CARLOS OSORIO / AP Enlarge
ANN ARBOR - Michigan running back Mike Hart broke down the door for young tailbacks with his unprecedented, record-setting freshman season last year.
Now Hart's gate-crashing appears to have opened the door for two other talented youngsters to join him in the backfield this fall.
Hart, the 2004 Big Ten freshman of the year, has welcomed incoming freshman Kevin Grady and fellow sophomore Max Martin with open arms. The trio of gifted young tailbacks spoke in glowing terms of each other at Michigan's media day yesterday at Schembechler Hall.
Hart set a Michigan freshman rushing record when he ran for 1,455 yards, the second-highest total by a rookie back in conference history. He led the Big Ten with 1,214 yards on 228 carries (151.8 per game) in conference contests.
But the native of Syracuse, N.Y., who holds the national high school record for career touchdowns (204), said he does not expect to carry the ball as much this season.
"It'll be a lot better because I'll be a lot fresher this year," Hart said. "Those guys will come in and provide a lot of help. In short-yardage situations, I won't have to take the beatings I took last year."
Grady, who played at East Grand Rapids High School in Ada, Mich., set state prep records for career touchdowns (151) and yards (8,431). He became the first early enrollee in school history when he joined the Wolverines last December for practices leading up to the Rose Bowl.
"Mike opened the door for young guys to come in and play and get the job done," Grady said. "That gives me confidence that young guys can come in here and contribute."
Martin also got a chance to play as a freshman last year, rushing for 132 yards. Martin, who is from Madison, Ala., brings much more height to the tailback position. Martin is listed at 6-foot-1, 215 pounds. Hart is small and shifty at 5-9, 192 pounds. Grady also is 5-9, but weighs 228 pounds.
"We all work hard and push each other to be better," Martin said. "We definitely have a chance to be special. The running backs are a family. We help each other any way we can."
Coach Lloyd Carr said he likes the depth that is developing at the running back position. But he said Grady and Martin lack any significant experience and the early part of the schedule will be crucial to their progress.
"The great thing about that position is that there is wonderful competition there," Carr said. "We have a guy there that has proven he is an outstanding player and yet it is apparent to me that we are going to have better depth at that position than we've had in a long time.
"They appear to have everything you need to be successful and that makes us a better football team. There may be a case where we use them together. But the main thing is to have at least one back [back there] that can protect the football and move the chains."
Hart clearly displayed the ability to do both last year. He led the Big Ten in rushing average (121.2 per game) and became the third freshman to lead the league in rushing. But the stat that pops out most to the coaching staff is Hart's one fumble in 282 attempts.
"For a true freshman to have that kind of statistic is mind-boggling," Carr said. "To me that is the most impressive single, individual stat from last year's team. To carry the ball that many times - and in some of those games he carried it over 30 times - and fumble one time, that is an amazing stat."
Hart said ball security is something the coaching staff emphasized from day one.
"It's the things we do in practice," he said. "We hold the ball and guys try to strip it all the time. The running backs are always trying to strip each other. That helps a lot during the game."
Michigan offensive coordinator Terry Malone said putting the ball on the ground has been the end of playing time for a lot of running backs.
"That is the first thing we'll talk about when we meet as an offense [today] - protect the football," Malone said. "I think it is really amazing. Everyone told us that eventually he'll hit the wall and have a three-fumble game. But that never happened, and I think that says an awful lot."
Grady said Hart's willingness to show him the ropes also said a lot to him.
"All of them have been real helpful. They'll help you with anything you need," Grady said. "But they get on me from time to time. I'm the young guy so they get on you a little bit. But we have fun. I wouldn't choose any other group of guys to be around."
Hart said whoever is running the ball should have success because of Michigan's experienced offensive line, which returns four starters.
"I'm hoping to have a great year," he said. "Everyone is competing. When new guys come in, you definitely want to step up your game. That is what you come to Michigan for. You want to be the best."
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