NOPE [Bryan Fuller]
[New bolded player rules: not necessarily returning starter, but someone we've seen enough of that I'm no longer talking about their recruiting profile. Extant contributor.]
|FEATURE BACK||Yr.||SHORT YARDAGE||Yr.||3RD DOWN||YR.||SPREAD H||YR.|
|De'Veon Smith||Sr.||De'Veon Smith||Sr.||De'Veon Smith||Sr.||Jabrill Peppers||So.*|
|Ty Isaac||Jr.*||Kingston Davis||Fr.||Drake Johnson||Sr.*||Chris Evans||Fr.|
|Drake Johnson||Sr.*||Ty Isaac||Jr.*||Karan Higdon||So.||Drake Johnson||Sr.*|
|Jabrill Peppers||So.*||Kareem Walker||Fr.||Ty Isaac||Jr.*||Ty Isaac||Jr.*|
Last year was more of the same from a Michigan running back corps that had slowly devolved since the moment Mike Hart left. Upticks from Brandon Minor and Fitz Toussaint were more than offset by yards eschewed, random running, that year Toussaint couldn't pass block a soul, and a steady stream of Michigan discards who blew up as soon as they landed on another team.
Large sections of your author's time were spent fighting with people about how bad it was or was not, so here's Dane Brugler on De'Veon Smith:
His vision and run instincts tend to run hot/cold, leading to questionable decisions, and with his lack of explosive traits, Smith needs to be more decisive and trust what he sees. He tends to leave you wanting more due to his marginal burst and instincts, but there is a place at the next level for Smith due to his power, ball skills and upside as a blocker.
It was pretty bad… and then it got better. Smith's outstanding Citrus Bowl was the exclamation point on a mid-season turnaround that looks a lot like those Chesson and Rudock experienced. It wasn't as dramatic, but it was there. I'm going to whisper the next sentence: it almost kind of looked like someone had figured something out.
Running back coaching matters? I want to believe.
THE MAN THE MAN THE MAN
After consecutive years where this preview listed options at all three roles above in an almost but not quite entirely arbitrary fashion, Michigan enters the season knowing who their first-choice back is: DE'VEON SMITH. They know who their short-yardage back is: De'Veon Smith. They know who their third-down back is: De'Veon Smith. They think he's good enough to put him in the bin with Amara Darboh and Jourdan Lewis and all the other veterans who don't need spring contact.
Survey says... eh, maybe. Smith's bravura Citrus Bowl against some tough, if potentially disinterested, customers was the exclamation point to a rollercoaster season. If you don't want to read the rest of this section here it is in 15 seconds:
Smith abandoned his pulling guard, disappeared into a pile of bodies, was still upright seven yards later, got caught from behind, shook off a defensive back, got caught by the same guy again, and shrugged him off once more like so much lint on his varsity jacket. Few sixty yard touchdowns in the history of Michigan football have been as likely to cause the coaching box to exclaim "what are you DOING?" the instant before the breakthrough.
That was Smith's 2015. For every shattered defensive back left trembling in a puddle of his own making...
...there was a truck lane ignored.
Last year's UFRs invariably contained a book-length subsection on the running backs and the yards they made or, more often, set on fire. As the lead back Smith came in for the plurality of the discussion. Depending on the week this discussion was either generally positive and hopeful...
/spittle shields at 70% and dropping
Actually… I got nothing this week. I thought the backs did well. I complained about a lead zone run last week. Michigan didn't block it well; Smith mechanically ran into the gap he should go in if they in fact did block it well. He ate a DT for minimal yardage. I didn't care if Smith actually got anything on the play, I just wanted to see him see what was going on in front of him and put a foot in the ground to give himself a chance.
He did that on this one:
That cutback doesn't look like it'll amount to much when he makes it but Michigan gets on some blocks and Smith runs through some guys and it's a nice gain. If he'd gotten swallowed by an unblocked LB back there it's still the right cut.
...or blackly grim:
I feel like this is going to lead into another running back diatribe.
Are they really diatribes?
Large portions of last year's preview focused on Smith's tendency to run at random, which outlets other than the Michigan obsessive bits of the internet picked up on:
The hope was Harbaugh and Wheatley could get Smith moving in the right direction more often, and for most of the season that was dashed.
But the frustration I experienced was not limited to Smith. Everyone who took more than a dozen or so carries made at least one mindbogglingly bad cut, from Drake Johnson to Ty Isaac to Derrick Green to Sione Houma. That's widespread enough to seem like a coaching issue, and Smith's trajectory confirms:
[UFR charting for ballcarriers is another spot where zero is bad. Zero means you got what was blocked and nothing else.]
|1||Utah||5.5||7||-1.5||0||Cuts late let M down.|
|2||Oregon State||15.5||4||11.5||0||4||Brutal Legend|
|3||UNLV||2||8||-6||0||Two very bad plays and not much to make up for it.|
|6||Northwestern||7.5||1.5||6||0||On just 8 carries.|
|7||MSU||5||5||0||0||2||Grinder; a bit frustrating with the cuts again.|
|10||Indiana||4.5||2||2.5||2||2||Frustratingly slow sometimes but made up for it with power.|
|11||PSU||9.5||4||5.5||3||+2 blocking, +2 on catches, and then +3 late, which fits a pattern discussed below.|
|12||OSU||7.5||7.5||0||1||Made a significant number of yards himself. Zero pass pro minuses.|
|13||Florida||15||2||13||0||1||I be like dang|
That is a veritable late-season surge. Smith came in for some clucking after the PSU game since I didn't care for three of his 13 carries, but in the context of the last five games that's the outlier and being good at running is the trend.
This was clearest in the bowl game. Smith probed for holes, showed off a Mike Hart-level backfield stutter, and fired off a decisive backside cut on his first three carries. The stutter's probably the most impressive but the cut is the most important:
That's vision, and I was floored as it continued for an entire game against the #5 S&P run defense:
And this continued! Presented with a DL penetrating almost to the handoff point Smith cut off his OL's back and blew through an arm tackle. On the three, Smith turned negative two yards into two by juking two dudes and running through a couple tackles. Even on certain runs where it looked like he'd screwed up, the tape revealed he was trying to make the best of a bad situation only to find that there was no relief elsewhere. It took me a couple takes to realize that this was Smith avoiding a wholly unblocked LB in the hole:
As I said in the table above, he's probably better off running right at the guy for a few yards but I prefer Smith seeing trouble and adjusting even if it doesn't work out. Early in the second half Smith cut to the backside of the line and got hewed down early because a safety blitz prevented Darboh from getting to the guy. That's an RPS minus; without the playcall Smith is ripping off another backside cut. Even with it if Cole had cut off penetration a little better Smith can attack the S head-on, and that usually ends badly for the DB.
At that point I hadn't done the OSU game and wondered if that was a one-off; now that the entire picture is in view it's obviously not. I mean… it's kind of a Rudock trajectory. It wasn't quite as obvious since Michigan tried its hardest to avoid the defensive lines of PSU and OSU, but it's there. That's why Smith was placed amongst the revered elders during spring.
So. The dude remains a nuclear-powered icebreaker. The number of tackles he blew through was truly impressive, and even when he was in fact being tackled piles had a tendency to lurch two or three yards towards the endzone:
I have literally dozens of these clipped:
Smith grinds out yards after contact better than any back I've seen at Michigan. Yeah, he's slow. Yeah, he's not going to juke a guy in the open field. But in the right situation he can be a killer. That situation is surrounded by very good blocking that delivers him three yards downfield on a consistent basis. Smith will turn that into five or eight or eleven yards better than anyone not named Fournette. Is he going to have that this year? Maybe, maybe not. Michigan should get closer to it.
Smith's peripherals are unambiguously positive. He fumbled just once last year. He was also a strangely effective third-down back, to the point where I called him "King Hippo Vincent Smith." This is mostly because of his consistently excellent pass blocking:
Smith has the oomph to stand up linebackers like nobody since Mike Hart. This was a point of discussion after Penn State, a game in which Smith only got eight carries and still managed to stick out as an asset:
Smith has power and agility and can pick guys up. Even big guys. … Then in this game he added a couple of dumpoffs on which he displayed that fun Smith-vs-defensive backs stuff. On back to back plays at the end of the first half he turned nothing into something, first getting a few when Rudock got nailed, and then plastering a DB across his windshield for a first down:
This is something you can work with.
His eight protection minuses on the season are only twice what Ty Isaac managed to acquire in scattered snaps against Oregon State, and there was a distinct lack of the "team" minuses I hand out when I'm not sure who screwed up. 13 over the course of the season is a really low number and off the top of my head I'd guess that two-thirds could not be on Smith.
As a bonus, Smith is a solid outlet option because of this SAT analogy:
De'Veon Smith : defensive back :: windshield : insect
In limited opportunities he's shown that he's also an asset as a run blocker:
After that game I described him as a "low-to-the-ground 230-pound brick"; after the pass block above I broke my longstanding commitment to pooh-pooh all motivation/effort talk:
I usually assume everyone's going all out all the time and dismiss motivation stuff, but this week I got frustrated with a couple players for a lack of want-to. Smith never lacks that. Smith wants to end you. Even if he's slow and his vision is lacking, that's something.
He's the kind of guy willing to play through just about anything, and that's something Harbaugh has noticed.
Smith is a good bet to be Michigan's first 1,000 yard back since Fitz Toussaint. He's got a half-season of being pretty good and has more upside than you'd expect because so many of his issues stemmed from an unfamiliarity with the offense and running back basics. Wheatley:
"(Now we're trying to) get guys like De'Veon and Ty Isaac (and Drake Johnson) to what I call a mastery level. Progressing past the things we did last year."
It says here that Smith's 2015 is a better version of his second half. Michigan will rotate him a bunch to keep him as healthy as possible—his pounding style is tough on him and caused him to miss chunks of multiple games—and this will keep his counting numbers from attracting national attention, but his YPC should take a big step forward along with his reputation amongst Michigan fans.
[After THE JUMP: Jabrill Peppers! And other guys, but also Peppers!]