Preview 2015: Running Back Comment Count

Brian August 27th, 2015 at 4:21 PM

Previously: Podcast 7.0. The Story.


-This preview, two years ago


-This preview, last year


Rating: 3

De'Veon Smith Jr. De'Veon Smith Jr. Ty Isaac So.*
Ty Isaac So.* Derrick Green Jr. Drake Johnson Jr.*
Drake Johnson Jr.* Ty Isaac So.* Karan Higdon Fr.

This was a straight-up mess for much of last year. De'Veon Smith and Derrick Green had little idea of what functional blocking looked like (understandable after 2013) and a tendency to run at random. If—and this is entirely hypothetical—you were to rewatch some of these runs in detail you may—again, entirely hypothetically—find yourself reduced to screaming Happy Gilmore quotes about being too good for your home and then self-abasing because Happy Gilmore is a very bad movie enjoyed only by children and Ace. Hypothetically.

Late in the year Michigan tried out Drake Johnson and Justice Hayes and that went better, particularly with Johnson. Over the last four games of the season—Indiana, Northwestern, Maryland, and Ohio State—Johnson got the plurality of the carries and averaged 6.0 yards a carry to Smith's 4.7. Johnson had a reasonable day even against Ohio State, with 15 carries for 76 yards… and then he tore his ACL. Again. Sam Webb reported he only got fully cleared on Monday.

So it's back to those other guys, oh and Ty Isaac. Let's try it again, this time with coaching.



HAIR ZOOM 2015 [Fuller]

Last year:

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.

This year: ditto.

The first arbitrarily ordered running back is DE'VEON SMITH. Your author does admit that the order of this list may contain some meaning. He is of the opinion that Smith is the most Harbaugh-friendly of the guys currently on the roster.

At his best, Smith is a beefier version of Mike Hart. He's got great balance and generally feels like a nuclear-powered icebreaker.

If you're in an offense where the line consistently delivers you three yards, Smith's ability to bash out another two or three with his balance and power is hugely powerful. That turns third and medium into third and short or a first down. It radically changes the percentages you're working with. This is the kind of gentleman Harbaugh made some headway with at Stanford. Going over all my Smith clips from last year is an exercise in YAC YAC YAC, to the point where the times he doesn't scrape out something after contact come as a shock.

[After THE JUMP: Smith downsides and three other arbitrarily ordered guys.]

At his worst, Smith also feels like a nuclear-powered icebreaker. This is in fact a long run against Appalachian State, but it's the kind of long run that establishes why he's not likely to have many against high-level teams.

Should Smith ever be so fortunate enough to be a feature back for a team that is really good at running the ball, he's going to get caught from behind a lot.

That's fine if you're Mike Hart and you're generating so many of those yards yourself; when you patently lack Hart's ability to ghost out of TFLs it's a bigger issue. Meanwhile Smith took a while to get through holes, something that Michigan fans muttered about and then felt viscerally when Drake Johnson started zipping through them.

Last year's UFRs spent a lot of time on the tailbacks and Smith was ably summed up in game one:

Smith seems more ponderous into and out of cuts [than Derrick Green]. I like Smith's balance and ability to squeeze out 2-3 yards after contact with eerie Hart-like consistency. He should be Michigan's first option on short yardage, no question. In this game Green felt like the better combination of change of direction, size, and explosion, especially since Smith wasn't exactly perfect with his vision either.

There is a mention of poor vision in that blockquote. While Derrick Green was more frustrating in that department, Smith also caused some well-blocked plays to implode. One of them was notable enough to draw attention from outside the corners of the internet inhabited by wild-eyed Michigan fans eating each other:


Smith did fix that later with a decisive upfield cut for a good gain.

Unfortunately, that was not the end of it. Smith had a high-school-ish habit of trying to bounce things outside if things went poorly in front of him. And then sometimes he failed to bounce when the end was sealed inside with authority—something that's almost a guaranteed first down if the running back handles it right. His issue in this department was less severe than Derrick Green's; his performance was still substandard.

Hopefully a year of experience and an increasingly functional offensive line will allow Smith to develop in this department. For long sections of last year the running backs felt like guys who didn't know what they were supposed to be looking for on any particular play. Michigan imported a few guys who are really good at communicating that. The idea that one running back coach could be meaningfully better than another is something this blog has been skeptical of, but the reasons why this might be an exception are detailed in the next Arbitrarily Ordered Section.

As far as Smith goes, it feels like he needs a fully operational space station around him if he's going to be the super-efficient pounder that is in him somewhere. He was at his most effective against Northwestern, when he was able to slip through the line and utilize that power and balance to bludgeon the Wildcats.

One particular third and short conversion was whistled dead despite Smith still inching forward with two different Wildcats hanging off him like 300-pound Christmas ornaments.

Smith was much less effective in games where the offensive line was unable to give him that head of steam. Against MSU, PSU, and OSU he averaged just 2.8 YPC. Johnson was little used in the first two of those games but was at nearly five yards a pop against the Buckeyes. This was in part because Johnson didn't need holes to be as wide or last as long.

Smith's not going to turn –4 yards into 4 like Hart, but if you can deliver him just two yards downfield before he encounters resistance you're gonna have a good time. Harbaugh specializes in creating offenses like these… but maybe not in one year. Harbaugh would recruit Smith a thousand times over; he may not be ideal for this year's team.

It appears he's the best they've got. While most practice reports have been pretty noncommittal about the running back situation, the ones that do assert a leader assert that it's Smith. The recent student-only scrimmage confirmed that take. The exception in this department has been Rivals, which is relating takes from a ludicrously optimistic practice observer:

One practice observer described his effort thus far akin to Seattle Seahawks Marshawn Lynch, saying Smith has been in "beast mode" and that the coaches love his effort, determination and his ability to find the open holes.

Okay dot gif. Everyone else says he's a nose ahead of a pack that's not exactly running at breakneck speed. YMMV.

Reasonable expectations are hard to judge since Smith could lose the job in three weeks or grab on to it with vice grips; I think it's a platoon the whole way with Isaac and one of Green or Johnson; Smith gets a plurality of the carries, is better at finding the gaps because coaching, and maybe seems a bit like former Minnesota tailback David Cobb if we're lucky.


15443225592_0cc3b323cd_z (1)

[Adam Glanzman]

The second arbitrarily ordered running back is DERRICK GREEN. Green, an uber-recruit, arrived on campus in 2013 having added some bad weight and proceeded to play like it. I mean, probably. It was hard to tell what any of the running backs would do in situations where they were getting tackled after the handoff. But did seem like he should have been meeting defensive linemen 2.5 yards in the backfield instead of 3.

Green set about correcting this in Public Humiliation Diet fashion, culminating in an instagram shot of the dude all hulked up.


Green went from 248 to 220, slashing his body fat percentage by two-thirds. Expectations were raised, and when Green tore through some truck lanes in the opener he did indeed seem pretty damn big, fast, and agile. This was a tantalizing introduction to New Derrick Green:

Dude had 15 carries for 170 yards, and after 2013 few Michigan fans were inclined to listen to anyone trying to put the brakes on with any "level of competition" business. It was clear that he had a change of direction and explosion he lacked as a freshman. He also occasionally displayed a Smith-like ability to run through tacklers.

Then, like everything else, it all went to hell against Notre Dame. Green (and to a lesser extent Smith) made a series of boggling cuts against the Irish to sabotage an offense that was already 97% shoes. This was probably the worst:

It had some competition. I get extra twitchy when the OL directly in front of your face do their job very well and you cut away from the hole they've made.

Large portions of the post-game UFR write up were dedicated to these and other botches; after a 31-0 demolition it was this bit of the offense that made me "twitch more than anything else."

Green did not improve much in this department before his season was cut short by a broken clavicle.   The difference in his stats between Michigan's two non-Power 5 opponents and the rest of his season leaps out:

  • Versus ASU, Miami (NTM): 37 carries, 8.3 YPC.
  • All others: 45 carries, 3.6 YPC.

"All others" consists of games against Utah (31st in rush YPC D), Notre Dame (60th), Minnesota (92nd) and Rutgers (120th). Green's truncated sophomore season was a grand disappointment. And sometimes you wonder if it's at all salvageable.

But what about coaching and HARBAUGH? That is the hope. It's a reasonable one. It's no secret that this here blog was highly frustrated with Fred Jackson. Over the last decade we've seen very little running back development, the extreme regression of Fitz Toussaint, and a parade of refugees suddenly get a lot better elsewhere. The best back since Hart was probably Brandon Minor, and while I like Brandon Minor that's damning.

Replace Jackson with Tyrone Wheatley and you may get an appreciable bump in performance. Normally I would downplay such a thing since RB is usually a spot where you have it or you don't, but we've got three recent datapoints (Mike Cox, Thomas Rawls, and Toussaint) in which a roster non-entity or opponent-sack-generator has left Michigan and found the NFL quite interested. Cox and Rawls had highly productive seasons at a lower level; Toussaint went direct to the NFL and stuck on the Ravens' roster. This may be a situation in which the differences in both positional and overall coaching can drive improvement.

Harbaugh can help Green in another way, as well: if Michigan ends up running a lot of power and other gap-blocked plays where Green is destined for a pre-determined gap, that could mitigate the vision issues that plagued his sophomore year. If Harbaugh and Drevno can consistently deliver Green three yards downfield his physical package entices once again.

Even that is not a panacea, though:

That is a nice gain if Green is patient enough to wait for his guard to give him a side of a block to go to, or sets up the LB with a juke, or just runs upfield at the big hole. Ditto this run against Utah where Green doesn't wait for Hill to even make contact  before he decides where he's going.

Green was doing something completely unrelated to the blocking in front of him way too often last year, on all plays. There was no better example of that than Green cutting to the front side of a play with a fake end-around that 1) is supposed to create a backside lane that was there and 2) featured a spare cornerback to the frontside created by the end-around action.

It's one thing to blindly ram yourself into a hole that is supposed to be there and isn't. It's entirely another to blindly ram yourself into guys several gaps away from the location the play attacks.

But I mean hey Chris Perry, right?

Unless Green suddenly gets a lot better at finding holes he is likely to be relegated behind one to three other backs. No matter how much we scorn the previous coaching staff, things were so bad last year that I can't imagine he figures it out completely. Best guess is he gets 50 or 100 carries spread through the year and looks good on a few of them and not so good on a few more.



[Bryan Fuller]

The third arbitrarily-ordered running back candidate is DRAKE JOHNSON. Johnson is by far the least touted of all the available tailbacks, but by the end of last year a lot of people thought he was Michigan's best guy regardless of injury or or redshirt. I was not one of them at first, but it was harder and harder to deny as the season trundled to its conclusion even if he looked kind of like a flamingo when someone tackled him.

Johnson was at his best when he could find a gap and burst through it:

I don't think Smith gets through that gap and I don't think Green finds it. Johnson was also capable of a one-step redirect at speed that allowed him to slice through traffic, and late in the Indiana game he had a couple of impressive runs on which he found creases and blew through them.

In an effort to cover the most interesting bit of last year that came during the who-cares section at the end, I went back over Johnson's runs. The most notable thing: a lack of forehead-smacking cuts away from holes. The sample size is still low, but Johnson displayed by far the best vision of any of the available backs. When he was given a crease he generally went in it. It seemed like he understood what was likely to happen on an inside zone and what he should do about it:

Johnson's final run was his most impressive of the day:

The second level stuff is all well and good; I like the cut to get through the line a great deal. I have been waiting for a Michigan back to feel the development of a zone play and hit it in the right spot all year.

I completely disagree with Johnson's self-scout:

All told, Johnson was Michigan's most explosive rusher. He describes his style as "feral."

"If you throw a cat in the street, it's just going to run," he said. "It doesn't really have rhyme or reason. It just moves for whatever the situation is. That's how I run the ball."

He was a disciplined inside zone runner in a world where most of Michigan's backs looked like they had no idea what the playcall was.

Johnson lacked Smith's ability to power through ankle tackles and occasionally got the opposite of YAC, but he doesn't need the blocking to be as good as some of the other guys to make something of it. He's a candidate now, a serious one.

And then because the Michigan run game couldn't have nice things under Brady Hoke, Johnson blew out his ACL for the second time against Ohio State. He was a hair under five yards a carry at the time. That was spectacularly bad timing. Johnson missed the entirety of spring practice and was not fully cleared at the start of fall camp. He was only cleared Monday, and Harbaugh said his availability for Utah was questionable.

Effects from that ACL issue may linger for another month or two as Johnson gets used to having both of 'em again. As a result Johnson's 2015 may start off a lot like his 2014: the occasionally carry late in a game that's already decided as he tries to impress enough in practice to get on the field. His opportunities may be limited if the other guys perform.

If not, Michigan will take a swing with him again. Even if he does look like a flamingo sometimes.

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



The fourth arbitrarily-ordered running back candidate is TY ISAAC, another uber-recruit. A five star to two sites and 54th overall in the 247 composite, Isaac was heavily pursued by Michigan earlier in the recruiting cycle that eventually brought them Smith and Green. He eventually decided on USC. One year later he was on his way out.

Playing time wasn't a problem, as Isaac appeared in every Trojan game and picked up a respectable 40 carries. Other reasons were likely more prominent: Isaac's mom had some complications with surgery that prevented her from travelling to see Ty's games; Lane Kiffin, the coach he committed to, got axed.

Often you should lower expectations for transfers since one of the major reasons kids move is because they aren't panning out. In Isaac's case he seems to have had a reasonable freshman year in a loaded backfield and moved for reasons other than a sudden realization he wasn't going to ever play.

Even so it would be reasonable to tamp things down a bit. He didn't hit the top end of his range by becoming a major contributor at USC immediately. I think the more conservative estimates (ESPN had him 122nd, 247 85th) of his talent are more realistic than the whiz-bang five star stuff.

That still leaves a highly intriguing prospect. Isaac is enormous for a tailback at 6'3". The average NFL tailback is 5'10"; Isaac is going to meet plenty of linebackers he outweighs. If you've got the time here's an unusually long (22 minute) senior highlight reel:

Isaac has quick feet on the inside and brings a lot of momentum with him when he hits players. He's also got reasonable long speed. He's not especially sudden and isn't going to dance past tacklers; his best assets are his size and his ability to make subtle changes in direction to slip into gaps in the line.

MGoVideo also has an every touch video from his freshman season at USC. In it, Isaac makes almost all the right cuts, gets upfield quickly for a guy his size, and runs over a number of defensive backs who can't calculate what mass times velocity implies for the upcoming collision in time to abort. He looks very solid. Allen Trieu:

"He was in a pretty loaded backfield," Trieu explains. "I thought his talent was evident though. He's big, the definition of deceptively fast, and ran more physically than I expected."

Isaac is also renowned as an excellent receiver. His high school team rarely deployed wide receivers, so when they did pass it was often Isaac getting into downfield routes after being lined up as a wingback. He looked more than competent. If you don't have time for 20 minutes of Isaac, here's two and a half in which Isaac is targeted as a receiver via Ace:

Highlight films emphasize the positive, yes, but a lot of people who have seen him in person came away thinking that he's got unusual skills in this department:

Very natural hands out of the backfield and won’t drop a pass. Runs really precise routes and is a mismatch against linebackers on third down.

Isaac can catch the ball extremely well, he’s great at putting his foot in the ground and making decisive cuts and he actually was one of the top performers in the open-field drill, a drill tailor-made for smaller backs. …may outgrow the position but has freakish ability.

One of the top moments from his freshman year was a dumpoff catch and run on which he dodged a linebacker and plowed through a number of flailing defensive backs.

So Isaac is a weird player. Most guys his size end up playing linebacker or even DE. If they play offense it's generally H-back. Isaac's rare athleticism allows him to remain a tailback, but if you think Harbaugh isn't thinking about moving him to half the positions a football team has you don't know Bo 2.0. This is going to be a major avenue for his playing time.

For one, Michigan needs a third down back. Neither Green nor Smith (combined career catches: 5) seems well suited for the role. Usually you want your third down backs to be little shifty guys because their lack of height helps 'em block and the shiftiness helps 'em squeeze out first downs, but Isaac is so big that he can block just fine at his height and also provide a downfield receiving threat. What he lacks in shiftiness he makes up for with the ability to swat DBs out of the way.

Isaac's versatility also opens up more of the kind of things Harbaugh loves to do with motion and formations. Would you be comfortable putting a linebacker on him if he lined up wide? With limited exceptions, no. Therefore Harbaugh can use him to get favorable matchups for other receivers. Therefore he will feature in packages where he is something between an RB, H-back, and WR. There were rumors that Michigan was experimenting with packages featuring all three healthy tailbacks simultaneously. Isaac's versatility is a major driver of that.

The catch is a lack of familiarity. Isaac missed the bulk of spring with a hamstring injury. This was a bad time for Isaac to get injured what with a new insanely competitive coach handing out "PLAYED 60" shirts for the guys who didn't miss a minute of spring. There were some dark mutterings that Isaac and Harbaugh weren't seeing eye to eye and that might precipitate a transfer.

Those appear smoothed over for the year but Isaac also missed significant chunks of fall camp with an assortment of nagging injuries. Harbaugh wants guys to play through those, and Smith hasn't missed a snap. To rise to the feature back spot, Isaac is either going to have to stick it out a bit better in practice or make the most of his opportunities early in the year. Chances of that are low.

I still expect that Isaac's skill set will find him a significant role in the offense. When asked about last year's scout team exploits, Kyle Kalis was effusive:

“I mean, he was bruising guys up. He was killin’ it. We were all like, ‘Oh, man, we cannot wait to see Ty!’ … He’s gonna be a threat.”

Isaac should prove himself a useful piece, and if he gets on Harbaugh's good side by becoming a practice warrior he has a shot at the top of the depth chart. His talent is evident.



[Patrick Barron]

WYATT SHALLMAN [recruiting profile] started for one of the teams in the spring game and told reporters assembled at Media Day that he was playing tailback, so we'll address him here. A former four-star recruit, a lot of people thought Shallman was best on defense but Michigan has kept him on offense through two administrations; Harbaugh didn't even move him when the gravitational pull of tight end required that high profile players at thin spots move over.

That's weird. It's more weird since Shallman's performance in the spring game was pretty bad:


the straight line is where he went; the dotted line is where he should have

With five other viable tailbacks it would seem it's past time to move Shallman to a blocky/catchy spot or WDE/buck. His prospects for time as a tailback are close to nil. Compounding matters: Shallman got hurt midway through fall camp. After some rumors it would be season ending it appears he'll be back after a week or two.

ROSS TAYLOR-DOUGLAS [recruiting profile] made an appearance at tailback in the student scrimmage, thus confirming that he was a tailback on at least that day. That he's hanging out there at his size instead of trying to fill Michigan's holes at slot receiver and cornerback is not a good sign for his prospects.

Finally, Michigan brought in Floridian KARAN HIGDON [recruiting profile] on Signing Day. Higdon is a compact, tough back who could factor in if things go pear-shaped. His best shot this year is to be a third down guy since nobody else on the roster is really shaped like one, but there has been total radio silence in re: Higdon for the past month. Expect a redshirt. 



August 27th, 2015 at 4:47 PM ^

Whenever I watch Smith run, I can't help but think of one of those baseball hot-dog races.  It's like his legs are too short or something.  Compare:



August 27th, 2015 at 5:03 PM ^

And this is why MGoBlog is my favorite football site.  Kentucky Fried Movie references, things going pear shaped, mass times velocity, etc., all wrapped around solid and insightful analysis.



August 27th, 2015 at 5:04 PM ^

If the worst thing we can say about Ty Isaac is that he has been injured and he might be too big, he should definitely be 1a, IMO. He's the #2 recruit of that group and his true freshman season is probably the best college season yet produced by the group.

M Fanfare

August 27th, 2015 at 5:11 PM ^

If we end up with more than two viable options at running back, and with Isaac's pass-catching ability, someone needs to make sure Harbaugh sees this film.




August 27th, 2015 at 5:20 PM ^

considering the star power on the roster. You've got 2 5*s, a bunch of 4*s, and then Drake Johnson and I still just can't believe we'll have a competent run game. Brady Hoke has crushed my dreams far too throughly


August 27th, 2015 at 5:36 PM ^

Biggest concern with Green aside from vision is balance. For a big back, he always seem to go down on first contact. typically, RBs don't improve balance and they certainly don't improve vision. Vision is one of those thing where you either have it or you don't

Sent from MGoBlog HD for iPhone & iPad

Blue Balls Afire

August 27th, 2015 at 6:15 PM ^

Here's my unsolicited take on the RBs.  Feel free to skip if you don't care for the opinions of a random message board guy.  As Brian mentioned, Green needs to know where he's going before the ball is snapped, and so does Smith.  They're not zone-blocking running backs.  They need a gap assignment to run toward to be effective.  They were literally lost in space last year trying to run zone.  This was another example of Hoke/Nuss trying to impose a system onto ill-fitting personnel, and it took them two-thirds of a season to figure out Drake Johnson was the best zone runner.  To me, Green and Smith are pure fullbacks.  Not the H-type either, but the old-school fullback in the I or wishbone who'll get the occasional 32 or 31 dive play.  I hope to god with Harb/Drev installing an appropriate run scheme that fits Green and Smith's abilities, they'll be better this year.  To me, the key to the whole season is Ty Isaac.  If he can break out, or even just contribute as a solid every-down back who can run inside and outside zone effectively, I think MI has a chance to have a really good season.

True Blue Grit

August 28th, 2015 at 10:17 AM ^

I would guess the coaches, being very smart and experienced people, will realize this and you'll see them (Green and Smith) running better this year.  But, in general, I think the key to this being a very successful season vs. a mediocre one is the running game.  How soon Michigan can develop a solid to good running game will determine how well this season goes.  And a good running game means few turnovers, a strong YPC, minimal number of negative yard plays, and an ability to convert on 3rd and short consistently. 

Blue Balls Afire

August 28th, 2015 at 10:30 AM ^

Could not agree with you more.  A solid running game will make THE difference.  Although I expect Green and Smith to be better with Harb/Drev coaching, we know what we're going to get with them for the most part.  Ty Isaac is the big unknown.  If he runs like a 5-star and can impact a game, watch out.  He's the pivot point to the season, IMO, for all the reasons you spelled out.


August 27th, 2015 at 7:21 PM ^

will forever look like a bowling ball sitting on chopsticks. I'm not sure he even realizes how much of a blow simply lowering his shoulder can deliver, once he's gotten past the 3 yard mark. Smith is exactly as described. Exactly. Ty is the same, a true "?". Johnson - if he ever gets back to form - is the only guy I completely trust as of this writing. At HB you either have it or don't and if the top-2 don't show more very quickly I'd move on. Smith could play defense (LB, IMO) in a true scenario of need:ability


August 27th, 2015 at 7:31 PM ^

I am expecting a down with 4 RBs, 2 FBs, 4 TEs and Peppers running wildcat. It will be stupid, but if Brian is hearing about 3 RB sets, then why not.


August 27th, 2015 at 8:38 PM ^

My guess is Smith and Green both split carries against Utah, the the next couple of weeks before conference season are when we see the carries really break down.


August 27th, 2015 at 8:55 PM ^

Your piece on Ty was amazing. Funny and well written.
I think most people will be surprised by the RB production, and who it comes from. Lack of coaching was the biggest problem, these guys have the talent and the line will be twice as good this year.


August 28th, 2015 at 11:04 AM ^

Fred Jackson is much maligned, and with the examples Brian provides I can see why, but for all his recent issues, he was the coach of Wheatley and Hart. So... what happened? And who does Wheatley have as examples hes a good RB coach? 

Cranky Dave

August 27th, 2015 at 9:59 PM ^

Isaac play. But the injuries and rumors of disagreements with Harbaugh make me cautious about him getting lots of carries early in the season. In the meantime I do have faith that the current coaching staff will make better use of the guys on the team.


August 28th, 2015 at 1:53 PM ^

If Ty Isaac stays healthy I see him having a HUGE year. The guy seems to have the most upside to be an almost unstoppable player. Just a freak athlete at running back. Really excited to see what he brings this year!