ANN ARBOR - Michigan's David Baas admits it took him a few starts to get comfortable with his new position.
Baas, a fifth-year senior captain and longtime left guard, had never played center until asked to do so by coach Lloyd Carr a month ago.
Michigan was struggling to run the ball heading into its Big Ten opener and Carr figured moving Baas would give his team the best chance to be a dominant running team again.
It turns out Carr was right.
"David Baas has made all the difference in the world since he moved to center," freshman tailback Mike Hart said yesterday. "He has been opening up some huge holes for us to run through the last few weeks."
Baas (6-5, 323 pounds) wasn't thrilled with the idea of playing center when Carr first approached him - he had made 30 consecutive starts at left guard, was a two-time All-Big Ten first-team selection and a second-team All-American last season - but he knew it was best move for the team.
"I did what I had to do," Baas said. "I had a chance to be a three-time All-Big Ten pick and an All-American at guard, but I
couldn't worry about that. I had to make a move, a minor one at that, to help my team win, and that's what I did."
Baas will make his fifth consecutive start at center on Saturday when No. 13 Michigan plays at No. 12 Purdue. The defending Big Ten champion Wolverines are 4-0 and tied for first place with Wisconsin.
Once again, Baas will play a key role in the outcome.
"David Baas is an incredible offensive lineman," tight end Tyler Ecker said. "He could play anywhere - guard, center or tackle - and be great. He's the powerhouse of our offensive line."
Hart entered the starting lineup a week after Baas moved to center, and he has put together games of 79 yards rushing against Indiana, 160 yards against Minnesota and 234 yards against Illinois.
And he has accounted for 473 of Michigan's 577 yards during that three-game stretch on 95 carries.
"I don't think there's any question that David Baas moving to center has really helped our line," Carr said.
The Wolverines have used four different line combinations in the first seven games, and only left tackle Adam Stenavich and right guard Matt Lentz have started all of them at the same position.
Baas, a preseason All-American as well as a candidate for the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award, started the first three games at left guard before replacing Mark Bihl at center.
"I'm starting to enjoy playing center," said Baas, who is looking to become the 11th player in school history to earn All-Big Ten honors at least three times in his career. "The move really hasn't been that difficult. The same aspect of punishing people and being physical, that's still there.
"There's just a few things that are different from playing guard, like making the offensive line calls and making sure the ball is not on the ground when I snap it."
Hart, a freshman, is the second-leading rusher in Big Ten play behind Wisconsin's Anthony Davis, averaging 143.0 yards in four games. Hart ranks 20th nationally in rushing with 104.29 yards per game.
He and another freshman, Max Martin (12-67), combined for 301 yards rushing and one touchdown each on Saturday as Michigan rallied from a 17-10 halftime deficit to beat Illinois 30-19. Hart had 23 of his career-high 40 carries in the second half.
"Mike Hart is an incredible runner, especially for a freshman," Baas said. "The way he bounces off tackles and keeps running is amazing."
Baas isn't too shabby, either.
Nose tackle Gabe Watson goes head-to-head against him every day in practice, and usually ends up with a headache.
"David Baas is the best player I've ever faced," Watson said. "He's a special player. He plays hard every play, even if it's in practice. And if you not ready or not paying attention, he'll knock your head off."
Baas' tough-guy image has taken a bit of a hit off the field because of his reputation as a singer.
He sang Tim McGraw's "Please Remember Me" at his sister's wedding and the national anthem during a Rose Bowl practice last season and again at Michigan's spring game. In his spare time, Baas dabbles with a wide range of tastes, from Josh Groban's songs to R&B hits.
"It's just fun stuff," he said. "It's not going to be my career."
Baas' career path likely will take him to the NFL.
"As far as his future goes, David Baas has already proven to anybody who would be interested in him that he's a great guard," Carr said. "Now he has a chance to prove that he can be a great center, and that only helps him.
"I think it's safe to say he's had a great career here."
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Michigan's David Baas admits it took him a few starts to get comfortable with his new position. It's understandable. Baas, a fifth-year senior captain and longtime left guard, had never played center until asked to do so by coach Lloyd Carr a month ago.