“I’m way more comfortable,” Gardner said. “Last year was my first year starting, and it was rough, a lot of ups and downs, a lot of adversity. A lot of adversity I fought through, and I feel like I did a really good job of never giving up, never giving up on myself and my teammates. I feel my teammates recognized that, and my coaches recognized that, and I feel like that will help me.”
No one actually thinks the above depth chart means anything. With zero established performers, a wide array of talents, and an offense that can use two or three backs at a time even when one is Steve Slaton, Michigan figures to deploy four or even all five of scholarship tailbacks above in some capacity. You could make a reasonable argument that any of the five will end the year with the most carries. Rodriguez says "three or four" will play in the opener, and if (when) injury or whatever strikes some member of that group down you'll see the fifth guy hit the field.
It may seem generous to hand this position a 4 when no one in contention for the job has established themselves a star and only Shaw came to Michigan with significant recruiting hype (the only other four star issued to the group is the one Rivals, and only Rivals, gave Toussaint), but the sheer number of options and the diversity they bring means the overall production from this group should be more than acceptable.
The Technical Starter
…is probably Vincent Smith, who seems completely healthy despite tearing his ACL in the Ohio State game in November. During the fall scrimmage he was the guy who started out with the #1 offensive line and Denard Robinson, and in a derby this confused that's as good of an indication as any that he's the man with a slight edge.
We also have the tail end of last year as corroboration. When Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor came down with their entirely predictable injury extravaganzas, it was Smith, not Shaw or Cox, who got the bulk of the work. By the end of the year I was pretty enthused about the little guy. Baby Seal U impressions:
Vincent Smith showed top-end shiftiness and looks like he'll be a solid back. I compared him to Mike Hart on Monday, and think that remains a pretty good comparison. He's also got a little Noel Devine in him; the way he darts through crevices and effortlessly shifts around traffic is reminiscent of the WVU star. He appears to lack Devine's fifth—or eighth—gear, but he's delivered more pop to defenders in one game than Devine has in three years. He'll be something less than a star but he can be very productive.
What can I say? You listen to Fred Jackson long enough and that stuff starts rubbing off. As long as we're on the topic, Jackson on Smith after last year's spring game:
“Small guy, but a big back. He plays big. The way he blocks you and the way he’ll run over you. I’m going to bet that he’s 170 pounds, I don’t know exactly. But I’m going to say he’s 170 pounds and he runs like he’s 200 pounds.”
He was 168, actually, and now he's 180 after a productive summer. And while Jackson's hype above was based on air and mine essentially air, when forced into the lineup against Wisconsin he was productive out of the backfield. What went down on the ground was not his fault:
Yeah, pretty much. The last time I broke out the Vincent Smith praise a commenter said he's not Mike Hart, but he might kind of be Mike Hart:
How many times did Hart do exactly that against Wisconsin to turn a three yard loss into a moderate gain? It seems like a thousand times. He will not grind piles forward like Hart did but I don't recall Hart having this sort of instant acceleration:
I will not be dissuaded on this: Smith performed pretty well in his first two quasi-starts against Wisconsin and Ohio State, scoring receiving touchdowns in each game and grinding out respectable YPC numbers against two of the country's best rushing defenses. He is probably going to start next year and he is going to be good.
Tangent: I think the threat of Smith on these screens and wheels may have had some impact on the line's ability to pass block. When there's a guy out there who can punish you for getting too far upfield, you adjust so that you are not useless when they screen it out.
Smith's ability out of he backfield was one of the team's major weapons against the Badgers, as he was targeted eight(!) times, six of them as something other than a safety valve. Despite playing sparingly, by the end of the year he'd been targeted more than any other Michigan running back, finishing with 10 catches for 82 yards in the final two games alone, and he left the Ohio State game in the first half with the ACL tear. With Michigan focused on the short passing game, he could get 30, 40, maybe 50 catches this year.
The ACL does remain a worry. Rodriguez proclaimed him 100% as early as the opening of fall camp and he seemed fine in the scrimmage, but the conventional wisdom on knee surgery is that while you can be "back" within 6-9 months, it takes twice as long to be truly comfortable doing all the things you used to do. That and Smith's general lack of size will probably put a cap on his touches this season even if he is a crazy hybrid of Mike Hart and Noel Devine, which seems somewhat optimistic.
If you're going to slot Smith into a role, it's third down back for his ability out of the backfield and his blocking—Smith's first playing time last year came when the starters were too banged up to spend their snaps on obvious pass blocking situations, so he drew into the lineup. Pahokee, man.
Extremely Nominal Backups
Judging on the same standard we judged Smith—prominence in the spring and fall plus random quotes that may not mean much—junior Michael Shaw is going to be the first guy off the bench. He looked lethal when Michigan emptied the bench against Eastern Michigan:
Farther down the road, Michigan looks in excellent shape next year at tailback, where all three backups performed well. Shaw was especially impressive; you could tell that all the stuff about being slowed by a sports hernia was no BS. Guy looked Brown fast. Maybe even faster.
Like Denard Robinson, Shaw has track cred to back that up. As a senior in high school he won the 200 at the Penn Relays and anchored the winning 4x100 and 4x200 relays. He's fast; memories of Shaw getting tracked down from behind by a Minnesota defender as a freshman should come with a reminder that he was suffering through a sports hernia—ew—and saw his own mortality afterwards:
"I broke a long run and got dragged from behind. It was then that I was like, 'I'm really hurting. I've never not been able to run, not been able to explode.' "
So he's fast. This is established. His problem has been with everything else so far. Shaw's been fumble- and mistake-prone for the duration of his Michigan career, which allowed Smith to pass him late. He and Smith were the only backs to cough up fumbles in the fall scrimmage. If he hadn't narrowly escaped academic ineligibility it would have kind of been typical.
On the other hand, he was just as effective as Brandon Minor in 2008 and considerably better than Sam McGuffie and Carlos Brown. Whereas Brown tended to fall over if whispered upon, Shaw's balance has caused me to say he "falls over weird" three or four times. During these weird falls he picks up some extra yards. Beyond the obvious, Huyge thinks he's got some plowhorse in him…
“Very quick guy. He’ll run hard. I don’t know how much he weighs, but it doesn’t matter. He’ll still put his head down and try to run through people, too. He’s real shifty. But that’s how our running backs are. He’s shifty and at the same time, he can turn it up and try to run someone over.”
…but that's not something I've seen. If Michigan's going to run inside it seems they've got several better options. Shaw's role: guy who you put in the game in case he runs 80 yards, a la Carlos Brown. He's a first down kind of guy.
Redshirt sophomore Michael Cox is a much heftier runner than Shaw but has most of his speed…and probably even more frustration to him. His physical prowess has been noted far and wide. Here's Fitzgerald Toussaint on Cox:
“He got the ability over everybody. You never know what he is going to hit you with.”
Over everyone at the position?
“Over everyone at the position, Mike Cox.”
Steve Schilling is also positive about his physical attributes:
“He’s fun to watch. He’s a big guy, so he’s powerful, but he’s also one of the quickest we have. So some of these jump cuts he’s able to make and the balance he has is pretty crazy. It’s pretty exciting to see him run. One play that could get stuck in the backfield turns into a 40-yard run for him.”
Cox flashed impressive balance in his limited attempts last year, and while they were against the dregs of the schedule Cox's impressive combination of size and speed to go with that balance invites questions about why he hardly saw the field last year and is seemingly third string this year. A hint was on offer during the fall scrimmage:
Mike Cox continued to show that he might be the best athlete amongst the running backs, but on two separate instances he caused Rodriguez to "lose it" by cutting way back against the grain, turning a modest gain into nothing by dancing at the line of scrimmage. On one "there was a gap on the frontside but he cut all the way behind the backside tackle," losing yardage and causing RR to chew him out; on the second "RR just dropped his headset in disgust."
The story was much the same in spring, when Cox alternated impressive days that lent themselves to a thirteen-year-old's idea of the perfect headline with more of that stuff. Cox is the opposite of Mike Hart right now, a guy who has a ton of physical gifts but little idea how to use them. Michigan will have to put him on the field to see if he can use that upside. Whether or not he takes advantage is a mystery. His career could go like Chris Perry—a frustrating waste of obvious physical gifts until the light goes on and then BAM. Or it could just never go on. Cox is the Darryl Stonum of the running back corps; the difference here is that Michigan has a bevy of options instead of just the one potential deep threat. His role is crazy frustrating guy.
We've been hedging on roles so far, but Stephen Hopkins has an obvious one: angry mooseback. He was one of the stories of the spring after enrolling early and breaking out the truck stick on anyone with the temerity to get in front of him. His late-breaking recruiting profile encompasses the spring hype. Blockquote ahoy:
The guy is just a freaking monster and he breaks tackles. Now, I can’t say he can block, or knows the offense or can catch the ball. Plus, he fumbled twice (once he was hit at the handoff, on the other instance it might have been the QB’s issue). But man is he a tough tackle on the belly if he can get (even) a yard of momentum.
Hopkins continued to gather hype to himself in fall after losing 10 pounds and that distinct aura of cheese curds:
Hopkins was the name on everyone's tongue after a day spent running through arm tackles and showing surprising shiftiness. He "hit the holes and was a load to take down." Trusted Observer said he had a hard time picking out Hopkins before the scrimmage, as he looked like PJ Hill in the spring but after losing ten pounds and reshaping maybe a dozen others into muscle "now looks like a tailback" instead of a moonlighting fullback.
Rodriguez hardly needed to say that when Michigan needs two yards that Hopkins will be placed in front of a fullback and directed to run over anyone in his way, but he has, repeatedly. At a minimum Hopkins will be the short yardage back; once he learns the offense sufficiently he'll be great to pair with Smith or Shaw so Michigan can run the option with a dangerous downhill threat.
And finally there's redshirt freshman Fitzgerald Toussaint. Toussaint came in with a ton of yards, a reasonable amount of recruiting hype, and an 0.8 McGuffie highlight reel, then promptly broke his shoulder (how does that even happen?) in fall camp last year and sat out the season. This year he's been ruled out of the UConn game with an ankle injury and established local insider FormerWolve says his return for Notre Dame is a "MAYBE," which sounds like a "probably not" to these ears. For his part Toussaint says it's "feeling good" and "working out real well," so hopefully this isn't a Minor type situation where it lingers on and on.
FormerWolve also says he is the "clear #1" here, and while I doubt anything's particularly clear in this five-way shootout, Fred Jackson did call him Mike Hart… but fast! No, seriously:
"Michael Hart ability with speed. The kind of guy that can do Michael's cuts, he can sit down, sink his hips and explode by making steps. He's faster than Mike and a very, very tough guy, like Mike was. He's very similar to Mike. He's not the type of inside runner Mike was -- but he's going to get there."
"He's got great feet, acceleration, strength, power," Jackson said. "I can compare him to somebody -- he's like a fast Chris Perry. He's going to be very good."
Fred Jackson has puffed up a lot of guys in his twenty years at Michigan, but I think Fitzgerald Toussaint is the new king of the hill. It's interesting that Schilling's quote on Toussaint is pretty Hart-like:
“He’s a tough runner. He’s a guy that hits it up in there. He’s not afraid to go up the middle and get the extra yards, make a 4-yard run into a 6- or-7-yard run and makes some easier down-and-distance for us.”
If that's true, FormerWolve's assertion that he's the #1 guy becomes almost certain, because he was a high school track star (his 60 meter dash is about a tenth slower than Denard's)—the "fast" bit of Fred Jackson's fever dreams has been established by stopwatches. If either of the first parts are accurate… hello, nurse.
But wait! There's more! Teric Jones came in as a slot receiver/running back and was immediately thrown to the wolves at corner. His only playing time in '09 came against Delaware State, where he was repeatedly victimized on out routes late. In the aftermath he came in for a mention:
Teric Jones got torn up by DSU, which isn't a surprise since he's a true freshman who was a tailback in high school and never saw a snap on defense. I'm shocked he's not redshirting.
He moved to safety, and then back to corner, and is now on offense. That and the state of Michigan' secondary should tell you all you need to know about his potential on defense. On offense his claim to fame is simple: speed. As a junior he turned in a 4.37 40 at the Army All-American combine, and while that's pretty FAKE it was the best time turned in by anyone in attendance at the most star-laden combine in the country. He showed a glimpse of that during the spring game when he didn't quite catch Roy Roundtree despite his ten-yard head start but came awfully close (and dusted Vlad Emilien in the process).
With the positional confusion and five viable options in front of him, Jones will probably take a redshirt year, but he's down here, waiting.
With Moundros's switch to defense, John McColgan should find himself inheriting the job here. A couple years ago I suggested Moundros could see his role in the offense grow to Owen Schmitt levels, but that never happened. He was targeted on some passes out of the backfield, never got a carry, and saw opportunity elsewhere. McColgan won't be much more of a factor, especially with Stephen Hopkins claiming the RAGE as an alternative to Mike-Hart-but-fast carries.
But: that same arrival makes I-form short yardage pounding a highly viable strategy and Michigan will deploy McColgan when the downs get late and the field compressed. He's currently 230, up five pounds from last year.
I'm curious to see if Shaw can be used effectively as a pass catcher and if Smith is as springy as we saw at times last year. This looks like a solid group with plenty of depth. I'm hopeing that one guy can really step up and be an elite back, but I don't think it's likely.
Smith could have been that guy but like Brian said the consensus on ACLs is year 2 is when the burst comes back. That said, perhaps the young ligaments of Mr. Smith are laughing in the face of conventional wisdom, as well as him having an abunance of youthful "caution to wind" wrt to the mental barrier of coming back from a major injury.
With an experienced and solid OL unit and this group of backs there is plenty of reason for optimism that some ninja like knives will be produced.
not from a talent perspective, because I'd love everyone to reach their potential, but because I think sometimes it works better when you have parts that you can swap in and out easily. Given that there is an Angry Michigan Position-Hating God, if one back managed to surpass the others and stand out, I would be concerned that said god would change his focus just long enough to zap that RB and then go back to messing with the secondary.
This really is a position that we are loaded at. I don't know who the starter will be, or who will have the most carries, but one thing that I expect is that as the season wears on, Hopkins' role in the offense will increase. I think that this kid has a ton of potential.
My one concern is that I am not really a fan of the "running backs by committee" approach. There is nothing wrong with playing multiple RBs, especially in an offense where 2 often play at the same time, but I think that having a "feature" back is important. Remember how Hart used to get better as the game went on? The more carries he had, the better he played. This is not uncommon for RBs. My concern is that by rotating 3, 4 or even 5 guys at the position, no one player will have a chance to take command of the game and just grind the other team down.
I'm excited about these guys, and reading the profiles almost makes me wish I had devoted my 45 minutes of line-waiting on Fan Day to the RB queue instead of the DL (almost).
Minor quibble, regarding the 13-y.o. ideal headline ('Cox Rising,' for those of you pretending you didn't click the link): that's good, but not near as good as if you had said he was an "up and coming" option out of the backfield....
Using a scale of: 1=-2, 2=-1, 3=0, and 4=+1, 5=+2 and correcting the previous error for the DL:
Secondary = -2
Linebackers = -1
D Line = +1
Kicking = 0
OL = +1
Now, we really are even on the +/- and should be staying in positive territory from now on.
Life should not be a journey to the grave to arrive safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What A Ride!" HST
The problem is he hasn't been healthy to stay healthy. When a guy gets banged up in two fall camps in a row I start to wonder if he's the kind of guy who's just cursed. Some players just seem to have horrible luck in the health dept. Hope Fitz isn't one of them since he sounds like he might be a true difference-maker.
Sorry guys. Given the health issues and the lack of PROVEN talent, I can't see how this group rates better than a 3. Obviously I am hoping for more but I think other fans would be surprised that we think the RBs are a 4. Remember, DR is the leading returning rusher.
Smith's knee looked fine breaking ankles in scrimmage
I can see a 4 here. Vincent Smith not only didn't look out of place on the field verses Wisconsin and OSU, he excelled. As a 168 pound freshman. He picked up pass blocking his first year, so by now he's probably got the entire system down pat. I figure even with the knee, if he's on the field he'll be smart and effective. I'm confident that they hit on at least one of the wildcards (Shaw, Cox, Toussaint, Hopkins). They're all physically gifted. One of them will catch on, and until that happens, lil #2 has got it covered. Maybe a 3.75 would be more appropriate, but a 3 doesn't credit the stockpile of talent we have there.
Fair enough. I rate it a 2 based on returning production and a 4 on talent level so overall for me it's a 3. But I certainly think they have the potential to be a 4. Not a 5 since there does not appear potential for a truly dominant back. Again JMO but I get your viewpoint.
Thanks for the great preview, although like others I think the 4 rating is premature. The running backs are kind of like our whole team -- lots of reasons to be excited, but no assurance it's going to pan out. Yet surely one of these guys will step up (right?). I'm pretty excited about Toussaint like many others here, but I'm hoping that this year's breakout guy is Mike Cox.
"Football is happening at Michigan... we have that savoir faire." Dhani Jones
I don't think that a 4 is premature. We have 5 options. 3 of them have a good amount of hype coming out of HS. All we need is for 1 of the 5 to live up to the hype, and there you have it, a 4 rating at RB is justified.
Shaw is fast as hell, and finally healthy.
V. Smith is one of those shifty Mike Hart RBs.
Fitz looks like he could be a bona fide star, but has to get healthy first.
Hopkins looks like a young Brandon Jacobs.
Cox looks like he could be B. Minor (RAGE), but with more speed.
You don't think that 1 of the 5 will have a break-out season?
Yes, I do think that at least one of them will break out. But the fact that we have to say "think" is the whole issue. Alabama is not "thinking" that their running backs will be studs. Still, I like this group very much and I look forward to them exceeding our expectations. But let's manage the expectations until 9/4. Personally, I seriously doubt I'm going to get much work done tomorrow.
"Football is happening at Michigan... we have that savoir faire." Dhani Jones
I think a 3 is a much more appropriate rating. Sure, each of these guys have shown flashes and promise in the past, but between your top three guys, you only have a collective 145 carries for 789 yards (5.4 ypc) and 5 TDs rushing, as well as chipping in 19 catches for 130 yards (6.84 ypc) and 3 TD receiving. So you have "hope" that these guys will do well, but we really haven't seen how any of them hold up over the course of a season. Contrast that to the DL which you call a 4, surely the Tailbacks are much less of a known quantity and it'd only be reasonable to call them a 3. There isn't a Mike Martin in this group. Hell, there isn't even a Van Bergen.
That's not to say this group can't be great or even the strength of this team in 2010, but if you were to predict which unit would be more likely to be stronger in 2010, wouldn't that be the DL going away?
I think Smith will emerge from the pack. He may not have the most natural talent, but neither did Jamie Morris or Mike Hart. However, Smith seems to have those undefinable intangibles that will prevent him from being denied.
Am I the only one really looking forward to Brian's WR and QB previews (hopefully later today)? The D previews were sort of scary and depressing, the special teams preview made me happy (Hagerup) and scared (FG) at the same time. But the offensive previews have re-filled my cup of Kool-Aid, and I am once again predicting a good season.
I expect that our WRs and QBs will both receive a 4 rating.
I think people are forgetting the ridiculous strength that was part of the Mike Hart Experience. I'm starting to think Smith can be a productive starter, especially since he seemed to be able to keep his feet and push DBs backwards in a couple of clips from summer practice. But no matter how shifty he is, dude is never going to break tackles like Mike did. Hart was the single greatest short yardage back I've seen at Michigan - he had an uncanny ability to make defenders miss and still find the power to push himself forward for an extra yard or two. Smith might surpass Hart in receiving prowess and maybe in quicks - though Mike hit his dubious top speed pretty goddamn fast - but I'll be extremely surprised if he's ever as effective as a healthy No. 20. Which, of course, doesn't rule him out from still having a very good career.
Very excited about the RB's this year. Though we don't have a clear cut guy as the starter, everyone has the ability to carry the rock successfully at this position. With a much more talented and experienced offensive line, the RB's should really have a solid year for the program.