Vincent Smith makes case to start

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan spent all preseason searching for a lead running back. It took three games, but the Wolverines finally might have found one.

Vincent Smith isn't the tallest running back Michigan has. He isn't the fastest. He might not even be the toughest or most elusive.

The refrain might even be if he were a couple inches taller ... a tiny bit faster ... it wouldn't be a question Smith would be Michigan's starting, featured back.

Here is what Smith is. He is the Wolverines' strongest runner. He is Michigan's most complete back, and he is the best option for a full-time starter.

After Michigan's 31-3 win over Eastern Michigan on Saturday, coach Brady Hoke wouldn't commit to Smith becoming Michigan's featured back. But he didn't dismiss the premise, either.

"Well, he ran the ball pretty well today, but until you analyze it, look at it and really evaluate it, I would hate to say that," Hoke said.

In gaining 118 yards Saturday -- the Wolverines' first non-Denard Robinson 100-yard rusher against an FBS school since Brandon Minor gained 154 yards against Purdue on Nov. 7, 2009 -- Smith showed a little bit of everything.

This after a game in which Michigan ran only eight times with its running backs, gaining 10 yards. Those 118 yards Saturday? Nine carries.

The first two games of Michigan's season, Smith had three combined carries.

"Whatever the team needs," Smith said. "However many carries I need for my team to win, that's how many carries I can handle."

Yes, the talent level drops from Notre Dame to Eastern Michigan, but vision is vision. Finding holes and reading defenses take the same skill-set no matter the opponent. And it is tough to underestimate that Smith, unlike other backs, doesn't lose yards.

In three seasons, Smith has gained 1,029 yards. He has lost 18 yards. Total. In three years.

He has touched the ball 196 times, gained 1,009 net yards and averages 5.1 yards a carry.

Last year's top rushers in the NCAA were Oregon's LaMichael James and Connecticut's Jordan Todman. James averaged 5.89 yards a carry and Todman 5.07. While those two backs were among the five best in college football last year, Smith's numbers hold pace.

It goes beyond numbers to what he does on the field.

Smith displayed his elusiveness and agility Saturday, faking out two EMU defenders and cutting back to the middle of the field for a 38-yard gain in the second quarter. He has displayed his pass-blocking ability throughout the season, consistently protecting Robinson when he's in the game.

He showed his pass-catching ability against Notre Dame a week ago, grabbing a screen pass and going 21 yards for Michigan's first go-ahead touchdown in a 35-31 win over the Irish. On that play, he took advantage of a block and also bent his body around the edge.

Much like Robinson, the biggest concern with Smith is how his body might hold up. He's a sturdily built 5-foot-6, 172 pounds, but he's still smaller than a typical featured back.

He isn't concerned. Smith said he can handle whatever Michigan would like him to.

"It's all about the team," Smith said. "Whenever we needed a jump or a running back to step up with Denard or if the game is not going well, it's whatever for the team."

Right now the best thing for Michigan's non-Robinson running game might be for Smith to touch the ball more often.

Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at michaelrothsteinespn@gmail.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.