There's some extra cachet to being the #1 recruit at your position. More than just talent, being the #1 player is an attitude that bleeds into everything else. Many of the best players to ever lace them up had some brio, some panache in their game that went beyond their talent. Confidence - no matter the odds. Cheek. Not just bluster, but the real thing. Even some of the quietest superstars have had their moments of brio.
Over the last few years, Michigan has been confident against their opponents - to a fault. But they haven't been able to add in a meaningful way to the legacy of the winged helmet. Every time the Wolverines have come in sniffing distance of glory - a top-ten ranking last week against OSU, a #11 AP ranking in 2013 heading into an easy game against Akron, a #8 preseason ranking in 2012 against Alabama, away games in 2011 against MSU and Iowa - every time, it has blown up in front of us. Sometimes, the talent wasn't there. Other times, it was preparation. The mental side, understanding what it takes to be #1, definitely wasn't there.
When Jim Harbaugh got to Michigan, he started chasing after two kinds of recruits. Grinders, two-stars who hadn't gotten a shot yet - guys who knew how to gut it out. And blue-chips, the crème de la crème - the guys who knew how to be #1. Even if the odds were stacked against Michigan - would Brady Hoke have gone after Isaac Nauta or Mecole Hardman, or Dontavious Jackson, or Zach Gentry? - Jim Harbaugh would fight his way into the conversation. As much as we love the tough overachievers, you need your share of heat to win the big ones. You need the pure talent. You need swagger. It's what Michigan's offense has been missing.
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Mike Hart leads his team on the field in 2007 against OSU. He would finish with 44 yards in a 14-3 defeat.
Kareem Walker is a talented kid. He shows all the skills of a downhill running back - not the most elusive, but he's brilliant at angling his body to get defenders out of position. He's not the scatback with 4.4 speed, but he'll always give you five yards and a little more. He's not a bruising, 230-pound behemoth like Fournette, but he has the strength to break out of arm tackles and stay on his feet. His vision, his durability, and the all-around mix of speed, strength, and agility set him apart.
But Kareem has also heard his share of criticism. It's a weak year for running backs, we are told, he's a diva, he's not a team player, DePaul didn't win enough games. I am sure he's heard it all, and it's something that unfortunately comes with the territory of having a mark on your back. It also leads me to believe that he'll come out ready to play in 2016, ready to prove what he can do for the team that earns his signature.
The history of #1 backs their freshman year has been more than a little disappointing. Leonard Fournette took half a season to get started, Derrick Green has been something of a bust, and Damien Harris is averaging 3.4 yards a carry this year for Alabama. Outside of 2010 - with Marcus Lattimore - and 2014, with Fournette, there have been very few superstars to emerge in recent years from the pack of #1's. Whether Kareem Walker adds himself to that list, we'll find out.
But one thing is clear: everything is aligned for him to do so. He has the talent, obviously, and his game is geared toward Harbaugh's style. He will have a Michigan offense that wants to get him the ball. Three seniors will be taking the field on the offensive line, in the second year under offensive line guru Tim Drevno. And there will be a thin depth chart for competition.
The only question remaining, in that scenario, is whether Walker would have the right mentality to seize on his opportunities. This is where being #1 helps prepare players, rather than sets them up for disappointment. If Kareem is in fact ready to make his mark, if he knows what it takes, this team will be ready to support him. Assuming, of course, that he actually comes to Michigan.
And if that does happen, Michigan's running back room will have a level of swagger, a Michigan superiority, not seen since Mike Hart. Hart last played in 2007, leaving behind a pretty disappointing legacy of his own. The next star that Michigan produces will surely be treated like more than royalty. The only question is whether that player is confident and comfortable enough to handle the pressure of success. You might as well start that search, then, with the #1's.