One week into the season, it remains to be seen how well David
Underwood, the Wolverines’ new starting running back, can
fill the Michigan Stadium-sized hole left behind by Heisman
finalist Chris Perry. But this much is certain: He sure knows how
to put his role — whatever it is — with the Wolverines
in a fresh perspective.

Julie Pannuto
After three long years, David Underwood finally has his chance.

Early last year, he compared earning the role of backup running
back to snatching a pear from a tree.

After the Spring Game in April, while talking about the
competition to replace Perry, he managed to one-up himself, saying:
“Every day in Africa a gazelle wakes up and is running
because a lion is after him and needs to eat. And every day a lion
wakes up and is running because if he doesn’t catch a gazelle
he’ll starve.”

Underwood gets his material from running backs coach Fred
Jackson, and it turns out that there’s advice hidden in the
wildlife parable that Underwood has internalized and literally run
with.

“I’ve been telling guys that story for 12
years,” Jackson said. “The moral is that every day is a
test. Every day is a day where you better be getting the job done,
or else somebody will get you.

“David may be the starter right now, but he knows that
it’s far from over and he needs to continue to push
himself.”

So far, Underwood has done everything asked of him and more. He
improved his diet and focused on conditioning more than in the
past. Before he knew it, his weight had dropped from 227 to
215.

“He wasn’t fat before,” Jackson said.
“But now he’s in the best shape of his life.”

Underwood believes the weight loss will help him handle the
extra hits he will have to take, saying: “I’ll have the
endurance to last the entire game. To play four quarters, down
after down, carry after carry, I needed to improve my
stamina.”

Underwood has also improved his attitude and approach. While
Perry was on his way to winning the Doak Walker Award last season,
Underwood’s role quickly disappeared. Underwood had 31
carries for 193 yards in Michigan’s first three games, but
just 11 for 37 over the next eight games.

“David wasn’t in a fighting mood last year,”
Jackson said. “He didn’t put in the time to master all
the little things. He just figured Chris was going to play.

“If he had been closer to Chris mentally, we would have
sent him out there more. But the separation between the two became
so wide we couldn’t afford to take Chris off the
field.”

Jackson says that Underwood has learned from Perry’s
success last year, and knows what he must do to have the best year
possible. If anything, lately Underwood has been too serious.

“When I see guys I try to loosen them up, but it
doesn’t work with David right now,” Jackson said.
“Last year he’d be laughing all the time, but right now
there’s nothing I can say to loosen him up.

“Right now he’s extremely hungry deep down inside.
He knows that he has this great opportunity and that if he
doesn’t get it done, he’s out of chances.”

Up to now, chances for Underwood have been few and far between.
Originally from Madisonville, Texas, Underwood loved Michigan and
committed before even visiting, bewildering Carr at the time. Then,
when he came to Ann Arbor, he quickly became homesick. He was also
dealing with the frustrations of limited playing time, but says he
never thought about transferring and “just got over
it.”

Carr said he even spoke to Underwood’s father about the
subject, and said he was told: “Coach, don’t give up on
him. He’s not going anywhere.”

“What I admire about David is that he has endured the
disappointment of not being able to play as much as he dreamed
about,” Carr said. “I am just happy that he has had a
great fall and is going into this season with a lot of
confidence.”

Carr usually likes to give playing time to young running backs
so that he can see how they handle game situations. While that is
exactly what he did with Perry, that never happened with Underwood,
who has had just 119 carries his first three years. So while Carr
says Underwood “clearly is the No. 1 tailback,”
Underwood has yet to prove how good he can be.

Carr hopes he does not fall into the same trap in the future,
which makes the development of sophomore Jerome Jackson and
freshman Mike Hart important. If Underwood starts the entire
season, next year will be the second consecutive year the
Wolverines will be breaking in a new running back. Carr will likely
make sure the backups get carries this year to prepare for the
future.

In his first start against Miami on Saturday, Underwood
didn’t open his senior season quite as well as he would have
liked. Though he ran for two touchdowns, he gained just 64 yards on
22 carries and showed little elusiveness.

But Underwood knows that he can’t stop running, especially
with a pack of lions trying to chase him down.

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