HOUGHTON - Michigan Tech football coach Tom Kearly looks at spring football in two primary ways.
One, it's a chance for a younger player to prove himself, fighting for a spot on the depth chart without the burden of scout team responsibilities.
Two, he likes the 15 spring practices and spring scrimmage as the time to build physicality and toughness. After an injury plagued 2009 season, Kearly and his staff decided to extremely limit full-contact drills in the fall, preferring to address the physicality side of the game in the spring, when they have time to recover from the natural injuries that follow football.
Michigan Tech running back Kevin Miller takes the ball up the middle during a Sept. 2013 game against Walsh at Sherman Field. Miller, a sophomore, appears to be No. 2 at tailback on the depth chart as the Huskies go through spring drills. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
For four freshmen running backs looking for a way to crack the lineup, it is the ideal situation to leave your mark.
"This is where we give younger kids a chance to move up that depth chart," Kearly said. "In the fall, with (scout team) each week and not much contact, you can't really get a good look at a kid. But now we like to see them fight for a chance on the depth chart, a chance to make an impact on special teams and see the field some."
The Huskies running game last year probably falls into the good-but-not-great territory.
Tech finished 10th of 15 in the GLIAC in both rush yards per game and yards per attempt, with respectable 166.9 yards per game and 4.0 yards per carry numbers.
Kearly has always set four yards per carry as the bench mark the team needs to meet.
Senior Charlie Leffingwell - 1,238 yards and 5.1 yards per rush - is well entrenched in the starting spot. Sophomore Kevin Miller (3.4 yards per carry) did enough in limited time that Kearly likes him as the No. 2.
But for the No. 3 running back - one play away from a major role in any game - the quartet of redshirt freshmen Johnny Williams, Eric Kostreva (Ishpeming), Ross Michaels (Hancock) and James Henderson have three weeks to distinguish themselves.
So far, it is Williams who has made his name known.
"Johnny Williams has had a very good spring. That is probably the best way to put it," Kearly said.
But with five days of practice and a spring scrimmage still to come, that depth chart can reshuffle at any time.
"Freshman Johnny Williams, who we traveled some last year, has looked very impressive this spring," Kearly said. "But Eric Kostreva, Ross Michaels and James Henderson are all going to battle for playing time. We are going to probably take at least three of those kids on the road, because they all can play (special) teams as bullets on your kick cover teams and returners and those type of things."
For Leffingwell and Miller, there is still plenty of work to be done too.
The major knock on Leffingwell last year was an untimely fumbling problem, with the 200-pound back putting the ball on the ground six times in 10 games, losing all six.
The open hitting of spring gives Leffingwell multiple chances to correct the issue.
"Charlie had 1,200 yards, but we have to be more consistent with the ball, you can't put the ball on the turf," Kearly said. "That was the biggest negative. We practice it, we focus on it. But I really don't have an answer. You just have to find a way to hang on."
In front of the running back, there will be a new starting fullback for the first time in three years.
With Cole Welch and his 14 career touchdowns graduated, junior Kyle Michaelson has spent the majority of his snaps with the No. 1 huddle, while senior Zack Skeels reps with the No. 2.
Tech uses the fullback on about 25 percent of its offensive snaps, and Kearly is looking for the toughest one possible to throw out there.
"That is a football player's position," Kearly said. "That can be a kid who sets a tone for your team with his physicality, by picking up a yard on third and short or fourth and short. You just like a football player there."