Mailbag: A Lot Of Running Back Stuff, Turning Five Star Recruits Into Five Star Players

Submitted by Brian on August 12th, 2013 at 1:17 PM

Green redshirt? Er?


one dude is not enough


I was wondering what your take on Green getting a redshirt would be.
I know it's an unusual concept to redshirt a blue chip running back, or
an uncommon practice. But with Fitz Tousaint at 100%, who has proven his
abilities as a top tier back, and Michigan having a fully loaded stable of
RB's, is it a better practice to allow a player that is already this good
another year to develop before he is unleashed on the world for mayhem and destruction?

Is Michigan in THAT much need of another RB that Green should play immediately, or is offering him the redshirt the way to go? Will
offering him a redshirt cause atrophy in the competition between the backs
for the starting spot? Also, would Derrick Green transfer if he was
redshirted? Any insight you could give would be appreciated.

Even if Fitzgerald Toussaint is 100% healthy, someone else is going to get a lot of carries. Michigan ran 502 times last year, and even carry-magnet LeVeon Bell only scooped up 382 for Michigan State. Meanwhile, Toussaint has 130 and 187 carries the last two years. There are going to be 200 to 300 carries, minimum, handed out to other players, and with the situation at quarterback only a handful will be Devin Gardner's.

So someone's got to play. If Green is the second-best back on the roster it should be him, because:

  1. Michigan has a very legit shot to win their division
  2. Green is likely to start next year if he is the #2 back on the roster
  3. blue-chip freshman like to go places they play early
  4. with De'Veon Smith and Damien Harris waiting in the wings Michigan won't miss a hypothetical fifth year from Green much, and…
  5. if Green ends up being of interest to the NFL he will almost certainly not be around for year #5. Tailbacks have short shelf lives, especially when they're moosebacks.

Add in the uncertainty generated by Toussaint's miserable year and injury and there is absolutely no case to redshirt Derrick Green unless De'Veon Smith is obviously better.

What goes down at running back generally?

Hey guys,

With all of the weapons that Hoke is stockpiling, I was wondering if you guys know the plan going forward at the running back position.

Running back seems the most interesting to me with Borges' pro style making a big return. That said, how will the staff balance Fitz and Derrick Green? Has Rawls proven to the staff he can be a 3rd down bruiser that can get the 1 yard when we need it? Are there roles for Justice Hayes, Drake Johnson, and Norfleet in the backfield this season? With the full stable back there is there any chance any of them convert to other positions?

I've been dying to know anything about the running backs and would love some insight.


These are many questions. The last one is the easiest: yes. Dennis Norfleet has apparently already been moved to slot receiver, which is fine by me as long as they use him.


Hayes, too, is likely to end up in the slot at some point. That's not insider information, it's just a guy looking at the depth chart, thinking about what Michigan clearly wants to do, and extrapolating. Hayes was regarded a guy who could move to wideout coming out of high school, and Michigan is about to be short on slots. Johnson is pretty much RB-or-bust; he'll stay where he is.

Answering the last question answers the second to last: not really. Hayes was nominally at the top of the depth chart after spring and Johnson was getting some practice hype, but I expect both to be marginalized. Third down back is up for grabs—my advice to those guys is to get really good at pass blocking.

Apparently I'm going backwards: no, Rawls has not proven he can be a third down bruiser. If anything he's proven the opposite, repeatedly going down on contact on short yardage plays. It's likely that not only Derrick Green but De'Veon Smith, Wyatt Shallman, and Sione Houma are better options for short yardage this season.

The first question is pretty much the thing. I expect Green to immediately take over short yardage duties, where his power is welcome and his potentially iffy pass blocking (freshman) is not relevant. Fitz should be fully healthy and he is a damn good back when he gets a little blocking, so the bet here is he starts the year getting the plurality of the carries. As things move along Green should come more and more into the offense, like TJ Yeldon last year, until they're about splitting carries evenly.

Making elite players elite… uh… players?


Graham and Martin were indisputably elite.


I was wondering about Michigan and player development.  I completely understand the Heininger Certainty Principle, and how Mattison can take a average player and make him good.  I also know that they can take a good player and make him great. 

However, with getting Peppers and the possibility of getting Hand, is there any recent evidence from Mattison or Hoke that they can mold elite recruits into elite players.  Or should I change my definition of elite from first round draft and successful NFL career.


That's a pretty high bar to clear. Mike Martin was indisputably elite in his senior season but does not meet the criteria as a third round pick. After one year he's being touted as a potential breakout player by people who have obviously never seen Martin play. But is it on Mattison and Hoke that NFL teams are sometimes dumb? I say it is not.

The thing about evidence that Hoke and Mattison can take a guy like Hand and make him into an elite player is that I know for a fact Hoke has never had a Hand-level guy to mold. Mattison did have a number of five stars to deal with at Florida, and we'll get into that.

First, Hoke. He was Michigan's defensive line coach from 1995 to 2002. During that period Michigan had the following players drafted from the DL:

  • Will Carr (7th round, 1997)
  • Glen Steele (4th round, 1998)
  • Rob Renes (7th round, 2000)
  • Josh Williams (4th round, 2000)

That, uh, isn't great. But how much of that was on Hoke and how much was on the fact that Michigan was recruiting and playing guys like Dan Rumishek, Norman Heuer, and Shawn Lazarus in 2001? While those guys were all quality pluggers, Hoke wasn't exactly working with Brandon Graham and Lamarr Woodley there.

Michigan's defensive philosophy in the late 90s and early aughts was to hold up offensive linemen with RVB types and let their athletic linebackers wreak havoc. They recruited NFL linebackers and put many of them in the league for long periods of time: Dhani Jones, Ian Gold, Larry Foote, and Victor Hobson all launched long NFL careers in a four-year span in the early aughts. They recruited blue-collar guys out of the Midwest on the line without regard to their rush abilities or hugeness: all three of the DL mentioned above were 6'4" and around 290. No matter how technically adept they were, the NFL wasn't going to be interested because they don't fit anywhere in an NFL 4-3 under.

The much-traveled Greg Mattison had a similar track record until he tapped into a geyser of talent:

  • Renaldo Wynn (1st round, 1997, ND)
  • Anthony Weaver (2nd round, 2002, ND)
  • Justin Tuck (3rd round, 2005, which was the year Mattison left for Florida but he's worth mentioning.)
  • Joe Cohen (4th round, 2007, Florida)
  • Marcus Thomas (4th round, 2007, Florida)
  • Ray McDonald (3rd round, 2007, Florida)
  • Jarvis Moss (1st round, 2007, Florida)
  • Derrick Harvey (1st round, 2008, again Mattison had departed)

At Florida it went: nothing, nothing, entire defensive line off the board before the fourth round ended. That tells you that the level of talent he was working with took off—he's pretty much the same coach at that point. Instead of coaching up blue-collar pluggers he was teaching explosive large versions of same to do the same things the blue collar guys did. And lo, they wrecked things.

Despite the rankings, Michigan has very rarely brought in the kind of top-tier guys they have lined up the next couple years, and when they did sometimes they were crazy. The touted Germany/McKinney/Slocum/Taylor recruiting class turned out to have three guys in it that couldn't stay enrolled for whatever reason. But other than that, Michigan's track record with five-star-ish defensive linemen has been good: Woodley, Graham, Branch, and Taylor were all quality college players and high NFL draft picks. Gabe Watson, popularly derided a guy as who never lived up to the hype, was still two-time All Big Ten and a mid-round pick. Pure talent busts are limited to Will Campbell, who should have been an offensive lineman all along… and still got drafted.

Player development is inherently difficult. Every year half of the first round of the NFL draft is comprised of relatively unheralded players. Busts are inevitable, talent is talent, and you just have to get piles of it to have a Florida-type DL. Michigan is going to approach that level of talent in the next few years.



August 12th, 2013 at 2:02 PM ^

Player development is inherently difficult. Every year half of the first round of the NFL draft is comprised of relatively unheralded players.

And the other half of the first round is comprised of relativley heralded players.

Which makes me wonder ... is the upside success for unheralded first rounders roughly equal to the downside fizzle for heralded?  In other words, is it ultimately a bit of a statistical gamble either way for first rounders?


August 12th, 2013 at 11:40 PM ^

I've often felt that the first round is so specific to each team that you see far more illogical decisions there than elsewhere in the draft. With a first rounder, you may be going for box office appeal, a very specific need, etc. that doesn't necessarily correlate to talent. Like, all the offensive linemen taken early this year is a good example of need trumping talent. Not saying they won't be good or would not have gone in the first round, but there are definitely linemen drafted above their talent there.


August 13th, 2013 at 3:20 PM ^

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August 12th, 2013 at 2:14 PM ^

Your assessment of the D-Line history is pretty spot on, just a couple of footnotes:

At that time the line also had James Hall, who was not drafted, but did end up playing 12 years in the NFL. Maybe not what the writer was going for, but surely a success story. 

And in the "I didn't come to school to play school" category, we did have a 1st round pick during Hoke's tenure....he just ended up graduating from Clemson- Trevor Pryce. (And also had the drafted and probably would have been drafted higher if he hadn't ended up at Western Illinois David Bowens.)  So there was some elite type talent...they just didn't always stick around.

San Diego Mick

August 12th, 2013 at 2:14 PM ^

I believe they will be the top 2 guys in the RB rotation, the depth behind them will be nice to have, I'm just wondering what Drake Johnson will be able to achieve, hopefully he's good and his speed will be a really good asset in some games.


August 12th, 2013 at 2:25 PM ^

an article about him his junior year in HS he said he would stay all 4 years and get his degree and that he was in no hurry to be in the NFL. That may change of course but he values education more then people realize.