A-Train, Perry, Hart. Photos archived from MGoBlue.com
Here is what has Michigan football fans all aflutter this week: With two 4-star running backs committed to our class, do we still have room for a 5-star running back? #firstworldproblems. Since this is our concern, I thought we'd take a look at the prospective depth charts that past Michigan RBs committed to and see if the prospective mountain for 2013 prospects is any harder than the typical Michigan starting tailback's, prospectively speaking.
When the next class arrives in 2013 Toussaint and Hopkins—a permanent fullback I mention because he's the B.J. Askew type of fullback who will eat up carries—will be seniors, and Vincent Smith will be gone. Barring attrition, the next generation, i.e. the guys an additional 2013 commit should expect to be competing with, will then look something like this:
- Thomas Rawls, Junior
- Justice Hayes, RS Sophomore
- Drake Johnson, RS Freshman
- Dennis Norfleet, RS Freshman or Soph.
- Wyatt Shallman, Freshman
- Deveon Smith, Freshman
Three RBs in the 2013 class gives us potentially five freshmen competing for carries with a sophomore and a junior. "Barring attrition" would almost be a fool's gamble given the history of the position in all my years of following Michigan, except Hoke's program has so far (very small sample) been actually kind of remarkable in holding onto guys—policy is to give them all the benefit of the doubt.
Anyway we have the dudes; if Iowa RBHG gets bored one day he will find too many sacrifices for even his mighty, smite-y hand. This means Michigan is doubtful to take any more add-on running backs to pack the roster unless they or someone on the list is switching to defense. However there is absolutely room—even a need perhaps—for a high-profile back in this class.
The recruiting profiles of a lot of these guys suggests any could be beatable by a hypothetical freshman 5-star. Norfleet and Johnson were both very under-the-radar guys. The former and Justice Hayes are more like scat-backs who could as easily end up as slot-kick returners (though from yesterday's Spring video it looked like Hayes has bulked up a bit since last year, or else someone else is wearing 5. Insiders?). Asking if Shallman is really a running back is entering the realm of media cottage industry. Rawls is so Kevin Grady. At this point Smith is a 4-star to Scout, an Anton Campbell Memorial "no idea, but I guess he committed to Michigan" 3-star to Rivals and a guy named Smith to the other sites. Throw a dart at that group in two years and you could hit anything from (respectively) Mark Ingram/Steve Breaston/Barry Sanders/Mike Hart/Ron Dayne/Eddie George Except Faster to six Brackenses.
Of all positions tailback seems the most freshman-friendly, so it's not as necessary to stockpile today for 2017. On the other hand if you look at Michigan history the lesson is MOAR TAILBACKS. In fact Michigan's great running backs of the last two decades have mostly committed to apparent depth charts way more jammed with highly rated players and established starters:
The thing that's readily apparent is the youth. Michigan averaged about two recruits per year at RB, and graduated one a year. Some didn't move far—Chris Floyd, B.J. Askew, and more recently Stephen Hopkins switched to a type of ball-carrying fullback. A good many switched to defense. A good many quit the team too. But look at the depth charts so many highly rated backs committed to:
- Tshimanga Biakabutuka would have to beat out Tyrone Wheatley, Rickey Powers, and Ed Davis, not to mention a higher rated recruit in his own class. He earned 149 carries in two years versus that group then became his own legend as a junior.
- Chris Howard signed on with two all-everything backs with a sophomore Biakabutuka already established, and ended up the nominal starting RB for a national champion.
- Clarence Williams, the Cass Tech mite, didn't seem afraid of larger classmate J.R. Ford or the aforementioned guys; he beat out Howard and Floyd as a freshman, became the feature back as a sophomore, and spent his whole career battling Howard, Floyd, and A-Train for carries.
- Anthony Thomas was the second-least heralded of four heralded backs who might have believed they were coming in to wait two years for Howard and C-Will to clear out. The train arrived at the starting station his freshman year and eventually broke most of Michigan's rushing records.
- Justin Fargas signed up beside Walter Cross, while freshman A-Train was tearing it up, and before A-Train's classmates skedaddled.
- B.J. Askew came in with three other freshman backs, including 5-star Ryan Beard, when Thomas had two more years, and two more 5-stars, including the electrifying Fargas, had three.
- Chris Perry had about the clearest route to the starter's gig of anybody, but that still meant behind two 5-stars with sophomore eligibility (Beard, Fargas), and one junior (Cross).
- Mike Hart might have looked like depth no matter which class he signed onto. To win the starting job as a true freshman he beat out senior David Underwood, junior Pierre Rembert, sophomore Jerome Jackson, and higher rated freshman Max Martin.
- Kevin Grady saw the freshman duo leap to the top of the depth chart in 2004 yet opted to join the Wolverines in 2005.
- Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown arrived when Grady was to be a sophomore and Hart had two more years as starter locked down.
- Shaw's snake-oiling away from Penn State was to join McGuffie and Cox as the generation that should wait two years for Minor/Brown to clear out. McGuffie hurdled everyone to start much of '08.
- Fitz Toussaint and Vincent Smith signed on before McGuffie left, and piled into a two-seater filled with eight other RB-or-Slot bug types.
- Hopkins signed up to maybe be the thunder guy in case they wanted to keep that job after Minor left, but still had to contend with the boatload of slot bugs.
The list of guys who didn't commit to imposing depth charts full of established and/or hyped underclassmen reads thusly: Kelly Baraka, David Underwood, Pierre Rembert, Darnell Hood, Alijah Bradley, Jerome Jackson. The moral: if you want to be the starting tailback for Michigan you always have to compete against other highly rated backs. This isn't coach speak; it's the standard. A running back who commits here is almost 50% likely to end up at another position or another school. Standard operating procedure is to arrive behind an established junior star and last year's freshman phenom, and if you manage to earn carries against those guys there's still two more classes of blue chip backs arriving after you to steal them.
Enough Carries to Go Around
So two things are true: Michigan has for a long time recruited many more guys than they need at the running back position, and the position has experienced a lot of attrition and position switches. The latter was probably by design; Lloyd Carr recruited at least Weathers, Woody Hankins (who was an RB as a freshman and as a junior), Ian Gold, Jon Shaw, Charles Drake and Darnell Hood with the idea of a defensive swap in mind. Anyway it never stopped the parade of hyped backs to Ann Arbor, despite the fact that until 2008 the coaches always preferred a feature back kind of system. A quick look at the numbers shows there were a lot of carries slipping through the starters' grasps:
||ALL RB Carries
||% RB Carries
||ALL STARTERS (not itals)
Note: In years with two players listed, the one in italics is the nominal backup who got carries due to the nominal starter's injury. Their stories are intricate and known. Anyhoo, speaking to this year's freshmen, if anything it's not the other backs they should be worried about; it's Denard taking carries away from the entire RB corps.
The closest comparison to the situation for a hypothetical three-man 2013 class is probably 2004 (the year Hart won the job), since there's a lot of guys on the roster now whose profiles would suggest "just a guy" more than "future star." Any year between 1997 and 2000 makes a good case study for a seemingly insurmountable climb for any one recruit, but even in the heart of the A-Train years there were plenty of carries that went to guys like Justin Fargas and B.J. Askew. There were also plenty of Ryan Beard/Walter Cross/Ray Jackson/Pat McCall types who came with hype and couldn't crack the depth chart.
This is what Wyatt Shallman and Deveon Smith are signing up for. Given Michigan's history of stockpiling talent at this position, adding a five-star to this class is no deviation from the norm; in fact it would probably bring us closer to a "typical" depth chart. Fitz will be a senior when these guys arrive, and none of Drake Johnson/Dennis Norfleet/Justice Hayes/Thomas Rawls at this point should seem more insurmountable than, say, a Jerome Jackson. On the other hand an Isaac commit would mean carrying eight scholarship backs in 2013, something we haven't done since 1997. It's way too early to predict this kind of stuff but I'm sure jamiemac wouldn't call you crazy for a Justice Hayes to receiver prop. And while we can't ever plan for transfers, busts, or injuries, and I certainly hope all of these guys play out their eligibility, I don't think anybody is willing to bet on that. If Michigan wants to take another blue chip, history says there is room and opportunities available. However it's not the year Michigan can afford a scholarship for a depthy flier dude to keep up alumni relations or something like that.
Special thanks to the Bentley Library, Rivals and Scout.com, and Sandeep Vijan.