It was the second quarter and the Michigan football team was already up 14-0, but junior running back Vincent Smith’s job was possibly on the line.
Well, one of Smith’s many jobs. He was already the third-down back and had claimed one of the top two running back spots early in the season. But this job — the person who throws the half back pass — had the smallest room for error.
Smith had won the job at the end of summer, throwing two successful passes during practice, but offensive coordinator Al Borges has a quick trigger finger when it comes to halfbacks throwing the ball.
“They get fired fast,” Borges said on Tuesday. “They do. Last year at San Diego State I fired Ronnie Hillman after one throw. He told me, ‘Coach, that’s too much pressure, just one pass!’ I go, ‘That’s tough. It’s like Donald Trump, man. You’re out.’ ”
Fortunately for Smith, he floated a 17-yard pass to wide open sophomore receiver Drew Dileo to put Michigan (1-0 Big Ten, 5-0 overall) up three touchdowns.
It was just the latest example of Smith proving his versatility. He tore his ACL in the last game of his freshman year, but recovered in time for the season and didn’t miss a game the following year. Smith rushed for 612 yards, good for second on the team behind junior quarterback Denard Robinson.
When Michigan coach Brady Hoke was hired in the offseason, he said he wanted to bring a more traditional power run game back to the Wolverines. The offense didn’t appear to fit the 5-foot-6, 172-pound Smith anymore.
But Smith said he never thought about leaving. He lost out on the running back job to open the season but found a way to get on the field as the third-down back, mostly because of his blocking ability. Teammates say that Smith picks out the biggest guys to go against in practice and Hoke has repeatedly praised how tough his smallest running back is.
“The small guys, they always got to put a little extra to be noticed so that’s what I do,” Smith said. “I’ve got to do my job and just get noticed in a different type of way.”
After a 118-yard performance against Eastern Michigan, he was noticed for his running ability too. Since then, Smith and redshirt sophomore Fitzgerald Toussaint have been the main rushers in the 12th-ranked Wolverines’ running back by committee attack.
Smith has two rushing touchdowns in the past two games. The rushes, from seven yards and three yards respectively, are putting some of the doubts about whether he can run between the tackles to rest.
And as Michigan’s utility man, his impact hasn’t been limited to the running game. He’s also third on the team in receiving with nearly 100 yards. The screen pass he took 28 yards to the endzone against Minnesota was his second receiving touchdown on the season.
“He does everything you want him to do,” Hoke said last week. “Vince is a guy that you can count on. If he makes a mistake or doesn’t do something as well, it’s not because of lack of effort or lack of toughness. He’s done a good job for us.”
Even before he showed his passing ability, the Wolverines have been counting on him in more ways than they originally thought.