ANN ARBOR - Mike Hart's game was every bit as big as his kilowatt smile in 2004.
The Michigan Mighty Mite was the Big Ten's freshman of the year. He led the conference in rushing, averaging 121.2 yards per game, and finished with 1,455 overall, ranking him 10th nationally.
Hart, who wears the same No. 20 as the guy he grew up idolizing, Detroit Lions Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders, was being touted as a Heisman hopeful last season.
But that was before hamstring and ankle injuries tripped Hart up - he missed four games and played sparingly in two others - and sent the Wolverines' season into a freefall.
Hart finished with just 662 yards rushing and Michigan ended up 7-5 and out of the national polls for the first time in 21 years.
Nearly one-third of Hart's yards - 218 to be exact - came in a thrilling overtime win against rival Michigan State on Oct 1.
That was the highlight of Hart's injury-marred sophomore season.
The second half of the year, he spent nearly as much time in the whirlpool as he did cheerleading from the sideline.
Hart, generously listed as 5-foot-9 and 198 pounds, has become the forgotten man entering his junior season.
His name is no longer bandied about nationally in the same breath as Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson or California's Marshawn Lynch.
And he will have plenty of competition for the Big Ten's best back from Northwestern's Tyrell Sutton, Iowa's Albert Young, Ohio State's Antonio
Pittman, Penn State's Tony Hunt and Michigan State's Javon Ringer.
Hart is anxious to prove that he's not just a one-year wonder.
"I'm really looking forward to this season and coming out and staying healthy," he said yesterday at Michigan's annual media day.
"It seems like a lot of people have forgotten about me because I didn't do anything very much last year.
"That's motivation for me, but it's OK. It gives me something to work toward. I need to come out right away and prove that I am the same back I was two years ago as a freshman."
Hart, who set national records for career touchdowns (204) and 100-yard games (47) at Onondaga Central High School in Syracuse, N.Y., insists he is in the best shape of his life. His upper body is bigger than it was in 2004 and he has increased his repetitions in the 225-pound bench press from 16 to 24.
Barring injuries, coach Lloyd Carr doesn't see any reason why Hart won't rebound in a big way when the Wolverines start practicing today.
Carr loves Hart's jitterbug running style, his soft hands and his blocking skills.
"Hart is a great football player, one of the best I've coached," Carr said. "There's no question he brings a spark to our team on both sides of the ball."
Four of Michigan's five losses last season were decided in the final minutes. And Hart wasn't able to stop the slide.
"I was angry the whole year," he said. "It was a very frustrating season, but I learned a lot. Every day in the offseason, I reminded myself of my season and the team's season. I kept saying '662 yards and 7-5,' over and over. It was embarrassing."
If Hart is healthy, look for both he and Michigan to return to the national spotlight.42.28188 -83.74848