When new IU running backs coach Mike Hart arrived in Bloomington in February, he didn’t want to know which running backs played the most in 2016, nor who was the most athletic or most anticipated to make a splash in 2017.
He just wanted to meet each one.
Hart said he has applied what IU Coach Tom Allen has preached to every job he’s had. Everyone gets a chance to see the field and compete for a job.
“There’s a lot of competition,” Hart said of the running backs. “They’re all getting the same amount of reps. No one is ahead of anybody. Me, personally, I don’t see that happening until after fall camp.”
Hart has big shoes to fill, and he said he knows that.
He knows how former IU running backs coach and new USC running backs coach Deland McCullough changed the perception of running backs at IU and how much the offense ran through the well-oiled machine of a running back group that McCullough developed.
It’s RBU — Running Back University — a name taken on by those involved with the position at IU since former Hoosier Stephen Houston built a good enough résumé beneath McCullough’s tutelage in 2011-13 to sign with the New England Patriots in 2014.
Now two of Houston’s successors are in the NFL. Tevin Coleman played for the Atlanta Falcons in their Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots in February, and Jordan Howard of the Chicago Bears played in the Pro Bowl in his rookie season. Both backs were All-Big Ten selections at IU.
With former IU offensive line coach and running game coordinator Greg Frey, McCullough built one of the best running back groups in the nation. Coleman, Howard and Devine Redding each ran for more than 1,000 yards in the last three seasons.
“That’s three years of guys that can really play and really run,” Hart said. “It’s so recent because you can look back and know that you can have success running the ball here, and if you come here, we’re gonna run the ball.”
Hart said when running backs come to the Big Ten, they had better be prepared to run the ball, and he can say that with confidence because he played for new IU offensive coordinator Mike DeBord at Michigan in 2004-07 while DeBord was offensive coordinator and run-game coordinator for the Wolverines.
The former running back’s career in Ann Arbor, Michigan, went down as one of the best in program history.
In four years as starting running back, Hart ran for 5,040 yards and 41 touchdowns. He ran for 1,562 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2006 as a junior when he finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy race.
He said he understands what DeBord is looking for in his running backs and how important the rushing game is in DeBord’s philosophy. But Hart was only part of four of DeBord’s 35 years as a coach in college and the NFL. Hart said DeBord’s experience is valuable
“The good thing is I’ve called him ‘Debo’ since I was in college, so I’m used to that,” Hart said. “Anytime you get a chance to be with a guy that’s seen a lot of stuff, it’s awesome. The knowledge he brings from the places he’s been and the people he’s worked with, you just get to grow as a coach every day.”
In the few weeks of spring ball that the IU running backs have worked with Hart, sophomore running back Ricky Brookins said Hart has already brought changes to the running back room — the coach’s attention to detail being the biggest change this early in spring camp.
Brookins said two bits he’s already learned and improved on from Hart is his caution to jump-cut too far outside and pushing the ball as far north as he can when a play blows up.
But what helped Brookins and other running backs welcome Hart’s teaching was his résumé and proven success at the level each running back on the roster is trying to reach. Hart got closer to winning the Heisman than any recent Hoosier running back has, and Hart spent time with the Indianapolis Colts in the NFL. That impressed Brookins, the back said.
“We’ve watched some of his highlights, and we have, in our running back group chat, sent videos of him running,” Brookins said about his teammates. “Coach McCullough has done it too, but Coach Hart — I don’t know — he’s just done it recently. He knows what he’s talking about — you can tell.”
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