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Published: Friday, 6/13/2008

Michigan offense focuses on life without Hart

BY JOE VARDON
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Considering how much Mike Hart accomplished during his tenure in Michigan's backfield, perhaps it's best the Wolverines have at least three players on hand to replace him in 2008.

Yes, Brandon Minor, Kevin Grady, and Carlos Brown have plenty to live up to.

"If you look at the overall package - talent, ability, toughness, game experience - it won't be easy to replace him," UM running backs coach Fred Jackson said in a recent telephone interview.

Hart, a sixth-round draft choice of the Indianapolis Colts, is the Wolverines' all-time leading rusher with 5,040 yards. His 41 rushing touchdowns are the third-most in school history, and he once went 1,005 carries without a fumble.

With those numbers in mind, perhaps the Wolverines and first-year coach Rich Rodriguez can't replace Hart. Good for them that they don't really have to.

Under Rodriguez's spread-option offense, UM won't need a single standout back to pound it between the tackles over and over again as in years past. Jackson said the Wolverines' new offensive scheme will allow them to play two or even three backs at the same time, so Minor, Grady, and Brown could all have roles.

"If all three of these guys are going to replace [Hart], it's probably not going to show in their [individual] numbers," said Jackson, who's entering his 17th season at UM. "With this offense, we're all kind of heading into untested waters. But I don't think you can win a championship at any level without being able to run the ball."

Minor, a junior, is UM's top returning rusher statistically with 385 yards and a touchdown on 90 carries last year. He had 30 yards and two scores on five carries (unofficially) in the Wolverines' intrasquad scrimmage in April.

Jackson said Minor had a slightly better spring than Grady, who missed all of last season with a torn knee ligament.

Rodriguez was looking forward to seeing what Brown could do this spring, and we're not just talking about at running back, but a freak accident in the weight room robbed the new coach of that chance.

Brown, a junior who had 382 yards and four touchdowns last season, broke his left ring finger in that accident and missed all of spring practice.

"I don't want to go into detail on that," Brown said. "It was just a freak thing. I wanted to make the best out of the situation, so since I couldn't practice, I tried to learn everything I could about the offense."

Brown said he watched lots of film, of both UM practice and old West Virginia games, where Rodriguez was before taking over the Wolverines.

In a cast for about six weeks, Brown said he is now able to participate in UM's voluntary offseason conditioning program, run by new strength and conditioning coach Mike Barwis.

That's good news for UM's running game.

"Once he's past the linebackers, if you don't have an angle on him he's going to run for a touchdown," Jackson said.

Brown, a former high school quarterback, was even whispered this spring to be a consideration for Rodriguez to play under center in certain situations this fall.

Brown said he'd "like to do it if coach Rod wants me to do it," but he sees himself as a running back.

If Brown is "elsewhere" in UM's offense at times this year and a third running back is needed, Avery Horn had an impressive spring scrimmage with 59 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries against the second defense.

While no one is expecting any of the Wolverines' rushers to be exactly like Hart, Jackson wants all of his backs to do at least one thing like the school's career rushing leader - protect the ball.

"Mike Hart left somewhat of a legacy in hanging onto the football," Jackson said. "I want to make sure all our guys are tough enough to stand up to that kind of legacy."

Contact Joe Vardon at:

jvardon@theblade.com

or 419-410-5055.



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