Ty Isaac fighting to make up ground in Michigan backfield

Every morning Ty Isaac leaves his room and stares down the simple to-do list he tacked to the door more than four months ago. It's a recipe, he believes, to get back into the Michigan backfield and correct course on a promising career.

Isaac transferred to Ann Arbor from USC two years ago to be closer to his family in the Chicago area. The former five-star prospect contributed 293 offensive yards in a crowded Trojan backfield as a true freshman. After sitting out a year per NCAA rules, he started his career at Michigan last fall with 30 carries and 205 rushing yards. All but two of those carries and five of those yards came before mid-October, when Isaac more or less disappeared from the Wolverines' backfield rotation.

Running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley insists Isaac wasn't stuck in the "doghouse" or didn't do anything wrong to earn his spot on the sideline. He was just outworked and outplayed by returning senior De'Veon Smith. Wheatley said the starting job is Smith's to lose again in 2016. The list on the door is Isaac's plan for catching up.

"If I don't have a physical reminder or something I can look at every day it doesn't resonate the same for me personally," Isaac said Tuesday night after Michigan's sixth practice of the spring. "I look at it every day when I walk out to go to class. I have to look at it and say, 'All right, either talk about it or be about it.' It's been working for me so far."

The specifics on his list remain secret ingredients, personal things he'd rather keep to himself. The gist, though, is that Isaac says he was "humbled" by losing his spot in the rotation last fall and he believes he needs to ramp up his intensity to get it back. He said he still sees plenty of opportunity in front of him at Michigan.

Isaac talked with his parents and mentors as his carries waned last fall and they helped him decide to commit to paper the things he needed to improve. He asked Wheatley to sit down with him after the season to make sure his list matched up with what the coaching staff thought. So, what exactly does he have to do in their eyes to get back on the field?

"What goes on in Vegas, stays in Vegas," Wheatley said. "You'd like to know that wouldn't you?"

That's a more playful version of the "none of your business" response head coach Jim Harbaugh issued when Isaac temporarily fell off the depth chart completely during the first week of November. That's around the time Isaac says he stepped back to "gather" himself and make a new plan.

"I had to calm down, relax, understand there were things I needed to work on," he said. "It's not like it was going to be the end of the world for me. I still have opportunities."

Since then, Isaac has slimmed down to 230 pounds -- about 10 pounds lighter than he has been for most of his time in Ann Arbor. He said he felt he was carrying too much weight last spring, which led to a hamstring issue that kept him from getting the practice reps he needed to improve. The more svelte back says he feels quicker on his feet now.

He's also working to stay more intense during each drill in practice. When Michigan drops to half-speed he said he doubles down on focus. He said little things like looking a ball all the way into his hands and finishing runs will help him close the gap on Smith and carve out a spot for himself in the rotation.

That won't be easy with a guy like Smith, who is built to handles 25 carries a game, and senior Drake Johnson returning to full health after an ACL injury more than a year ago. Isaac also has to fend off sophomore Karan Higdon and early enrollees Kareem Walker and Kingston Davis, who while they are still learning like freshmen are athletic enough to possibly steal some carries this fall.

"I think that all of us are different backs to a certain extent," Isaac said. "You've just got to be good at your skill set and be consistent. I think that's the biggest thing. Anybody who can be consistent and make plays they'll be able to take the spot. De'Veon's been doing really well so it'll be tough. As long as you play within yourself and do that on a consistent basis then you've got a shot."