Known as a “bulldog” recruiter, Lloyd Carr has a reputation of being one of the most tenacious talent-seekers in the nation. He’ll milk a cow. He’ll sit on the porch with grandma and sip lemonade. He once took an eight-hour flight to Hawaii to woo a recruit – a recruit who later said “Aloha” (as in good-bye) to Michigan.

J. Brady McCollough
J. Brady McCollough

Carr and his staff have consistently reeled in national top-10 classes, including three top-five classes in the six years after Michigan’s 1997 national championship run.

With such success on the recruiting trail, why has it been since the days of Anthony Thomas that Michigan boasted a game-breaking tailback?

Next year’s backfield features only one proven ball carrier in Chris Perry, who rushed for more than 1,100 yards and 14 touchdowns. Perry will be a solid runner for Michigan next year – if he stays out of Pizza House – but who will back him up?

David Underwood was overshadowed by blue-chipper Kelly Baraka in the 2001 class, but even with Baraka gone, Underwood has been unable to become a force. The coaching staff went with departing fullback B.J. Askew as Perry’s backup for most of last year. Tim Bracken was good enough to be the starter in 2001, but a knee injury ended his season. He hasn’t been the same since. This duo was given a chance to earn playing time behind Perry last season, but they were ineffective in spot duty, and the coaches lost confidence in them.

Fullback Sean Sanderson seems to have hit a wall after showing loads of promise early in the season. Carr has voiced displeasure with the mammoth 290-pounder, saying yesterday, “I don’t know where he is.”

This lack of proven talent in the backfield certainly didn’t happen because Carr has decided to switch to a high-flying aerial attack. Carr still wants to pound the football like there’s no tomorrow. But the problem is there isn’t anyone there to pound it, and the reason lies in the crapshoot world of recruiting.

You can call it misuse of God-given talent. You can call it bad judgment of character. Or, you can take accountability out of the question and write it off as bad luck. Whatever. The bottom line is that Michigan’s inability to keep blue-chip runners in Ann Arbor for the past five years has set the program back from where it could be entering 2003.

Oh, what could have been. This has been the theme of Michigan recruiting since 1997, and no one illustrates this more than Justin Fargas, the human locomotive who highlighted Michigan’s 1998 class as one of the nation’s top backs.

Fargas battled injuries to his right leg for the majority of his first two seasons at Michigan and struggled through his redshirt sophomore season in 2000. Doctors predicted he would never be the same running back. Carr and his coaching staff decided to move Fargas to safety. Yes, safety, back there with headhunters Cato June and Charles Drake. He would add some much-needed depth to the secondary. It was an interesting move.

Fargas would have none of it. He transferred back home to Southern California to play for new coach Pete Carroll. The decision left Fargas one year with the Trojans to show the world his worth.

We watched in awe as Fargas resurrected his career, making a statement in two 100-plus-yard, nationally-televised games against Notre Dame and Iowa.

I couldn’t help but wonder if Fargas sent Carr the game balls after dismantling two teams that were able to shut down the Michigan running attack. Perry rushed for 78 yards against Notre Dame, including a costly fourth-quarter fumble, and 14 yards against Iowa at the Big House. Oh, what could have been.

And then there’s Baraka, the most recent highly-touted tailback dropout from the maize and blue camp. Baraka, a Portage native, was the prize of Michigan’s 2001 class. In the summer before his freshman season, Baraka was arrested twice for possession of marijuana. Carr decided to force Baraka to sit out his freshman season, but allowed him to stay on scholarship and retain four years of eligibility. But Baraka blew it. He was dismissed from the team in April 2002.

If you’re keeping score at home or in lecture, that’s two years, two top-ranked running backs out of the picture. Oh, what could have been.

So here we are, it’s signing day 2003, and when I glance over Michigan’s list of commitments, there are two running backs, Jerome Jackson and Anton Campbell – both of whom Carr mentioned might play defense. Maybe he has given up on blue-chip running back recruits like Fargas and Baraka all together.

With the Michigan backfield situation as it is, how are there not at least three or four running back recruits in this class? Especially when there are positions on this team that are stockpiled with talent. Wide receiver should be set for years. There are two blue-chip quarterbacks waiting for John Navarre to graduate. The offensive line is young and deep.

The only thing holding this offense back is a stable of dependable running backs.

But it might not be so bad. The Wolverines brought in six (SIX!) talented defensive backs in this class. All Carr has to do to fix his problems in the offensive backfield is take a page out of the Justin Fargas book and turn it upside down.

Move them to running back. It’s just that simple.

J. Brady McCollough can be reached at bradymcc@umich.edu.

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