"Mike Hart NFL comparison = Emmitt Smith?"
This is the text message I received from my fellow blogger, Chubbs Kellett this night around 10 PM. And it raises an interesting point: How does Mike Hart project as an NFL prospect?
To start off, let me be clear: As a Michigan fan, I really couldn't give two shits where Mike Hart projects as an NFL prospect. For my money he is the best running back in Michigan history. Period. Yes, better than Perry, Wheatley, Biakabatuka, and Gerald Ford. I can't imagine anyone being a more consistent dominating force. Also, I don't necessarily care to debate this point. Arguments can be made for each guy, and I don't care to denigrate any of these other players to make my point. Just need you to know I feel this way about Mike Hart.
At the same time, I think comparing Hart to Smith is a little unfair to Emmitt. Chubbs (and I, actually) do not think too highly of Emmitt as a runner. This is because of one main reason: Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders were always considered running back 1. and 1a. when people talked about great runners in the early-mid 90's. Obviously, Sanders outperformed Emmitt with inferior players around him, and Sanders was the better player. This leads us to irrationally, but understably, underrate Emmitt Smith.
I understand where Chubbs is coming from: Hart and Smith are almost exactly the same size (though Emmitt does have about an inch and 15 pounds on him); and both are agile bruising, short yardage specialists. However, while Emmitt was no burner, he was if not faster than Hart in raw speed (which I believe he was), but considering how the game has changed, Emmitt's relative speed is much better than Hart's. And speed is the biggest knock to Mike Hart's playing career. During Emmitt's 6 prime years with Dallas he had long rushes of 75, 68, 62, 46, and 60 yards. Not enormous for a running back, but still huge. In college, Hart's have been 34, 64, 54, and 61 consecutively. (Emmitt's college stats are really unavailable on the internet. It's insane. If anyone can find his longs at Florida, I beg you to post them.) Anecdotally, Emmitt was able to outrun safeties every now and again in his younger days in Dallas, and Hart has really never been able to - even at the college level against some truly awful opponents. Secondly, the NFL is so much faster than it was when Emmitt was good. Safeties now play linebacker spots, LBs play on the D-line and so forth.
The comparison also lacks in one other way: durability. Even if you don't think Emmitt was fast or shifty, and thought the O-line was more important than the big 3 in big D, there is no denying Emmitt Smith's durability. He didn't miss games in the NFL. Hart, on the other hand, has been injured every season at Michigan. There have always been whispers even when he has played how he's had a bad shoulder or a bad knee going into a game. Even as I write this he is questionable with a sprained ankle. (As a sidebar - when's the last time a Michigan RB has stayed healthy in the NFL: Leroy Hoard? Perry, Wheatley, Biakabatuka, A-Train all battled injury or ineffectiveness throughout their careers.)
However, running back to running back. Its tough to think of a better comparison. I get to see Rudi Johnson regularly, and Rudi was an extremely effective runner without ever breaking a long run. In addition, Rudi was an extremely prolific college back who was very underrated because of his lack of speed. On the other hand, Rudi is a classic super-thick, extremely durable "bruising" running back - and there have been those types of runners from Franco Harris to Jerome Bettis to whoever else. In terms of size and talent, Emmitt is a closer fit.
To truly discuss the uniqueness of Mike Hart, we have to go outside the RB comparison. In fact, the best comparison we have to Mike Hart is former Florida State great Peter Warrick.
Think about it.
Both guys were/are severely undersized for their position.
Both guys were/are the best player in college football by the time they were seniors.
Both guys are extremely slow for their position. (For those of you who don't know, PW ran right near a 4.6 at the combine.)
Both guys were/are standouts in college because of:
1) a freaky, almost supernatural agility
2) a similar crazy ability to break tackles consistently despite their size/speed.
There has never been another college wideout like PW, and there has never been a running back like Mike Hart.
While most people will consider this a bad omen for Hart, Warrick was never used properly in the NFL until his final injury free year with Kitna at the helm and Chad Johnson on the other side. That year he rushed for 140 yards, caught 80 balls for 850 yards and blocked terrifically. Unfortunately, injuries derailed his career.
Luckily, as a running back. Hart's QB matters very little. He will be able to make an impact right away. So, even if he only has 5 -7 good years, they won't be squandered the way Warrick's were in Cincinnati.
Unfortunately, like PW, wasn't a true number 1 wideout, I'm not sure Hart can be a constant number 1option at running back. In today's NFL, essentially, if you are a top 5 RB, you are the man. Everyone else platoons. Hart is going to have to platoon, and he will need a platoon. A guy who has this much trouble staying healthy for a 12 game season is going to have a heck of a time for a 16 game NFL season. Just like PW needed Chad to stretch the field, Hart is going to need another back to take some carries off and possibly to change the pace from his style, maybe someone to stretch the field. But, I don't believe Hart will ever be able to be the man like Emmitt was. The game is too fast and he's just not durable enough.
At the same time. Here are the running backs I would take clearly over Hart:
Ronnie Brown (just a physical beast)
And that's it.