Preview 2009: Tailbacks

Submitted by Brian on September 2nd, 2009 at 9:46 AM

Part three of the all-singing all-dancing season preview. Previously: The Story, 2009 and Quarterbacks.

Note: video from last year is lightboxed; previous years will take you off the page.

brandon-minor-ohio-state

Rating: 5 of 5.

RB Yr. FB Yr.
Brandon Minor Sr. Mark Moundros Jr.*
Carlos Brown Sr. Kevin Grady Sr.
Mike Shaw So. Anonymous Walk-on ----
Mike Cox Fr.* Anonymous Walk-on ----
Brandon Minor
2007
Sweet spin
Truckin’
Stiff-armin’
Plowin’
2008
Early rage
ND rage
UW veer TD
Used as H-back
Frowns: fumble
Illinois RAGE
Seam TD
Impossible Yard
PSU TD #1
PSU RAGE
Purdue RAGE
More PU RAGE

It's no coincidence that Michigan's running game took a quantum leap forward when Brandon Minor was installed as the starter against Penn State and told to run very hard in one direction until the gore covering everything proved too slippery to get a foothold on. MINOR RAGE was born in a shocking first half against Penn State and all other options were instantly demoted to second-best. Gone was the preseason depth chart that featured a whopping three "OR" denotations. When healthy, Minor was the guy. It was obvious from his first drive against the Nittany Lions. It was obvious from his first thumping run:

After weeks of watching a couple freshmen zip into linebackers or, more often, linemen and then attempt not to get killed, Minor blasted into the secondary and left one of Penn State's safeties in a heap. Debate: over.

So what the hell took so long? Well, Sam McGuffie did flash hints of talent, most impressively against Notre Dame, before opponents figured out that you could just murder his brain. Minor, battling a wrist injury all year, put the ball on the ground with alarming regularity when he got the odd carry early in the season. And there were persistent rumors that Minor found himself amongst the discontented masses on the team that did not fully buy in. (Yes, this which makes Minor's post-season callout of any lingering Zion Babbs a bit odd, but it is what it is.)

Also, Minor hadn't been that impressive in his first two years at Michigan. This preview last year noted the gap in YPC between Minor and Carlos Brown—one that persisted even if you chopped down Brown's 85-yard ramble against Minnesota to something more reasonable—and came down on the skeptical side of things:

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. …

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.

This prediction looked bang on for six games, at which point Minor's projected best case—a poor man's Darren McFadden—sort of came true, didn't it? Minor's not going to go in the top ten of the NFL draft but he had his moments of thunderous downhill stomping, slashing through holes and over and through and past out-of-position defenders. He was one of the few players to seem a physical match for Penn State and Ohio State defenders and should improve further with a year of buy-in and Barwis. Evan Royster may be an obvious selection for All Big Ten tailback this year, but they put two on the team and from this vantage point Minor's as likely as anyone to claim that second spot.

There is a caveat, though: if healthy. I may have been wrong about Minor's overall efficacy but the ominous injury note above was borne out. Minor's early fumbling problems were caused by a wrist issue that lingered through the year and he missed the Northwestern game not with any specific issue but just because he had gotten the hell beaten out of him the past few games. Minor missed sections of camp after an offseason car crash left him with persistent headaches. Asking him to be a Ringer-level workhorse is a bit much.

carlos-brown-minnesota

Carlos Brown
2007
Loping vs Purdue
Behind Jake
Tripping over Leman
Nice first down
85-yarder

Meanwhile, the man this preview thought would claim the starting mantle, albeit nominally, came down with the usual array of nagging ailments from hamstrings to hangnails to exploding penguins. Carlos Brown hardly found the field all year. In fact, he was en route to a medical redshirt before Minor came down with that comprehensive ass-kickage and he was brought out of mothballs to play in the most unpleasant game ever staged. Despite the rust, wholesale lack of a passing game, and driving sleet, Brown impressed, racking up 115 yards on 23 carries—five per—with a long of only 17 against Northwestern's fair-to-good rushing defense.

Carlos Brown, this is your abridged Northwestern UFR:

Brown splits them and is a safety away from six points. … I really wish Brown didn't go down so easily on this one; with Mathews blocking downfield a cut outside might make this a touchdown. … Brown runs through the flailing arms and is away for a good gain. … Brown splits the two linebackers, then jukes a safety(+1), picking up the extra five yards he needs for the first. …  should try to bounce it all the way back behind Sheridan—Steve Slaton used to do that to good effect—but instead just runs into a bunch of dudes. … makes a sweet spin move to evade the rolled up corner and safety. Free of those two, he picks up the first down. Major + play from Brown here. … Brown is indecisive with the safety and gets taken down. [Ed. Note: after ten yards.] … Here's the season for you: Michigan runs against what's essentially a five man front, gets a vast gaping hole and will pop Brown into the secondary for somewhere between eight and a zillion yards, and Brown falls harmlessly to the turf three yards in the backfield.

Heroes?

Carlos Brown got out of the grave and turned in an excellent running day, though a series of slips and stumbles prevented him from breaking a long one, and that last zone stretch on which he turned a likely first down into third and thirteen was a killer.

That's consistent move-the-chains production from a guy we know has gamebreaking speed. Combine the two and you might have something resembling the top-50 player Brown was coming out of high school.

That's the trick though, that and not having a series of freak hand, ankle, groin, hamstring, thigh, spleen, and pancreas injuries that limit him to one 85-yard touchdown against Minnesota and a lot of dour, beslinged observation from the sideline. There's no time like the present for Brown to live up to the extensive recruiting hype and occasional 80-yard touchdown—he had another one in the spring game.

If Brown is healthy and if Minor is healthy at the same time, expect to see a heavy dose of two-tailback sets that allow Michigan to zone read in either direction, run plenty of triple option, and prevent opponents from teeing off towards one side or the other. Rivals actually ranked Minor as a fullback coming out of high school and last year Minor's occasional deployment as a lead blocker was effective, as this Michigan State defensive end can attest:

Unless, of course, he's still wondering why his legs are made of eels and the sky smells so prickly.

Backups And Whatnot

Michael Shaw
2008
Season's first TD
Gets tackled oddly

With Sam McGuffie wisely choosing his ability to remember where he lives and Conference USA over a sophomore season at Michigan, Michael Shaw is other experienced option on the depth chart. Last year he did his best Brown impression, alternating impressive, zippy runs with groin injuries. He added some bonus freshman stuff, too: the occasional horrible decision that ended in a seven yard loss or fumble, either of which events ended with Rodriguez spittle arcing across the field.

michael-shaw-minnesotaLike Denard Robinson, Shaw is made of dilithium, the winner of the 200, 4x100, and 4x200 at the Penn Relays his senior year of high school and a guy who was shocked when someone, anyone managed to track him down from behind once he broke into the open field:

"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.' "

There was good reason for the slowdown, a groin injury that would eventually require offseason surgery for a "sports hernia." If Angry Michigan Running Back Hating God doesn't get involved again, Shaw should see extensive work as a slot-capable tailback on passing downs and all-purpose injury/fatigue backup as he's groomed for the (or, more likely, a) starting job in 2010. Somewhere between 50 and 100 carries at a high YPC and one or two runs where he goes so fast he mutates into a frog-like thing and everyone pretends it didn't happen afterwards would be a tantalizing sophomore year.

Past Shaw there's a cavalcade of freshmen in two groups. Group one—pounding Minor sorts—is Mike Cox. Cox is a redshirt freshman out of a New England prep school better known for producing hockey stars than football players. They only play nine game seasons; Cox was hurt for most of his senior year; no one scouted him before that because right New England prep school; then he redshirted. So, yeah, we don't know much about Cox. There have been erratic positive practice mentions that make the Minor comparison and suggest Michigan made the right choice when they went for Cox over instate star Jonas Gray, now at Notre Dame, after seeing the two side-by-side at camp. Cox should see some time spelling Minor, as Michigan doesn't have anyone other than him to pick up the thundermoose mantle.

Group two—spread ninjas—has two guys in it, both true freshmen. Ohioan Fitzgerald Toussaint was the higher-rated by the recruiting sites. He spent his senior year either shredding defenses for like 250 yards on 10 carries or getting swamped for like 40 on 20. There was little in-between. His highlight video is full of fancy jump-cuts and serious change-of-direction skills; he's slightly undersized but who cares, right? Toussaint's had some injury issues in fall camp and it sounds like Michigan is looking at redshirting him, which they obviously should since he's fifth string at best. Recruiting profile here.

And then there is tiny, zippy Vincent Smith, who arrived for spring and did this during the Michigan drill…

…impressing everyone and reminding us all that Rich Rodriguez might have some idea what he's doing when it comes to tiny who-dat running backs.

Smith's spring game was just okay, but the practice buzz up until that point was very positive. The buzz since has remained equally positive, with teammates dropping his name apropos of nothing. Here's the always-excitable Fred Jackson:

“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.”

It's Smith, not Shaw, who's listed as the first backup to the two seniors on the initial roster. That means no redshirt and frequent duty; I'm betting he's the fan favorite in the race for the starting job next year. His recruiting profile beckons for the curious.

Fullback

mark-moundros-florida Rating: 4 or 5.

I have a hunch that Michigan fans and opposing linebackers are going to become very familiar with redshirt junior fullback Mark Moundros this fall. We know that Rodriguez likes to feed his ogres, and last year Michigan had some success passing to Moundros out of the backfield until opponents caught on to that one play they can actually do and shut him down.

This year Michigan figures to have several plays they can actually do and one spectacularly accurate short-range passer. You can see a glimpse of a Moundros-heavy future in the Forcier porn highlights from the spring game: Forcier gets pressure from an outside blitzer on a rollout and hits Moundros dead in stride. Moundros turns it up in front of a trailing linebacker and picks up a first down. Shades of Aaron Shea there. Shea was Michigan's last frequently-used H-back, an all-purpose fullback/tight end who hauled in 38 catches in 1999. While that number might be a stretch for Moundros something like 20, most of which turn into first downs, isn't out of the question. The occasional carry might be in order, too.

Mark Moundros
2008
Blocks three guys
Crushes DE
Flat TD
Crushing a corner

As far as backups: with Vince Helmuth's move to the defensive line and eventually the MAC, there really aren't many options. Kevin Grady is still around but he's not much of a fullback and after four years disappointing on and off the field the chances he picks up a major role are slim indeed. He's listed second on the depth chart at the spot, FWIW. Michigan's best bet for a backup will probably be a to-date anonymous walk-on. Both Owen Schmitt and Moundros started as walk-ons, after all, and Rodriguez has directly stated he won't recruit scholarship fullbacks in the future. He prefers to breed them in Barwis vats in the IM building basement.

Comments

BleedingBlue

September 2nd, 2009 at 10:26 AM ^

Watching those PSU first half highlights gives me highly unrealistic expectations for this year's running game....or are they?

Projected Spread 'n' Shred Efficacy: 80%
Resultant Wins Projection: 8 (assuming average D)

OysterMonkey

September 2nd, 2009 at 1:07 PM ^

Beginning with the Penn State game last year, UM outperformed our opponents' average defensive numbers in four of six games for yards per carry versus what they normally allowed and in five of six games in total rush yards versus what they allowed on average:

Penn State Avg: 2.8ypc allowed/93.2ypg allowed
Versus UM: 4.4 ypc allowed/202 yards allowed

MichiganSt Avg: 4.1/142.1
Versus UM: 2.7/84

Purdue Avg: 4.5/174.8
Versus UM: 4.8/177

Minnesota Avg: 4.1/143.3
Versus UM: 5.5/232

Northwestern Avg: 3.6/126.4
Versus UM: 3.9/181

Ohio State Avg: 3.5/110.2
Versus UM: 2.7/111

Only OSU and MSU held UM under what they normally allowed opponents in yards per carry, and only MSU held UM below what they normally allowed in total rush yards.

Passing numbers are, of course, another story.

Don

September 2nd, 2009 at 10:29 AM ^

on paper. If they can stay healthy, I think we'll have the leading ground game in the Big Ten, which in turn will immeasurably help our QBs. If the injury bug bites Minor, Brown, and Shaw the way it did last year, then the pressure will be on Tate, Denard, and Sheridan to throw more than is prudent.

Not a Blue Fan

September 2nd, 2009 at 12:00 PM ^

While this is true for most teams (that is, injuries = bad), there are a couple nuances for M this year: a lot of depth (but depth that has a history of injuries) and no proven commodity at quarterback. It's a metaphysical certainty that the QB play will improve, but if AMRBHG rears her ugly head then you're back in the wilderness looking for an offensive identity.

Still, things more or less can't get worse than last year, so you guys have that going for you.

Don

September 2nd, 2009 at 10:39 AM ^

This is the term given to the containers that augmented replicants were grown in during the late 21st century. These replicants, initially created for the old National Football League, were soon used in the terraforming of Mars and mining in the gravity wells of the Jovian planets. The precise origin of the term is obscure; most explanations revolve around a mythical half-wolf creature with a deep, gravelly voice haunting the upper midwest in the former United States with the supposed ability to transform weaklings into superhumans.

WolverBean

September 2nd, 2009 at 12:30 PM ^

is what I'm most excited for this season (and going forward). I remember watching Rodriguez's WVU teams in 2005, when our running game was anemic at best, and dreaming of having that kind of running game at Michigan - one that was fun to watch, moved the chains, had that explosive threat of a breakaway on every single run. Before then, I'd always thought of the passing game as where the excitement was, and the running game was simply a way to keep the defense honest or to plow forward for a needed 3 yards in a cloud of dust. Watching Rodriguez's offense in action was like a revelation to me. A running game that seemed so diverse and effective that it kept the defense off balance even without play action, or indeed many passing plays at all - and that was exciting to watch in the process! Ever since we hired Rodriguez, I've been foaming at the mouth about the prospects of having a truly killer run game here, and with the talent in this group and the cohesion the O-line started to show late last season (and will have built on this off-season), there's a great chance of having that dream become a reality. And man, am I pumped about it.

mgovictors23

September 2nd, 2009 at 12:50 PM ^

I can't wait to see our running game this year. We have a stable of guys that can contribute this year so hopefully that keeps guys fresh and we don't have to worry about injuries.

DCBlue03

September 2nd, 2009 at 1:49 PM ^

I had forgotten that Moundros scored a rushing touchdown last year in the Minnesota game. We lined up in the I around the two yard line, gave him the ball on a quick hitter, and he was barely touched into the endzone. We used to run it all the time with Bo in the 80s, and it's very effective because most plays from the I tend to be slower developing (deep handoffs and 5 step drops), so the defense sort of slips into a react mode and then - boom - a 250 pound guy is charging at them almost immediately.

jaster

September 2nd, 2009 at 4:19 PM ^

I can't wait for the duo of Moundros and Koger this year. I expect these two to be huge factors, albeit often working in the background, so to speak.