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Meet Michigan RB Blake Corum, a ‘one every 10 years’ player

Ivan Maisel09/30/21
Article written by:On3 imageIvan Maisel

Ivan_Maisel

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Michigan RB Blake Corum in one of his favorite places — the weight room. (Aaron Bill/Michigan Football)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan tailback Blake Corum leads the nation in all-purpose yardage, averaging 180.8 yards per game, and the skills that his coaches are least interested in discussing pertain to what he does on the field.

Oh, they’ll talk about them. Wolverines running backs coach Mike Hart played for Michigan from 2004-07 at roughly the same size as Corum (5 feet 8, 200 pounds).

“He’s quick. He’s explosive. And then he has the top-end speed to finish off runs,” Hart rattled off with all the emotion of a guy reading a grocery list.

Then Hart got to the topic of Corum’s work ethic. His tone changed.

“Without a doubt, he’s the hardest-working running back that I’ve coached in my career thus far,” Hart said. “Blake’s one of those kids who’s not just one in a class. It’s one every 10 years on a team.”

Hart is in first year at his alma mater and his 11th season as an FBS assistant. Before that, Hart spent three seasons playing for the Indianapolis Colts.

“When you think about the Peyton Mannings of the world,” Hart said, exaggerating the next word for emphasis, “alllll the extra that you can do no matter what. That’s what I think of when I think of Blake. He’s the Peyton Manning of running backs.”

Coach Jim Harbaugh echoed Hart.

“He’s at that level of all the ones that are so driven to be the best they can be,” Harbaugh said of Corum. “He’s got that gene that drives people to have to be at the top. All the things are there that says he was crawling out of the crib with it, too.”

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Corum and Michigan are 4-0 heading into Saturday’s game at Wisconsin. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Biff Poggi has a different theory. Poggi is a special assistant to Harbaugh who returned to the staff this year after coaching at St. Frances Academy in Baltimore. Poggi coached Corum for two seasons at St. Frances (Corum played at St. Vincent Pallotti High in Laurel, Md., his first two seasons).

“Let’s see,” Poggi said, looking up as he thought. “I think we were 25-1 with him there. And I tell people, ‘Don’t tell me that you think I’m a good coach because I had that guy and we lost a game.’ ”

For the record, St. Frances lost in 2019, Corum’s senior season, at Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei, which was quarterbacked by Bryce Young. But Poggi, like Hart, didn’t really want to discuss Corum’s skill.

“Yes, he’s a great player,” Poggi said. “Yes, you can give him the ball, and he can make 2 into 92. Yes, he’s like an artificial intelligent robot. He just keeps going. Something happens, he just keeps going. All of those things are true.”

Poggi remembered what made him decide to recruit Corum to St. Frances. The football coach in him, the one that likes running backs the size of linebackers, came into the room skeptical. Poggi remembered an undersized 10th-grader walking into a big conference room with a roomful of coaches he didn’t know and being at ease. Mature. Big smile. “Yes, sir,” and “No, sir.”

“EQ,” Poggi called it. Like IQ, only emotional.

“What he does off the field with consensus-building, with relationship-building, with leadership roles in the locker room, I just tell you, those things, you can have all the talent in the world. If you don’t have that, you’re not going to be any good,” Poggi said. “… That’s what makes great players. There are a lot of guys with talent that are sitting in smoke-filled barrooms telling stories about how great they were. And nobody cares. The reason they’re there is that they did not have the EQ that he’s got.”

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Corum is tied for fifth in the nation with 7 rushing touchdowns. (Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

Hart told a story about Corum that reveals a lot about his understanding of people. On Sundays, when players usually have time to themselves, Corum attends 10-year-old Cam Hart’s soccer games.

“He’s a great role model for my son,” Hart said. “If he ends up like Blake, I’ll be a successful dad.”

Ben Herbert subscribes to yet another reason that Corum is special. Herbert has been a strength and conditioning coach for 20 years, most of them at Wisconsin and Arkansas with Bret Bielema, and the past four at Michigan. Herbert believes the combination of skill and drive makes Corum unique.

“He’s a top-five or -six guy,” Herbert said, referring to his career. “I’m talking about J.J. (Watt) and Russell (Wilson) and Frank Ragnow. (That trio has 13 Pro Bowls among them.) To even get in that group, you have to have tremendous genetic potential and you have to have tremendous drive, the hell-bent desire to be the best you can be, or else you can’t get to that level.”

Corum splits time with senior Hassan Haskins. They work out together. They face each other, raise themselves on the chin-up bar and stop, daring the other one to lose his grip.

Wait a second. Let’s catch our breath here. We’re talking about a sophomore who has yet to start a game at tailback for Michigan as if he is a once-in-a-generation player. But the Wolverines’ coaches, even if they don’t agree on why he will do it, are sure of it (barring injury, of course). They are convinced that before Corum leaves Ann Arbor, he’ll be in the hunt for a Doak Walker Award, which goes to the best running back, and a Heisman Trophy, which is the Heisman Trophy.

Someone else is sure of it, too.

“Hard work has really paid off for me so far,” Corum said. “Everything I wanted, maybe I wanted it a little sooner, but it eventually came.”

Corum has wanted to be the best he can be since first grade. That’s as far back as he can recall.

The story of Corum’s work ethic and maturity is intertwined with his parents, James and Christina. James has a landscape/construction business. He does patios. And pools. And masonry and he’s starting a food truck and an auto repair thing, too.

“I told Blake,” James Corum said, “ ‘Dude, if you want to be just good, you can be good in your county, good in your local newspaper, week in and week out. But if you want to be great, you gotta work.’ From that age, when I told him that, he was on board. It’s never stopped. He still knows he has to work to get where he needs to be. He’ll outwork anyone. That’s just what he does.”

On the inside of Blake’s right bicep is a tattoo that reads, “You Work. I Work.” It’s a saying that germinated out of a long-ago conversation between a son and his dad.

“One day, I was working out in the yard,” Blake said. “I believed I connected a band to the big oak tree, and I was running with the band on my waist, trying to pull the tree out the ground.” He met the incredulous look he got with a laugh. “I was probably like middle-school age. It was a big tree. There was no way it was coming up. I’m trying. I sent my dad a video.”

In the video, Blake said, “Dad, if you’re working, I’m going to work as well. If you work, I work.”

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Blake Corum got his work ethic from his dad growing up in small-town Virginia. (Aaron Bill/Michigan Football)

From 7th grade through 9th grade, either James or Christina would drive Blake 90 minutes each way from Marshall, Va., a town of nearly 1,500 people with one stoplight (“in front of the 7-Eleven,” Corum said) to middle and high school in Maryland so that he could play a higher level of football.

Corum would work out before he went to school. He would awake somewhere around 3:30 or 4 a.m., work out, then get in the car. To avoid rush hour, he arrived at school so early that “it was just me and the janitor,” Corum said.

He would get home at 8 p.m., do his homework, grab five hours of sleep at best, then do it all again the next day.

Harbaugh said that when Corum enrolled at Michigan in January 2020, he drove himself up from Marshall, and the next morning he was banging on the weight room door at 6 a.m.

“It was probably earlier than that,” Herbert said.

One of the goals of the Michigan coaches, from Harbaugh to Hart to Herbert to Poggi, is to make Corum understand that rest and sleep are his friends.

“I always want to lift weights,” Corum said. “I always want to do field work, stuff like that. But people have told me it’s not all about that. Sometimes you watch film. And stretch. It makes you a better football player. So that’s what I’ve really been trying to do.”

Corum is averaging almost 7 yards per carry this season (69 carries for 475 yards) and a bit more than 7 yards per catch (eight receptions, 57 yards) for a ground-oriented offense. He has scored eight total touchdowns and nearly took a kickoff to the house against Western Michigan.

He is, four weeks into his sophomore season, more potential star than star. But he has succeeded at every level, at everything he has done. Anyone care to venture that Blake Corum won’t make it?