Ranking Michigan’s Running Backs

Ranking Michigan’s Running Backs

August 17, 2020

Tim Biakabutuka

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I went through the process of ranking Michigan’s quarterbacks (LINK), which created a lot of debate. This has been in the works for a long time, but here’s a look at my ranking of running backs, going back to the beginning of the Lloyd Carr era.

To be considered for this list, a running back must have started at least ten games in a Michigan uniform*, which roughly equals one full season’s worth of starts with some wiggle room for being banged up a little bit.

*There are two exceptions to this for different reasons, which you’ll see in the post.

Hit the jump.

1. Tshimanga Biakabutuka
Career starts: 13 from 1992-1995
Career statistics: 472 carries for 2,810 yards (6.0 YPC) and 24 TDs; 13 catches for 123 yards (9.7 YPC)
Best game: Biakabutuka set the single-game rushing record for Michigan in 1995 when he ran 37 times for 313 yards (8.5 YPC) and 1 TD in a 31-23 win over the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Why the ranking? Biakabutuka was the best back I’ve seen at Michigan since Tyrone Wheatley (but Wheatley wasn’t around during the Carr era). He had the quickest feet of anyone despite being a good-sized back (6’0″, 215 lbs.), and his skill set involved speed, agility, vision, and some power. He was drafted the highest (#8 overall to the Panthers in 1996), but injuries prevented him from reaching his full potential.

2. Anthony Thomas
Career starts: 26 from 1997-2000
Career statistics: 924 carries for 4,472 yards (4.8 YPC) and 55 TDs; 88 catches for 810 yards (9.2 YPC) and 1 TD
Best game: Against Illinois in 2000, Thomas ran 35 times for 228 yards (6.5 YPC) and 2 TDs.
Why the ranking? This is a tough call for me between Thomas and the #3 guy on the list, but ultimately, I give the nod to Thomas because he had a little more breakaway speed. Known as “The A Train,” Thomas was the #1 running back in the country coming out of high school. While he never put up awe-inspiring numbers at Michigan, he was consistently good and ran away from people more than one would expect for a guy who was 6’2″ and 221 lbs.

3. Mike Hart
Career starts: 39 from 2004-2007
Career statistics: 1015 carries for 5,040 yards (5.0 YPC) and 41 TDs; 67 catches for 566 yards (8.4 YPC) and 2 TDs
Best game: As a freshman against Illinois, the diminutive tailback amassed 40 carries on his way to 234 yards (5.8 YPC) and 1 touchdown.
Why the ranking? Michigan’s all-time leading rusher, Hart was a grinder who had great vision and stop-and-start ability. He was also very tough and a solid pass blocker. The big knock on him was that he lacked top-end speed, and that was true. His career-long run was 64 yards against Michigan State, and he had just five 40+ yard runs in his career despite having more attempts than anyone in Michigan history. (By comparison, Thomas had eight such runs and a career long of 80.)

4. Chris Perry
Career starts: 28 from 2000-2003
Career statistics: 811 carries for 3,696 yards (4.6 YPC) and 39 TDs; 66 catches for 572 yards (8.7 YPC) and 2 TDs
Best game: Perry’s 51-carry, 219-yard game in 2003 against Michigan State is his signature game, but he actually put up better numbers against Central Michigan in the season opener with 232 yards and 2 touchdowns on 10.5 yards per carry.
Why the ranking? Perry was a highly touted back who took a while to get going at Michigan. He had trouble overtaking B.J. Askew (see below), a guy who spent half his career playing fullback. Perry went out with a bang, though, when he ran for 1,674 yards and 18 touchdowns as a senior. He was picked in the 1st round (#26 overall) by the Bengals in 2004, though he got hit by the injury bug and never did much in the NFL.

5. Denard Robinson
Career starts: 37 (35 at QB, 2 at RB) from 2009-2012
Career statistics: 723 carries for 4,495 yards (6.2 YPC) and 42 TD; 3 catches for 31 yards
Best game: Robinson’s best rushing performance was when he ran 28 times for 258 yards (9.2 YPC) and 2 touchdowns against Notre Dame in 2010. But his best game at running back came against the Ohio State Buckeyes, when he ran 10 times for 122 yards (12.2 YPC) and 1 touchdown.
Why the ranking? I’m cheating here with Denard Robinson a little bit, who was a starting quarterback until an elbow injury caused him to miss some time. When he came back unable to throw, Brady Hoke and his staff moved Robinson to running back for a couple games to finish out his career. (That foreshadowed his move to running back for his NFL career, too.) Robinson may have even been in the top two or three of this list if he played his entire career at running back. His speed and acceleration were top-notch, but I’m not sure he could have handled the pounding of running the ball repeatedly without the “extra blocker” that’s afforded a quarterback.

6. Brandon Minor
Career starts: 6 from 2006-2009
Career statistics: 330 carries for 1,660 yards (5.0 YPC) and 20 TD; 10 catches for 70 yards and 2 TD
Best game: Minor ran 19 times for 154 yards (8.1 YPC) and 3 TD in a 38-36 loss to Purdue in 2009.
Why the ranking? I’m once again cheating here, as I was surprised to realize that Minor only started six games in his career at Michigan. Somehow he managed to run the ball 330 times, which is more than Carlos Brown (see below), Mike Shaw (see below), and Vincent Smith (see below), and just 13 fewer than B.J. Askew (see below); those players started 12, 11, 14, and 27 games, respectively. Anyway, Minor was a violent runner with some nice speed who always seemed to be banged up, which is perhaps what limited his starts.

7. Fitzgerald Toussaint
Career starts: 32 from 2009-2013
Career statistics: 510 carries for 2,290 yards (4.5 YPC) and 28 TD; 31 catches for 298 yards (9.6 yards/catch) and 2 TD
Best game: Toussaint had 27 carries for 192 yards (7.1 YPC) and 2 TD in a 31-14 victory over Illinois in 2011.
Why the ranking? Toussaint had the bad luck of playing behind the 2013 offensive line, which was atrocious. That being said, Toussaint was a talented back who had some breakaway speed and underrated elusiveness. His numbers would have been better if not for the troubles up front, and he embarked on a four-year NFL career.

8. Karan Higdon
Career starts:
19 from 2015-2018
Career statistics:
471 carries for 2,622 yards (5.6 YPC) and 27 TD; 16 catches for 177 yards and 1 TD
Best game:
Higdon had two 200-yard games in his career, but his 25 carries for 200 yards (8.0 YPC) and 3 TD against Indiana in 2017 propelled the team to victory, while his 200-yard effort against Minnesota that same year was a blowout against an extremely outmatched opponent.
Why the ranking?
Higdon and Toussaint are probably pretty close in talent level, though I give the edge to Toussaint in elusiveness. But otherwise, their difference in numbers is a direct correlation to the guys in front of them. Higdon had the benefit of playing behind an Ed Warinner-coached line, whereas Toussaint had to deal with Darrell Funk. Anyway, Higdon had some huge games and showed more long speed than the next guy.

9. De’Veon Smith
Career starts: 26 from 2013-2016
Career statistics: 495 carries for 2,235 yards (4.5 YPC) and 22 TD; 38 catches for 251 yards (6.6 yards/catch) and 1 TD
Best game: Smith saved his best career performance for near the end of his career, when he ran 23 times for 158 yards (6.9 YPC) and 2 TD in a 20-10 win over Indiana when starting quarterback Jake Rudock was injured.
Why the ranking? Smith had an attitude to be admired. He wasn’t any different in college than he was in high school, and that’s a guy who fought tooth and nail to never get tackled. Unfortunately, he was also just as slow in college as he was in high school. He had some great highlight runs, but overall, his production was just so-so and his yards per carry are tied for the second-lowest on this list.

10. Carlos Brown
Career starts: 12 from 2006-2009
Career statistics: 201 carries for 1,025 yards (5.1 YPC) and 8 TD; 10 catches for 122 yards (12.2 yards/catch) and 1 TD
Best game: Brown ran 13 times for 187 yards (14.4 YPC) and 2 touchdowns against Eastern Michigan in 2009, including a 90-yard touchdown run. That was the third-longest run in Michigan history behind Butch Woolfolk (92 yards) and Tony Boles (91 yards).
Why the ranking? Brown was basically the exact opposite of De’Veon Smith, which means he was a slender guy with speed to burn who got tackled very easily. Brown came in during the 2006 recruiting class with a ton of hype, and he was outperformed by classmate Minor (see above), who was rated as a fullback. Brown showed flashes of exciting play, but he was not consistent and struggled against good competition.

11. B.J. Askew
Career starts: 27 from 1999-2002
Career statistics: 343 carries for 1,580 yards (4.6 YPC) and 17 TD; 83 catches for 777 yards (9.4 yards/catch) and 6 TD
Best game: Askew ran 32 times for 149 yards (4.7 YPC) and 2 touchdowns in a 49-3 win over Michigan State in 2002.
Why the ranking? Askew had an odd career. Sometimes you see tailbacks turn into fullbacks, but you rarely see fullbacks move to tailback. As Askew’s career progressed, the coaches seemed to realize, “Hey, maybe this blocking guy can do some stuff.” And he did do some stuff. Enough stuff to hold off Perry for a couple years (see above). He was never flashy, but he was a good enough overall athlete to play seven years in the NFL for the Jets and the Buccaneers (as a fullback).

12. Vincent Smith
Career starts: 14 from 2009-2012
Career statistics: 272 carries for 1,269 yards (4.7 YPC) and 10 TD; 46 catches for 435 yards (9.5 yards/catch) and 7 TD
Best game: Smith ran 17 times for 166 yards (9.8 YPC) and 1 touchdown against Delaware State in a 63-6 victory.
Why the ranking? This probably isn’t a surprise to anyone who has read the blog for a while, but Smith was mostly just a guy. He was a tremendous blocker for being just 5’6″, but he was also slow for a guy being just 5’6″. He had just one 40+ yard play in his entire career.

13. Mike Shaw
Career starts: 11 from 2008-2011
Career statistics: 190 carries for 1,001 yards (5.3 YPC) and 14 TD; 19 catches for 124 yards (6.5 yards/catch) and 1 TD
Best game: Shaw topped 100 yards rushing just once in his career, and that was in 2010 against UMass. He ran 12 times for 126 yards (10.5 YPC) and 3 touchdowns.
Why the ranking? Shaw was known as a recruit as a guy with excellent speed, but somewhat like Carlos Brown (see above), he struggled to run through contact. That skill did improve as he got older, but he was mostly just a backup. And as the inverse of Minor, I was surprised Shaw actually qualified for this list by starting eleven games.

14. Chris Howard
Career starts: 12 from 1994-1997
Career statistics: 418 carries for 1,876 yards (4.5 YPC) and 17 TD; 60 catches for 429 yards (7.2 yards/catch) and 3 TD
Best game: Howard ran 12 times for 127 yards (10.6 YPC) and 2 touchdowns in a 44-8 victory over Minnesota in 1996.
Why the ranking? I re-watched some old Michigan games in recent months, and I was somewhat shocked that a guy with as little running ability as Howard played so much at a place like Michigan. It makes Michigan’s national championship that much more impressive when you realize that Howard and Clarence Williams (see below) were the primary ball carriers.

15. Clarence Williams
Career starts: 22 from 1994-1998
Career statistics: 467 carries for 1986 yards (4.3 YPC), 5 TDs; 68 catches for 682 yards (10.0 YPC), 2 TDs
Best game: Williams had 25 carries for 133 yards (5.3 YPC), as well as 3 catches for 43 yards, in Michigan’s 20-14 win over Boston College in 1996.
Why the ranking? Much like Howard (see above), I just don’t think Williams matches up with a lot of the other talent. Somehow Michigan hit a lull in recruiting for a couple years between Biakabutuka and Thomas. Williams was a little more of a pass catcher, but these guys won national championships and honestly would have struggled to earn a scholarship from Michigan in 2019.

Other players to start at least one game:

Ed Davis
Justin Fargas
Kevin Grady
Derrick Green
Justice Hayes
Jerome Jackson
Drake Johnson
Max Martin
Sam McGuffie
Thomas Rawls
David Underwood


  1. Comments: 55
    Joined: 8/11/2015
    Aug 17, 2020 at 11:29 AM

    Of those guys in the “at least one start” list, who were you most excited and subsequently disappointed by? I have to say that I had high hopes for Max Martin. He seemed to have the prototypical size and speed, following in the mold of A-Train, and a highly-ranked kid out of Alabama with all the big offers. But then Mike Hart happened.

    Similar feelings about David Underwood for me, who also got displaced by Mike Hart.

    • Comments: 3844
      Joined: 7/13/2015
      Aug 17, 2020 at 12:07 PM

      A lot of those guys were from a time prior to when I was paying attention to recruiting. I think my answer would be McGuffie, though. Even though some of those other guys were higher ranked, McGuffie had a ridiculous highlight tape. And not only did he not do much at Michigan (661 total yards, 4 TD), but he didn’t even stick around. At least with Derrick Green we were like, “Okay, yeah, we got our fill of him. He’s just not that good.” But McGuffie started some games and just kinda…left. He was starting at Michigan, and then he went to go play at Rice. It was just extremely anticlimactic.

  2. Comments: 6285
    Joined: 8/11/2015
    Aug 17, 2020 at 12:24 PM

    I think Denard’s production is inflated by playing QB. Imagine if somebody like Vincent Smith, Tru Wilson, or Mike Cox had the passing skills to have:

    A higher career passer rating than Jake Rudock

    More throwing TDs than Devin Gardner

    A higher YPA with only 2 more INTs than fellow 4-year starter Chad Henne

    A higher completion percentage than John Navarre

    Twice as many career passing yards as Drew Henson

    Any of those guys would have been a whole lot more impressive statistically – especially in an offense like Rodriguez’s which was still fooling a lot of people at that time.

    As a running back, Denard is overrated. He would have been drafted higher if that is where he belonged and he was pretty unexceptional in the NFL (though that can be said about most of the others too).

    Denard’s running ability was so greatly aided by his ability as a passer and playing in an offense that suited his skills. It’s apples and oranges to throw those stats out there.

    He was a great player due to his overall skillset. That was not utilized at RB, and we’ve never seen passing skills widely used at that position. The results say this: Great college QB, solid RB.

    • Comments: 3844
      Joined: 7/13/2015
      Aug 17, 2020 at 12:59 PM

      I agree that it’s apples and oranges. He certainly wouldn’t have had as much success as a runner if he were not taking the snap from behind center. But I threw him in there because he started at RB for a short time, and he’s put up some of the best rushing numbers Michigan has ever seen. That’s the reason for the asterisk.

  3. Comments: 6285
    Joined: 8/11/2015
    Aug 17, 2020 at 12:31 PM

    Michigan doesn’t have many exceptional backs but I would still say that Thomas is too high on that list. He was running behind one of the greatest college OLs of all time, and his QBs, TEs, and WRs were NFL players too. Even with a fairly unimaginative offense system, Thomas had the opportunity to do so much more.Thomas tended to go down easy and rarely made his own plays. It’s likely he was coached this way but he left a staggering number of yards on the field, IMO. Yes he had excellent speed for his size but so did Ty Isaac. He was effective in situations where Hart and D.Smith were not, but he also lacked their ability to create for himself consistently.

    Still – he had a very good career at Michigan in terms of productivity and winning. Unfortunately it looks like he might have been ground down pretty hard in college which happened to a lot of our backs in the 70s-90s.

    • Comments: 3844
      Joined: 7/13/2015
      Aug 17, 2020 at 1:07 PM

      When I was putting together this list, I went back and watched a lot of highlights just to refresh my memory on some of them. There were some guys (Howard, Williams, etc.) who did not stand the test of time, but Thomas actually held up pretty well, in my opinion. Yes, he did have very good players around him and his system was unimaginative in some ways, but I think that can also be an argument for him and his talent. A lot of the guys prior to Rich Rodriguez were running into loaded boxes to stop the run. He wasn’t a guy who could necessarily “create on his own,” but he wasn’t recruited for a “speed in space” type of system, either. He was recruited to be a guy who could run power and counter trey, and he did that pretty well.

      • Comments: 6285
        Joined: 8/11/2015
        Aug 17, 2020 at 1:56 PM

        I was rewatching some old games on BTN include 97 ND. I was only half paying attention but I thought the supporting guys looked better than I remembered.

        I also forget A-train wore that visor and how uncommon it was back then.

        • Comments: 3844
          Joined: 7/13/2015
          Aug 17, 2020 at 2:19 PM

          It’s funny, but the main guys (Griese, the RBs, etc.) look bad, but the sort of fringe guys were solid (Streets, Tuman, Shea, Floyd). And then, of course, there was Charles Woodson, who could do anything.

  4. Comments: 6285
    Joined: 8/11/2015
    Aug 17, 2020 at 12:44 PM

    I’d put all 3 of the top backs on the 2020 squad ahead of JAG Mike Shaw.

    The starter criteria is weird since it’s just made up and then not applied to Denard or Minor. Evans has more rushing yards and a higher YPC than Minor. Charbonnet has as many starts. Minor was a likable player given how his career played out but ultimately nothing special.

    FWIW – I’d put Smith 5th on the list right behind Hart but it’s splitting hairs IMO. Smith ran behind some bad OLs and made a lot of his own yards. Toussaint had the benefit of playing beside Denard most of his career and Hart had Henne and company.


    I think any of the 3 backs we have no could end up in the top 10 depending how the pandemic plays out. Charbonnet had the best freshman year we’ve seen since Hart. We’ll see how the Gattis offense might be able to suit Evans who clearly has skills. Hasskins has some of the same impressive physicality we’ve seen in years past. I like all 3 a lot.

    • Comments: 3844
      Joined: 7/13/2015
      Aug 17, 2020 at 1:32 PM

      Regarding the criteria, I had to cut it off somewhere. I’m not interested in bothering to rank the likes of Ed Davis, Justice Hayes, etc. I included Minor on the list because I thought for sure he started 10+ games, and when I realized he didn’t, I looked back at how much he played and was confused. That reminded me of how McGuffie kept getting the “start” despite being pretty ineffective most of the time. Despite playing behind Mike Hart for the first two years and then playing in a spread offense that isn’t necessarily designed for pounding the rock by one guy, Minor had the following carry totals:

      12, 13, 17, 21, 23, 15, 24, 14, 14, 16, 12, 22, 12, 19

      That’s 14 games with double-digit carries, and it’s not too often that backup running backs get double-digit carries. Coincidentally, Vincent Smith started 14 games but only had double-digit carries in 9 of them. Carlos Brown only registered 8 games with double-digit carries.

      As for your rankings, I don’t understand how Smith is in your top five and Thomas is somewhere below him. Not only are Thomas’s numbers superior, but he was a 2nd round pick and had two 1,000+ yard seasons in the NFL, whereas Smith wasn’t drafted and has barely touched the ball in the NFL. It kinda just seems like you’re trying to shoehorn Smith in there.

      • Comments: 6285
        Joined: 8/11/2015
        Aug 17, 2020 at 2:03 PM

        Vincent Smith started 14 games!? For all my long-ago defenses of his abilities I am surprised by that.

        I think the starter distinction is increasingly irrelevant in modern times. If you do it again there might be a cut-off based on touches rather than starts.

        • Comments: 3844
          Joined: 7/13/2015
          Aug 17, 2020 at 2:16 PM

          From MGoBlue.com: At Michigan … four-year letterman … played in 45 games, each at running back, earning 14 starts … 272 career carries for 1,269 yards and 10 touchdowns

          Michigan played 1+ seasons’ worth of games with a starting 5’6″ running back who couldn’t outrun anyone. It was infuriating that Michigan couldn’t find someone better, or at least wouldn’t put someone else on the field.

          • Comments: 6285
            Joined: 8/11/2015
            Aug 17, 2020 at 3:45 PM

            I wasn’t doubting you, just expressing surprise.

            I wasn’t remotely infuriated by it. Michigan put all kinds of other guys on the field in that time.

      • Comments: 6285
        Joined: 8/11/2015
        Aug 17, 2020 at 2:05 PM

        You’re right. Thomas had a better career than D.Smith. I think Smith did good work for the team he was on, but he wouldn’t have ran for as many yards on the 2000 team as Thomas did. Probably both backs were better for the context they played in, IMO.

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