Preview 2014: Running Back Comment Count

Brian August 25th, 2014 at 4:03 PM

Previously: Podcast 6.0. The Story. Quarterback.


-This Preview, Last Year


Rating: 3

De'Veon Smith So. Derrick Green So. Drake Johnson So.*
Derrick Green So. De'Veon Smith So. Justice Hayes Jr.*
Drake Johnson So.* Wyatt Shallman Fr.* De'Veon Smith So.

How did Michigan's current tailbacks do last year? I don't know and they don't either. The situation on the line and Fitzgerald Toussaint sucking up a bunch of carries left Michigan relatively short on snaps to give anyone still around, and then when they got those snaps they were immediately drowned in a pile of opposition bodies.

This was especially bad since Michigan has almost exclusively recruited guys with tree-trunk legs who aren't going to put a Hart move on you. An anonymous opponent talks to Michael Spath at Big Ten Media Days:

"They needed to have a really quick, change-of-direction back, kind of like [Nebraska's] Ameer [Abdullah], but they had two guys that were similar size that were more like the big, physical type. Like Carlos Hyde, but they weren't as fast as Carlos, they didn't have the holes to run through, and they didn't have the vision."

Or that vision was wall-to-wall doom. The jury is emphatically out.


Unless Ty Isaac gets his NCAA waiver, something that does not seem likely, Michigan only has four-ish tailbacks on the roster after Ross Douglas's sensible move to slot receiver. Three of those have drawn heavy mention through fall camp, and one seems to be the very tentative #1 back. (Or at least he did until they released the depth chart this morning, but Rome wasn't written in a day, people.)


HAIR ZOOM 2014 [Fuller. Nice resolution, bro!]

That is DE'VEON SMITH [recruiting profile], a ball of muscle Michigan won in a head-to-head battle with Ohio State. Smith had a bit of a Braylon Edwards in him last year… the Braylon who was infamously Not On The Same Page with Lloyd Carr early in his career. Smith was left off the travel roster in early November for obscure reasons—Hoke gruffly explained that "De’Veon didn’t travel because I took him off the travel team"—that turned out to be some major friction about playing time. Smith couldn't understand why he didn't have all of it and had a rep for expressing that point of view… let's say passionately.

It seems like that friction is in the past now. Reports have varied as to who is at the top of the tailback depth chart, but they have varied in who, if anyone, is 1B to Smith's 1A. The BTN guys said Smith was at the top when they visited practice; our insider thought Smith was clearly at the top of the depth chart; Hoke told the assembled media that Smith and Drake Johnson were the top two guys. Then he said Green was the top guy with Smith just behind, and then they were neck and neck. so… yeah. My Bayesian estimation is that Smith has a tiny lead that wouldn't even be worth mentioning except for the fact that I have to talk about someone first.

Given Brady Hoke's favorite word other than "well" and its total lack of applicability to the last couple editions of the Michigan ground game, these presser statements are almost a coronation:

"The one thing I know about De’Veon is he’s probably as tough a guy as I’ve been around. His identity is toughness. The way he practices, he’s a guy who can get dinged up but he’s still going to go, and he’s going to go, and he’s going to go."

I'm totally fine with this. I predicted Smith would emerge as the #2 back last year; I preferred him when asked in a mailbag after the season.

I am bullish on him because people complain about his speed, and I like Mike Hart. Speed is an overrated quality for tailbacks because 90% of the time they never approach their top end, and Smith brings a lot of Hart-like qualities to the table.

One is the fact that if you used a giant claw to extract De'Veon Smith from the tumbling melee of a football game, his legs would keep going. Turn him over: still going. Etc. From the Northwestern game:

I liked Smith's "leg churn," as faux NFL draft analysts like to say. He seems to have a knack for keeping his thighs moving as the pile forms around him.

That ability to keep his stride when being harassed was key for his big run against OSU, when he ran through two tackles without even acknowledging their existence.

And since Smith barely got a carry with any room to do anything last year the GIF I asked Ace to pull from Smith's highlight film is still a good representation of his assets:


The man has uncanny balance and the ability to run through tackles. In addition, Smith had a Hart-like aversion to fumbling through his high school career and didn't put one on the turf in his freshman year.

What Smith didn't show in year one was anything approximating Hart's ability to ghost out of tackles he had no right to avoid. Smith needs more help than Hart did and hopes to make it up by being bigger and more powerful once he gets going. That was a major problem last year and might be one again.

The broken record bit: any attempts to predict production here are seriously compromised by the massive question mark on the offensive line. I'm guessing Smith and Green platoon just about down the middle, with neither really emerging into a star; both are decent, and just decent.

[After THE JUMP: Mega-recruit now mega-hulk, the pass-pro brothers, God willing, and a belated appreciation of Vincent Smith.]


Apparently this must have happened last year. [Fuller]

Speaking of Green, head #1A is mega-recruit DERRICK GREEN, who everybody panicked about because he was too big as a freshman. There was e-looting and e-chaos after the fall roster listed him at 240. Everyone then felt totally vindicated about this panic as they watched Green work his ass off to turn into perma-Hulk as they ate cheese puffs while watching Buffy on Netflix. (Is Buffy on Netflix?)

Obligatory shirtless instagram photo:


Everyone isn't wrong. The roster in fact underestimated Green's heft; according to the man himself he was 248 with 27% body fat last year. Green's freshman year did underwhelm, and for reasons beyond the chaos in front of him. Spath flagged down an anonymous Big Ten opponent for a take:

"Green was supposed to be their big freshman but he didn't impress me. He was really slow to the hole, and with their line, that hole was so small and he just wasn't the kind of guy that could squeeze in there."

From my point of view, Green just kind of fell over too much. After Minnesota:

Derrick Green is a bust? He's a bust!

I didn't think he could do much with the runs he couldn't do anything on. But he hasn't shown a whole lot of power yet, which is worrying. He goes down on first contact a lot for a power back.

One offseason later, Green is 220 pounds with 9 percent body fat and ready to rumble. Ideally the weight loss will make him faster to the hole, whereupon he can run through guys trying to tackle him from the side and maybe get to his true A+++ skill, which is trucking safeties like a mofo.

We have the requisite reports that Green is "much more physical" this year and that his feet are very good for a guy his size. That was the reason he was such a big deal recruit: a combination of  size and nimbleness you don't often get.

Green can only live up to those recruiting ratings if he is a physically overwhelming dude in the mode of an Adrian Peterson or a Beanie Wells. When so much of his weight last year was not capable of generating power he was just a guy; maybe this year he can be something more.


Started from the bottom, now we're here. Which is third. But third isn't bad! [Fuller]

Redshirt sophomore DRAKE JOHNSON is head #1C. He was touted as a potential feature back for most of spring before Hoke made an abrupt about-face late, classifying Johnson with Justice Hayes instead of the two moosebacks:

"All of them have done a nice job, I think they're improving, I think they're getting better," Hoke said. "In third down situations, Drake and Justice have done a nice job."

Then depending on who you listen to he has either been a real contender to start or a guy who will play because he's their best pass blocker. And hey, after last year we are all hyper-aware of the importance of pass blocking in a tailback. Sam Webb a couple weeks ago:

He is showing power and explosion without the tentativeness that is typical fresh off of ACL surgery. He was also the best pass blocker before he went down last year, and that is a HUGE key.

But by the end of fall camp Johnson had clearly fallen behind Smith and Green:

"Going into it, Derrick was No. 1, yes," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "I think No. 1a was De'Veon. And I think Drake can help us a bunch."

And things were back to where they were in spring: Johnson will play, but Michigan has better options for feature back.

Since Johnson blew out his ACL covering a kickoff in the opener last year we don't have much to go on other than his reputation as a recruit—very fast straight-line guy without much wiggle—and the odd thing that's reached the outside of Fort Schembechler.

Oh and this is your annual reminder that Drake Johnson was directly exposed to the fact that Fred Jackson cannot have his thirst quenched by anything.


This is going to be weird, but: it's only a small exaggeration to say that Vincent Smith's departure was the most damaging that Michigan suffered before the 2013 season. The Last Of The Pahokeeans was a blitz pickup machine; in his absence everything was higgledy-piggledy.

For real. No one in the history of UFR has ever had back-to-back weeks in its protection metric like Fitz Toussaint did against MSU and Nebraska: –14, –9. In general a –2 is awarded for a complete biff that destroys a play whether it leads to a sack or a wild rollout that ends in zilch. I was advocating for Jack Miller's removal after he put up a –6 against UConn, and a tailback(!) more than doubled that in one game. It was beyond ugly.

On this one he comes to a stop after the PA fake and gets run over by a blitzer. Toussaint hits this guy in the chest instead of the midsection.

He's also stock still, which means all the momentum is with the defender.

I have no idea why or what happened to him and may have unfairly asserted that a couple of missed pickups where his fault when it's equally possible the line was a problem, but the overall trend was shocking. Insane, and shocking. I mean:

So! Let's fix that. Can we fix that? I don't know but I am going to assume yes because otherwise I will die right here right now.

DRAKE JOHNSON is likely to get first crack at third-down back, given his apparent third-place finish in the tailback derby and his reputation as Michigan's best pass blocker. As for what Drake Johnson's like, see above. We don't really know yet.


Justice Hayes is hanging around at #4 [Fuller]

Michigan will also play JUSTICE HAYES, who was reputed to be a spread-oriented space back coming out of high school but decided on Michigan anyway. He's struggled to get off the bench thus far in his career, which is alarming since he was a junior last year and Toussaint was doing all that stuff above. Hayes did get some time as the season went on, mostly as a quick release valve in the short passing game.

It seems like that's going to be his role, if he in fact has one. Hoke:

"Justice (Hayes) caught the ball out of the backfield well. There was (a blitz where) he stepped up and took on the linebacker, did a great job."

He is pigeonholed.  For what it's worth, I thought Hayes was a viable option after the spring scrimmage:

On the few runs on which tailbacks had an opportunity to do something notable it was usually Justice Hayes doing the notable thing. He had a couple of quality cuts in tight areas that got him a nice chunk. … There's no reason that Hayes shouldn't be given a look as the feature back after last year's lack of production all around and his evident ability. He was no slouch as a recruit, and being able to pick through traffic is a nice skill to have.

I was pretty frustrated when Hoke mentioned Hayes strictly as a third down back afterwards. Michigan seems to insist on having big guys at tailback under Hoke. Maybe he's not replicating the promise that admittedly tiny sample size suggests.

Hayes probably isn't going to get more than a few carries with Johnson horning in on his third down role, and then maybe he'll get a dozen catches on top of those—Michigan does seem to be emphasizing quick swings out of the backfield for which Hayes is well-suited.


Wyatt Shallman Michigan v Kansas State kYbuqJpIP4Fl[1]ncf_g_isaac01jr_400x600[1]

Shallman, Isaac

Even if no one else believed it, Michigan brought WYATT SHALLMAN [recruiting profile] in as a mondo tailback last year, and Shallman did play there during the fall scrimmage. He may be an H-back long term; this year he's an interesting option for the role Michigan invented late last year when Joe Kerridge started getting a bunch of snaps next to Gardner in shotgun formations. Kerridge was just there to block; Shallman may  be able to provide FB-style blocking while being more of a threat to do something with the ball.

And the probably: USC transfer TY ISAAC is around, hoping he gets a waiver so he can play this year. Given the way Michigan has approached his practice time—scout team—that does not seem likely. Hoke just mentioned that Michigan hasn't heard anything about Isaac's "appeal," so they've been shot down once already. Wait 'til next year.



August 25th, 2014 at 5:49 PM ^

Vincent smith was a great blocker, Kerridge did okay when pass blocking as well, and fitz is at least in the right spot just terrible at blocking in clips designed to show he wasnt a good blocker. Jackson gets the benefit of the doubt though because hes been around forever and has coached some great players. 


August 25th, 2014 at 5:50 PM ^

My personal belief is unless you have a truly elite back that separates from the pack, who starts or gets 2nd string carries is pretty moot.  UM has had a lot of quality - not NFL elite - type RBs for 30 years but they ran behind OLs full of NFL elite guards and tackles.  So they all looked pretty darn good and over the years relatively interchangeable.  Every so often you had a true standout like Jamie Morris or Mike Hart but by and large you got 2 very good years out of a Wheatley, A-Train, Perry, Powers, Boles, etc.  Very very good college backs but helped immensely by a loaded OL nearly every year. 

I think Wisconsin in many ways nowadays has repeated what UM used to be in the running game - they have a lot of guys who do great at the college level at RB but are not necessarily NFL elite RBs.  But they have a hell of an OL almost yearly and the RBs are pretty much inerchangeable - you can throw any high 3 star/low 4 star RB back there and they will get 1000 yds.

This is a long way of saying I don't see any of our guys in the "elite" category of RB but if you put either Green or Smith behind a 1994 OL they'd both do very well.   I think the run game is going to be far more dependent on the OL (i.e. 80% determinant) than the individual talent of any of the co-leaders (or Drake).   If things dont improve on the OL even an Abdullah or Gordon will look not good on our team.

Probably more important for his specific team is how they pass protect and if they can escape out into space and grab 4-5 yard passes which will replace some runs.


August 25th, 2014 at 5:59 PM ^

That is another great example - Denver would throw in just about anybody and he's get close to 2k yards for a 6-8 period there.  Similar to my Wisconsin *current era* and UM of old parallels.

I think all of us have come to appreciate the OL's impact on a game far more the past few years then the lip service most give to the position in the past. 


August 25th, 2014 at 7:11 PM ^

Uh, and Wheatley too, he was better than all of them.  Funny how Jamie Morris and Mike Hart (great backs, don't get me wrong) are the two set apart and Wheatley, Thomas and Perry were in the "other guys" category.  Weird.

Space Coyote

August 25th, 2014 at 9:06 PM ^

Wheatley had a decades long NFL career, was hampered by unfavorable coaching situations, but still had a season of over 1000 yards rushing and was a Grudan favorite for his running and catching abilities.

Biakabutuka struggled for a long time with injuries, but had three straight seasons averaging over 4 yards per carry, and one over 5 yards per carry. He had over 900 yards from scrimmage in 11 and 12 games before eventually ending his career with injuries.

Thomas was the rookie of the year, had two seasons over 1000 yards, and averaged over 60 yards per game for his first three years.

Perry struggled through an injury filled rookie year, was the primary backup his 2nd year (behind pro bowl RB Rudi Johnson) as he ran for almost 300 yards and caught over 50 passes. He reinjured himself the year after that and missed not only 2006, but 2007. But in 2008 they had turned the starting RB job over to him. Unfortunately by that time, Perry was a bit of a shell of his former self, still suffered nagging injuries, and the lack of playing for two years caused the fumbles to creep up on him.

Michigan had as solid and good NFL RBs as any other B1G team. And really, in that time, only Eddie George and I guess Mike Alstot really outperformed the Michigan RBs by and large. The problem with the Michigan RBs, like many of the B1G RBs, is that thy were run so much in their college careers, that by the time they got to the NFL, they quickly wore down or became injury prone.


August 25th, 2014 at 9:06 PM ^

Anthony Thomas was a "stand out" is because Justin Fargas broke his leg during his freshman season.  Thomas was no great back, he just happened to be the only remaining answer.  Fargas doesn't break his leg against Wisconsin he would have been the #1 back in 1999 because Fargas could do what always remained a problem with Thomas, he could stay on his feet.  Thomas finally somewhat got it together his senior season, the problem for him would have been that a healthy Fargas was still going to be better.

Mr Miggle

August 25th, 2014 at 9:33 PM ^

is elite in the NFL, then how many does all of CFB produce? One every 4 or 5 years? It's an impossible standard for any team to meet. I'm not sure why you would put Morris and Hart ahead of guys like Wheatley and Thomas. They were all elite college level RBs. Mostly they were top ranked recruits too. The difference was we sometimes had more than one on the roster at the same time. They don't go #17 and #8 in successive drafts just because the line made them look good.


August 25th, 2014 at 5:50 PM ^

I scored a permit to backpack Kauai's Na'poli Coast this year. I have canceled my plans in favor of watching the game at a sports bar on the island.
Our backs are going to bust moves all day long and this human art will trump natural beauty by miles. They will renew ancient memories of Michigan backs steamrolling and trucking clusters of the opponent.
Smith and Green are both going over 100. It will be like the smell of napalm in the morning. (Patton voice) Gawd forgive me but I do love it so.


August 25th, 2014 at 6:14 PM ^

I'm not sure if I'm missing something on the "Napalm" quote but my reference for that is "Apocalypse Now".  It was Robert Duvall as Lieutenant Colonel William "Bill" Kilgore:

"You smell that? Do you smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn't find one of 'em, not one stinkin' dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like . . . victory. Someday this war's gonna end."


August 25th, 2014 at 6:38 PM ^

The facepalm, wups, "napalm" reference was to Duvall's character in AN.
George C. Scott's portrayal of General Patton included a line concerning battle similar to my statement "[g]awd forgive me...."
So you received twice your money's worth here at MGoBlog. You're welcome! 


August 25th, 2014 at 5:56 PM ^

My gut tells me Smith will be the better back for the 2014 team and Green potenially for the 2015.  That is entirely based on the fact Smith can run through a tackle better and seems to have better balance.  Those are traits I think will be needed a lot more in 2014...than hopefully will be needed in 2015.  Green seems like the guy you want at the 2nd level of the defense and had some better cut back ability and vision - traits needed once you get past the LOS.  Smith seems like the guy you want to get through the LOS...which most likely is going to be the issue of 2014.


August 25th, 2014 at 7:39 PM ^

Dude, seriously, are you trying to get me fired? I haven't worked a minute with all of this content. Can I expect the week to be like this, because if it is, I might as well "work from home." Awesome level of content. I love this week on this blog.


August 26th, 2014 at 12:55 PM ^

Regarding Green's weight, I buy that he was 248 and 27% bf last year, although I seem to remember a mention that he was up over 250 at one point.

The issue I have is with his current 220 and 9%. That would mean that he lost 28+ pounds while at the same time gaining 19 pounds of lean mass. I don't see that happening in a single year. That "after" photo of him also doesn't seem to approach 9%.

But I'm nitpicking. I expect that he'll be a lot quicker this year. I still worry about his leg-churn, as that doesn't depend on weight and I didn't see any of it last year.