“He’s one of best football players to ever wear that uniform.”

Brian Merlos
Senior running back Mike Hart is just 33 yards and 18 carries away from holding both all-time Michigan rushing records. (Peter Schottenfels/DAILY)

Just think about the praise Michigan coach Lloyd Carr bestowed upon running back Mike Hart after the win over Penn State.

One of the best players ever to wear the Maize and Blue.

Notable Michigan alumni include, but aren’t limited to: Tom Brady (he of the three Super Bowl rings and a possible fourth this year), Charles Woodson and Desmond Howard.

We could go back even further, to the days of Ron Johnson, Bump Elliot and Tom Harmon.

And Carr, who has been a part of Michigan football for 27 years, just put Hart in that group.

You’d be hard-pressed to find somebody on this campus to disagree, given the feats we’ve seen over the past four years.

But nearly nobody expected this.

When Hart arrived on campus as a freshman in 2004, he boasted one of the most impressive highlight tapes ever circulated on the Internet. He had obvious talent. There was some serious criticism, however.

Not big enough, they said.

At barely 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds, he’ll never be able to shake off Big Ten tacklers, not to mention pick up a defensive end or blitzing linebacker in pass protection.

Three years later, Hart might be the best pass blocker on the team.

“There’s a lot of ways to miss a linebacker when he’s coming if he’s 240 pounds and you’re 200,” Carr said. “Sometimes you want to. Mike Hart never wants to. He met (Penn State linebacker Dan Connor) head up and didn’t give an inch.”

He’s also been just big enough to average almost 117 yards per game for his career, the best in Michigan history. He’s had 25 games where he’s topped 100 yards and four where he’s topped 200, both Michigan records. And he’s been strong enough to hold on to the football as well. It’s been 928 consecutive touches since Hart has lost a fumble, and he’s lost just one his entire career.

So size and strength haven’t been too big a problem.

He’s never played against real competition, they said.

Coming out of a Class D high school in notoriously weak New York State, he won’t match up well against Division I competition.

Hart gained 144 yards against Ohio State’s defense last season – a defense that entered the game ranked the best in the country. He cut up this season’s Nittany Lion defense for 153 yards when it ranked as the best rushing defense in the nation.

But the evidence isn’t just in the statistics. Every fan has seen him carry two, sometimes three tacklers an extra several yards for a first down. He never falls backwards at the end of a run, always falling forwards to gain an extra yard. And when a linebacker sneaks through the line and meets Hart in the backfield, 95 percent of college backs go down right away. With Hart, we almost expect him to somehow, some way elude the tackler. He rarely disappoints, and whenever he does go down, he usually comes up yapping.

Apparently, the competition needs to step up a level.

Even if he does eventually become a significant contributor, he won’t be able to do it his freshman year, they said.

He needs to put on weight and become accustomed to taking hits. Maybe sophomore or junior year he can start to see some time.

Hart didn’t want to wait. In the third game of his freshman season, he rushed for 121 yards against San Diego State. Three games later, he tallied 163 yards against Minnesota. Next game, he topped the 200-yard mark, with 237 yards at Illinois. He finished with 206 at Purdue in the next game and ran for 224 against Michigan State the next week.

Getting tired? Hart wasn’t. He recorded 151 yards against Northwestern the following week. Just to sum up, that’s five straight 150-plus yard games and three consecutive 200-yard games as a freshman. Hart had already tied Ron Johnson’s record for career 200-yard games at Michigan. And he still had three years to break it. Not surprisingly, he did so the next season.

He’s just too slow, they said.

He doesn’t have the breakaway speed to take it to the next level, to have the long, backbreaking runs that squash a defense’s spirit.

Eh, maybe. He’s been fast enough for a 64-yard run against Michigan State sophomore year and 54-yard runs against Minnesota last season and Appalachian State this year, to name a few.

Still think he’s not fast enough to be a successful back? At the end of this season, Hart will own almost every all-time Michigan rushing record there is. He already holds the records for 100-plus, 150-plus and 200-plus yard games in a career. Barring injury, he’ll break the all-time yardage (4,472) and all-time carries (924) records Saturday against Eastern Michigan.

All these statistics, all this evidence, and yet it doesn’t even touch on what really makes Hart special. His leadership, his never-say-die attitude, his willingness to sacrifice his body to help his team get that crucial first down or give his quarterback a couple extra seconds to throw is what separates Hart from other backs. His ability to galvanize the team with a victory guarantee after two losses to start the season and his consistent support for and confidence in the guys around him are why, even though Jake Long and Shawn Crable are also captains and Chad Henne is the quarterback, everybody knows who the real leader of this team is.

Unfortunately for Michigan fans, Hart graduates at the end of this season.

He’ll head to the NFL Draft in April, where he’s considered a borderline second- or third-round prospect. Apparently the scouts have questions about whether he’s big enough.

– Bromwich can be reached at dabromwi@umich.edu.

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