ANN ARBOR - Michigan tailback David Underwood faces the unenviable task of trying to replace Chris Perry.
But Underwood says he is ready for the challenge.
"Obviously, you're going to feel some pressure the first time out because Chris Perry did some unbelievable things last year," Underwood said yesterday. "But I'm not trying to be Chris Perry. I just want to be David Underwood.
"I'm just going to go out and play hard and do whatever I can to help my team."
Underwood, a 6-foot, 215-pound senior from Madisonville, Texas, will make his first start Saturday when the eighth-ranked Wolverines open their season at home against Miami (Ohio).
He has 119 career carries for 483 yards and four touchdowns. Perry finished fourth in the Heisman voting last year and won the Doak Walker Award as college football's top running back after gaining 1,589 yards and scoring 17 touchdowns. He was a No. 1 draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Underwood has appeared in 21 games the last three years, including 11 last season, when he gained 270 yards and scored twice as Perry's backup.
He beat out sophomores Jerome Jackson and Pierre Rembert and highly touted freshman Mike Hart for the starting job. However, all four are expected to see playing time as part of the tailback rotation, although Jackson is questionable for the opener due to an injury.
"I think David Underwood has distinguished himself; he is clearly the No. 1 tailback," coach Lloyd Carr said. "He's done it through being in the best condition of his life.
"I think he's had an outstanding fall practice. I think his performance has been outstanding.
"He's taking care of the football. He's run aggressively. I think he's much more comfortable now. I think he's confident."
Underwood, who has averaged 4.1 yards per carry at UM, knows he will be under a lot of pressure to produce on the field.
"I feel like this is Tailback U," he said. "We've had great tailbacks in Anthony Thomas, Tyrone Wheatley, Chris Perry, Tim Biakabutuka, guys like them. I grew up watching those guys and I just felt like I wanted to be just like them or as good as them.
"I'm ready to carry the load. I've been wanting to do this since coming out of high school. It was my childhood dream to start at Michigan."
Guard David Baas, a two-time All-Big Ten first-team pick, isn't worried about Underwood's lack of experience.
"He is big, fast and strong," Baas said. "He had a great off-season. He got himself prepared to help us win. And I love to see that in a player."
Running backs coach Fred Jackson said Underwood has only himself to blame for not playing more last season. While Perry served as the workhorse, Underwood hung out on the sideline and lost his focus.
"David thought Chris was going to play," Jackson said. "He wasn't in that fighting mood. He thought, 'OK, Chris is going to play.' If I thought David was close to Chris mentally, you would have seen him out there more.
"Chris became a guy, to me, that if you would have taken him off the field, you would have lost something because of all the small things he does.
''That's what made the separation, and why I didn't play Dave more."
Underwood decided to whip himself into shape in the off-season.
He has dropped a dozen pounds, mainly by giving up fast food, and is finally earning rave reviews from Jackson.
"David is a much, much improved football player today," he said. "He took a challenge, and it's been really exciting to see him. He's gotten really good at running and catching the football. His speed, you can see it.
"I always used to tell you guys he could run fast, and he can run fast. He's not a 4.6 guy, he's not a 4.55 guy. He can run.
"Everybody used to say
Anthony [Thomas] couldn't run, but nobody could catch him
either. Underwood is like that.
''He can break out in the secondary and they'll say, 'He doesn't look like he's running,' but you won't find anybody catching him."
QUICK HITS: Willis Barringer, from Scott High School, is listed No. 3 on the depth chart at free safety, behind Ryan Mundy and Brandent Englemon. Barringer started five games last year. ... Carr plans to use Steve Breaston and Marlin Jackson on kickoff returns. ... The Wolverines are 87-13-2 in home openers, and have won 10 in a row. They are 3-0 against Miami and hold a 17-0 edge against Mid-American Conference schools.
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