ANN ARBOR, Mich. — When asked why it simply seemed to be his day for carrying the football, De’Veon Smith appeared bewildered.
“Honestly, I don’t know the answer to that question,” Smith said Saturday, after Michigan’s 59-3 win against Maryland. “Maybe it was Coach Wheat’s calling, maybe it was Coach Harbaugh’s? I don’t know. I guess I was lucky this week. But I’m happy I got in.”
Michigan’s senior running back may have only been modest in assessing his play, crediting the play-calling by running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley and head coach Jim Harbaugh. Smith led all backs with 114 yards on 19 carries and scored 3 touchdowns in the blowout win at Michigan Stadium.
But in a season in which Michigan wields four running backs, all with assorted strengths, it could have been easy for Smith to become a forgotten player of sorts — a college back whose shelf life may have expired. Especially with the emergence of youngsters Chris Evans and Karan Higdon for the Wolverines (9-0, 6-0 Big Ten).
With four players primarily getting touches (Smith, Evans, Higdon and Ty Isaac), Michigan is 13th in the nation in total rushing yards (2,265 yards), and leads the nation with 36 rushing touchdowns. Michigan’s rushing schemes, however, are based on patience and giving players the right opportunity and the right situation. It’s akin to putting puzzle pieces together — fitting the right edges, grooves and curves to create a bigger picture.
Smith became a vital piece Saturday against Maryland.
Michigan has had at least one 100-yard running back in three of its past four games, but Saturday was Smith’s second 100-plus yard game of the season; he led Michigan with 107 yards in a 49-10 win Sept. 24 against Penn State.
Game-by-game rushing statistics for De’Veon Smith:
|at Michigan State||11||38||2|
Smith wasn’t necessarily an enigma at Michigan in his first three seasons — he led Michigan in rushing in 2014 (519 yards on 108 carries) and 2015 (753 yards on 180 carries) — but he wasn’t producing the gaudy numbers that previous backs at Michigan had posted.
Maybe that came from sheer hesitation, trying to find his place in the offense. Or maybe it came from playing behind a less-than-stellar offensive line his first two years at Michigan, one that surrendered 61 sacks and labored to create openings for the backs.
While some would think that Smith is buried on the depth chart — Michigan has four running backs that have shown their wares at different points in the season — Smith’s game fit best against at Terrapins rush defense that entered Saturday 12th in the Big Ten in rushing yards allowed (220.1 per game).
Smith, at his essence, is simply known for running hard with the ball.
“He looked great,” Harbaugh said of Smith’s play against Maryland. “He really did. He was one of the big factors in our team’s success.”
Smith wasn’t going to let the Terrapins knock him down. He has a place in Michigan’s backfield, after all.
“The yards he got after contact were real eye-opening, and he’s so tough to get down,” Harbaugh said. “Three touchdowns, but extending drives and contributing. We had a lot of first downs today, and he contributed to that in a big way.”