A position-by-position look at Michigan's 2009 season. Previously: Quarterbacks.
With Mike Hart gone there was a void at tailback for the first time since David Underwood yielded to the mighty mite freshman in the third game of 2004, and no one really knew who would fill it. But at least there appeared to be candidates, unlike quarterback:
Like quarterback, Michigan loses a four-year starter and program icon here. Unlike quarterback, there are six options of at least moderate viability and chances are some player or combination of players emerges into a strong Big Ten starter.
As to who that was going to be, I dismissed Brandon Minor…
Minor runs too upright and stiff for my tastes. He's clearly slower than Brown and the fleet freshmen, has little wiggle, and tends to plow over and through defenders instead of trying to avoid them. Sometimes this ends with Minor spectacularly trucking someone; sometimes it ends with Minor taking a wicked shot from a headhunting linebacker or safety.
In the best case, Barwis gives Minor the half-step he needs to get the corner and he’s a poor man’s version of Darren McFadden. In the worst case he’s David Underwood. He must be physically dominant to be effective because he's not going to make people miss much and he doesn't have Hart's remarkable balance. IMO, he gets his fair share of carries throughout the year but is clearly less effective than at least one other tailback and possibly two.
…and put my money on… well, no one. Brown:
Carlos Brown has a knack for picking up annoying hand injuries. Last year Brown busted his hand in fall practice and missed the early portion of the season; in spring he cut or broke his finger or something in a “freak weightlifting accident.” I suspect Barwis bit it off and spent the summer growing a replacement in a jar.
He's a little small, and his his disappointing senior season was injury-wracked to the point where his nationally televised showcase game saw him spinning 180 degrees before contacting tacklers and driving meekly at the feet of oncoming blitzers, but even the skeptical Rivals named him last year's best running back in space and publicly wondered why he was heading for Michigan instead of a school that would spread him all over the field like Wes Welker—white guy, natch—and take advantage of his crazy speed and cutting ability.
Uh, check. He’s nominally first on the depth chart already, and will see time all over the field. It begins.
The hype is building on Shaw because he chose the right time to juke a couple defenders and plow slot-sized freshman cornerback Boubacar Cissoko. The media was there doling out oohs and aahs as appropriate and a practice legend is born.
There’s more to Shaw than proficiency in the “Michigan drill,” though. He hovered just outside the recruiting sites’ top 100 lists and spent the spring tearing up the track until he was banned for transfer-related shenanigans. He is fast. And he is fast. And he is fast.
Amongst the stupid predictions I offered in the "Five Questions and Five Answers" section:
The running back situation involves a mess of players; Minor, Brown, McGuffie, and Shaw all see 100 carries. Brown has the best YPC.
As we'll see, that was sort of right.
The Disappointing But Not Horrible Truth
That take on the running back situation wasn't far off, though it 1) presumed a heavier slant towards the run and 2) a paucity of quarterback runs. It therefore overestimated the number of carries available for running backs. Oh, and erroneously assumed Carlos Brown would be healthy. Fool me once, shame on me, etc.
The end results:
Everyone was injured at some point, from Minor's nagging stuff at the beginning of the season and then a series of shoulder/rib/shoulder injuries that held him out late. McGuffie was a concussion magnet. Shaw strained his groin and was in and out, and not 100%. And Brown spent much of the year limping before a pretty excellent game against Northwestern.
Anonymous Strong Big Ten Starter was, briefly, Sam McGuffie. His performance against Notre Dame…
McGuffie's most impressive trait against Notre Dame was his vision. When there was a cutback, he took it. When he needed to be patient and wait for the crease to open up, he waited. When he needed to spin around and stuff, he did that, sometimes multiple times on one play.
You could see the difference when Shaw came in: on both of his rushes Shaw had the opportunity to make more yards if he made decisive cuts outside. Instead he cut up or hesitated and had to settle for minor gains.
…was reminiscent of one Mike Hart, but against defenses less permeable it became clear he was incapable of breaking tackles due to his size and when you're playing for Michigan 2008 you have to be able to break tackles because Lord knows they aren't going to block anyone.
When the Penn State game rolled around, Michigan deployed Minor extensively and all other options were quickly relegated to second best:
My hope is that this MINOR RAGE offense is something they can work from as a baseline. I think they've found an effective rushing offense that's going to move forward most of the time—even when rushing plays didn't work that well against PSU the result was usually a 2 or 3 yard gain, not the epic losses from previous games—and must be defended foremost. From there Michigan can add in racing stripes and a spoiler and maybe move away from the basement of total offense rankings.
Michigan State timed a bunch of snaps and threw Michigan's offense off, and Ohio State throttled them as expected—though they did double their offensive output from 2007—but even so the second half of the season was a step forward for the rushing game:
Here's a testament to the Rodriguez running game that might evaporate in the arms of various Ohio State players, so let's just get it out now: despite having this pile of backups and freshmen in an injury riddled offense without Mike Hart and Jake Long and, like, a functional quarterback, Michigan's average YPC is better in 2008 (4.03) than it was in 2007 (3.97).
There is a long, long way to go, but if Michigan can improve that YPC by a half yard and not have the worst quarterbacking situation in the conference you can see the outline of competence in there. That's the most encouraging thing that's happened over the past half-season.
In this, at least, Michigan progressed.
2009, And Beyond
Sam McGuffie appears to be on his way out the door, returning to Texas and hopefully landing at a place where opponents don't have personal vendettas against his skull. Though skepticism about his size limiting his upside as an every-down back proved well-founded, I still think he could have emerged into a weapon of use. A couple of Michigan's rare downfield passes were McGuffie on seam routes or wheel routes wherein he would make a tough catch before getting lit up by a safety. At times his freaky balance was put to good use; the kid has a future as a slot receiver like, yes, Wes Welker. Sometimes the comparison to another white guy is inevitable. But finding McGuffie's proper place on the field appears to be someone else's problem now.
That leaves three guys vying for the starting spot next year, with Kevin Grady scheduled to look on dourly. Assuming Brandon Minor is healthy he is your starter next year. The only player who could touch him in YPC above was Michael Shaw, who did that on limited carries and occasionally drove coaches mad by running the wrong way or fumbling handoffs. Minor killed his early fumbling problems—he didn't put the ball on the turf once after his breakout Penn State game—and tore through arm tackles effectively. One worry: he does run upright and often straight at defenders, which means he takes as much of a pounding as he delivers. That style was a contributing factor in the injuries that held him out of the Northwestern game and limited his time earlier in the season; a recurrence is possible.
Carlos Brown did run pretty well against Northwestern and was quantitatively better than Minor when the two split carries in 2007, but at this point counting on him to remain healthy is a rube's game. I will hesitantly suggest that if—if—Brown does remain upright and functional he could be a surprising breakout player in his final year. He's shown himself to be at least somewhat talented and has all the recruiting accolades you could want. The bet here is for a lot of injuries and 80 or so carries in a backup role, but Brown is a wildcard.
Shaw, meanwhile, was a boom-or-bust guy, a jet in the open field but pretty dodgy when it came to decision making. Shaw tried to turn a lot of plays into big gainers and instead got tackled in the backfield; hopefully that's an adjustment from high school and something he can fix. He's certainly got the speed to take it to the house when he breaks through the crease.
Also, he gets tackled funny. I can't explain why I think that at all, but when he goes down it's persistently unusual. At this point he's your favorite to be the starter in 2010, and should see 100-150 carries next year.
Minor, if healthy, should be one of the conference's better backs, but not its best. Probably third or so assuming the early departures of Beanie Wells and Shonn Green.
A fleet of freshmen reinforce; depth here will be fine even without Horn and McGuffie.