Top 10 University of Michigan Running Backs of All-Time

I’ve watched my fair share of explosive running backs for Michigan. Some have made it to the NFL, but none currently hold starting positions. The top two rushers for Michigan saw their time in the 2000s during my time period. Denard Robinson is one of them who played quarterback from 2010-2012 but was the 2nd all-time rusher from when Michigan began keeping stats which started in 1956. I covered him in my quarterback rankings, so I will skip over him here and focus on running backs only. With 19 All-American and 9 College Football Hall of Fame running backs, the Wolverines have been led by powering the ball through defenses. Because not many stats exist before 1956, I will be using many different categories to rank the players including stats, accomplishments, awards, key games, etc. With all of that said, here are my top 10 Michigan running backs of all-time.

RankPlayerSeasons Started
1Mike Hart2004-2007
2Tyrone Wheatley1992-1994
3Jamie Morris1985-1987
4Anthony Thomas1998-2000
5Tom Harmon1938-1940
6Tim Biakabatuka1995
7Willie Heston1901-1904
8Chris Perry2002-2003
9Ron Johnson1967-1968
10Butch Woolfolk1979-1981

1. Mike Hart

Not only was Mike Hart an excellent running back, but he was the one who coined a term in the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry that has stuck since his interview, referring to Michigan State as Michigan’s “little brother”. Aside from this, his main reason for being the best is that he leads Michigan in rushing after he passed Jamie Morris. He ranks 3rd among Michigan running backs in total touchdowns and in his rookie season, he posted the most rushing yards for a rookie running back in Michigan history. While a hamstring injury held him back in his sophomore season, he rushed for his career-high 1,562 yards with 14 touchdowns the next season. His efforts were recognized nation-wide when he finished in 5th place in the Heisman voting. He also has had the most 100-yard rushing games with 28 of them. While there can be a debate for who is the best candidate for number one, Mike Hart takes it in my opinion with how dominant he was throughout his collegiate career.

Yards from Scrimmage: 5,606
Total TDs: 43
– 2004 Big Ten Freshman of the Year
– 2004, 2006, & 2007 All-Big Ten
– 2006 & 2007 Doak Walker Award Finalist
– Michigan’s leading rusher
– Team Captain
– Sixth Round Draft Pick

2. Tyrone Wheatley

Tyrone Wheatley started leaving his mark right away at Michigan, giving four solid seasons from 1991-1994. Wheatley had under 10 touchdowns only once in a season. The only time in which he did not was in his rookie season where he had 9. He also only rushed under 1,100 yards in his rookie season. In the Rose Bowl, he rushed for 235 yards which rank 7th all-time for rushing yards in a single game in Michigan history. He even added 3 touchdowns which gave him the MVP of the Rose Bowl that season with a Michigan victory over Washington. His 4,178 rushing yards rank 4th all-time and his 53 combined rushing and receiving touchdowns rank 1st at Michigan. At the time he left Michigan, he was 2nd all-time in rushing and 1st in rushing touchdowns which has since been broken by only Anthony Thomas. All in all, Wheatley has left a major mark on Michigan and even returned as a running back coach in 2015. Now his son plays at Michigan as a tight end.

Yards from Scrimmage: 4,688
Total TDs: 53
– 1992 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year
– 1992 Rose Bowl MVP
– 3 Consecutive All-Big Ten Selections
– 1st Round Draft Pick

3. Jamie Morris

Jamie Morris broke all kinds of records during his time from 1984-1987. His rookie season was the only time in which he did not pass 1,000 yards. He broke the career and single-season records in rushing yards, all-purpose yards, and 100-yard games. Certainly, during his time, he was the best running back for Michigan. His 1987 season featured 1,703 rushing yards which put him at 2nd on the nation-wide rushing leaderboard for the season. His small size made him very elusive and quick on his feet which made him extremely hard to tackle. His ability to locate the holes quickly led to his massive numbers for his time. Against Ohio State, he totaled 302 yards which is one of the best performances against Michigan’s largest rival ever for a running back. Because he held so many records at the time of his graduation, he makes it to 3rd on this list.

Yards from Scrimmage: 5,148
Total TDs: 28
– Michigan’s former leading rusher
– Fourth Round Draft Pick

4. Anthony Thomas

Anthony Thomas came to Michigan just in time to be the backup running back for the National Championship team in 1997. While he carried significant value for the Wolverines all four years, his last two years showed his true dominance. He ran for over 1,200 each season with 16 touchdowns. His senior year season marked his best. He totaled 1,790 yards from scrimmage with 17 total touchdowns. His 1,551 rushing yards that season ranked 8th in the nation. His 49 career rushing touchdowns are the most by any player to wear the winged helmet. His ability to finish off drives was a special part about his game that has me ranking him at #4.

Yards from Scrimmage: 4,848
Total TDs: 50
– 2000 All-Big Ten
– 2000 Michigan Team MVP
– 2000 Team Captain
– 1999 Second-Team All-Big Ten
– Second Round Draft Pick

5. Tom Harmon

Tom Harmon is the only Michigan running back to win the Heisman trophy in Michigan’s very long and rich history. He played three seasons for the maize and blue in which he picked up 2,235 career yards from scrimmage. He also played quarterback as well but he found great success when he rushed for 884 yards in 1939. Given that they only played 8 games back then, that would be impressive even in today’s standards. While he was doing this, he was also passing the ball. His efforts in 1940 with 852 rushing yards, 15 rushing touchdowns, 506 passing yards, and an additional 6 passing touchdowns won him the Heisman. While the Heisman is a great accomplishment, the part that really stands out about Harmon is his 1940 game against Ohio State in which he scored 5 total touchdowns with 4 extra points in a shut out victory. The combination of the Heisman and destroying Ohio State carries Harmon up to the 5th position.

Yards from Scrimmage: 2,235
Total TDs: N/A
– 1940 Heisman Trophy
– 1939 & 1940 All-American
– 1940 Maxwell Award
– 1940 Associated Press Athlete of the Year
– 1940 Big Ten MVP
– 1940 All-Big Ten
– 1954 College Football Hall of Fame
– First Round Draft Pick

6, Tim Biakabatuka

Tshimanga “Tim” Biakabatuka ran the ball for Michigan from 1993-1995. While he received some action in his first season since he was backing up Tyrone Wheatley, it was his final season that he got going. His final season stands out as one of the most dominant by any Michigan running back. In 1995, he ran for 1,724 yards which ranked 6th in the nation. He helped lead the Wolverines over the undefeated Buckeyes that year with 313 yards on the ground. That along with how fun it is to say his last name ranks him at 6th on my list.

Yards from Scrimmage: 2,837
Total TDs: 24

– First Round Draft Pick

7. Willie Heston

Willie Heston does not have stats to look off of, but looking at the success of Michigan during his time (1901-1904), it is clear that Heston is one of the greats. Michigan never lost a game during these four seasons and outscored opponents 2,326-40. Michigan has his touchdown total at 71 which would be the most by far for Michigan running backs. So, unofficially, he has the record. Because these statistics were not nationally kept, we will never know for certain, but it would not be surprising if that is the case as football back then was run-heavy and he was the go-to player. He made it one game into the NFL before suffering a broken leg and opting not to continue. With his stats known for certain, he could easily be the best running back Michigan has seen.

Yards from Scrimmage: N/A
Total TDs: N/A
– 1901 Third-Team All-American
– 1903 & 1904 First-Team All-American

8. Chris Perry

Chris Perry is one of the first running backs that come to mind when I think of Michigan running backs thanks to my mom. She would always call him Chris Perry “Carries”. Perry followed in Anthony Thomas’s footsteps, asserting his dominance in 2002 and 2003. Both seasons resulted in 1,000+ rushing yards and double-digit touchdowns. His senior year had 18 touchdowns and 1,674 which ranked 3rd in the nation. His 2,041 yards from scrimmage that year ranked 2nd only behind Darren Sproles who went on to be a dominant NFL running back. Perry had a short NFL stint but was never given much of a chance. Regardless of that, he will be remembered as one of the best at Michigan.

Yards from Scrimmage: 4,226
Total TDs: 41
– First Round Draft Pick
– 2003 All-American
– 2003 Doak Walker Award
– 2003 Big Ten MVP

9. Ron Johnson

Ron Johnson saw his time on the Michigan football team from 1966-1968. He gained the starting role in ‘67 in which he ran for over 1,000 yards and was named the team’s MVP. In his final season, he ran for 1,391 yards and 19 touchdowns. He ran for 347 yards in a single game which broke the NCAA record at the time and still stands as Michigan’s single-game rushing record. By the end of his career, he beat Michigan’s single-season records for rushing touchdowns at 25 and yards from scrimmage at 2,847, both of which have since been broken. Johnson began to shape Michigan’s running back role into what it would turn into towards the end of the century.

Yards from Scrimmage: 2,847
Total TDs: 26
– 1967 & 1968 Michigan Team MVP
– 1968 All-American
– 1968 Big Ten MVP
– Team Captain
– First Round Draft Pick

10. Butch Woolfolk

Filling in the last spot on this list is Butch Woolfolk who played from 1978-1981. He ended his career atop the Michigan rushing leaderboard with 3,861 yards. In 1979, his 13 touchdowns put him as the leading scorer in the Big Ten. His 1,459 yards in 1981 were 4th in the nation that season. He helped lead Michigan to two bowl victories that year in the Rose Bowl and Bluebonnet bowl, both of which he was named MVP. He rushed for over 180 yards in both games. His 16 100-yard rushing yard games were the most at the time which has since been beaten. Nevertheless, Woolfolk was one of the best during the turn of the 70s and deserves this last spot on the list.

Yards from Scrimmage: 4,126
Total TDs: 29
– 1979, 1980, & 1981 All-Big Ten
– 1981 Rose Bowl MVP
– 1981 Bluebonnet Bowl MVP
– 1981 Michigan Team MVP
– First Round Draft Pick

I am a student at the University of Michigan studying Sport Management. I have been involved in sports as long as I can remember, playing football, baseball, and basketball. I also love learning how to play songs on the piano and ukulele.

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