It isn’t hard to spot Mike Hart. Despite his diminutive 5-foot-9, 195-pound frame, the native New Yorker has made quite a name for himself rushing the football in Ann Arbor.
As U-M’s top running back in 2004, Hart carried the ball for just shy of 1,500 yards and in the process was named first team All-Big 10 as a freshman. That outstanding early success caused expectations to swell for the talented back. Many predicted that 2005 would be the year that he exploded onto the national scene and began his ascent into the Michigan record books. Things, however, did not go according to plan. Injuries kept the Wolverines starter off the field for critical stretches of the season.
After opening the new season with a strong outing against the Northern Illinois Huskies, Hart tweaked a hamstring in the week leading up to the all-important battle with rival Notre Dame. As a result, he only saw action on a handful of plays in a hard fought 17-10 loss to the Fighting Irish in Ann Arbor. Hart would miss the next two games as he struggled to get back to full strength. The offense missed his presence and suffered through major bouts of inconsistency. The Maize and Blue's second loss, a last second defeat at the hands of the Wisconsin Badgers, served to increase the urgency of his return to the lineup. Hart answered the call the very next week on the road against Michigan State in rousing fashion. Though still obviously gimpy, he rushed for an astounding 218 yards against to spark the victory over Wolverines instate rival. He followed that performance up with back to back 100-yard efforts before again being sidelined by injury.
“It took me a couple games to get back to 100%, and then the next week I messed up my ankle,” said Hart regarding his injury problems in 2005. “I was never 100% after that. It was just tough to not be able to go out there and give it 100%. It’s hard because you can’t do the things that you’re able to.”
With Hart again hobbled, and now the offensive line being decimated by injury as well, the offense continued to struggle. The Wolverines lost the Little Brown Jug to Minnesota for the first time in over 15 years. With players rotating in and out of the offense, the Wolverines couldn’t seem to gel.
“I’d say it was pretty hard," recalled Hart. "When you have new linemen in there every week it’s hard. When it’s a new guy in the line up we don’t know if they’re going to make the block we need and we have to adjust to what lanes will open up. In the spring we’ve been building depth so we don’t have that problem this year. We’re definitely not where we need to be, but we’ve been working on that this spring. And that’s not just for the running backs. It’s hard when you have three different backs in there to maybe start this week. It’s like that at any position. If we have different lineman every week, I may not show it, but I’m not comfortable running to that side of the line.”
As a result of all the injuries, Michigan suffered through a five loss season for the first time in 21 years. But the Wolverines learned from it. Hart and his teammates now know recognize their mistakes and are determined not to repeat them. Hart feels that one of his mistakes may have been trying to come back too soon.
“I just needed to rest it,” said Hart. “During the season I kept pushing it to try and get back onto the field. It took until about a week and a half into conditioning that I noticed I was cutting and back to doing normal things with no pain. In the month off I just let it heal and now I’m ready to go.”
How far Mike Hart can “go” will be important for the Wolverines in 2006. With the loss of sure-handed wide out Jason Avant, Hart will be relied upon to keep the Wolverines out of third-and-long situations this season as the offense adjusts to the new coaching style of offensive coordinator Mike DeBord. Aware of this, Hart has done his best to get himself into prime shape for the upcoming season.
“I would say I’ve been treating my body better," he said. "I’m going to take care of my body even when I’m not hurt. I’m going to try preventive things so that I can be ready for whatever happens. And I rehabbed the hamstring and they should be stronger now. I also got a lot stronger. I’m about the same weight, but I look a lot better with a shirt off (laughs). I got bigger and stronger up top.”
Whether stronger or not, one question sure to be lingering in the minds of Michigan faithful across the nation is whether or not the slew of injuries to Hart will continue to plague him the rest of his career. While that remains to be seen, Hart dismissed the notion that he might be injury prone and explained the occurrences last year as freak accidents.
“It wasn’t injuries from getting hit or anything,” he said. “I tweaked a hamstring in practice early in the week at practice so I wasn’t 100% going into the game. With my ankle injury, I just got caught in the ground the wrong way. Ankle injuries happen to everybody no matter how big you are. It was just a matter of bad luck that I got hit by both at the same time. But I’m still not going to take a backseat to anyone. When I practice, I’m still going to be giving it 100%. I’m going to go out there to try and solidify my spot as the starter. I know that with my injuries last year I need to come out hungry, like when I was a freshman. I need to prove to the coaches, and to myself, that I should be starting out there on Saturday’s.”
If Hart and the rest of the Michigan running backs can remain healthy, Michigan fans may be looking at the Maize and Blue’s best combination of thunder and lightening in years.
Kevin Grady, the sophomore back from East Grand Rapids, returns for his second season in Ann Arbor. The highly touted prospect has slimmed down in the offseason in an effort to improve his running style.
“It just looks to me like he just runs stronger now," Hart said regarding Grady. "He’s lost some weight. He was running slower last year, so he wasn’t getting as much power in his running. He’s lighter now and it makes him a much more downhill runner. He’s tough to bring down.”
Along with Hart and Grady, Michigan is welcoming Carlos Brown, an early enrollee
from the state of Georgia, into the fray. Known for his speed, Brown brings
the breakaway threat to the Michigan backfield that it has been lacking for
“It’s important to keep the defense on its toes,” said Hart. “We can do that with Carlos. He’s the big speed back. Grady is the big back. I’m somewhere in between I think. It’s going to be a lot harder for defenses to prepare for us. Everyone is going to have to be aware of who we have on the field at all times. We each bring something different to the offense.”
For more on Hart and the UM offense check out the next issue
of GoBlueWolverine The Magazine.