s efforts on the field helps Michigan to one more win.
“His constant maturity throughout the season (has impressed me),” team captain David Baas said. “Going in there as a freshman, you can see it in his eyes. When he is out there running, he wants to win it just as bad as everybody else.
Now, if only the Doak Walker committee had recognized all the spectacular things Hart’s done this year and given him a chance to win the award he deserves.
Chris Burke also thinks Marlin Jackson should have made the Thorpe Award finalist list. He can be reached at email@example.com