Preview 2016: Running Back

Submitted by Brian on August 29th, 2016 at 3:11 PM

Previously: Podcast 8.0. The Story. Quarterback.

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NOPE [Bryan Fuller]

[New bolded player rules: not necessarily returning starter, but someone we've seen enough of that I'm no longer talking about their recruiting profile. Extant contributor.]

FEATURE BACK Yr. SHORT YARDAGE Yr. 3RD DOWN YR. SPREAD H YR.
De'Veon Smith Sr. De'Veon Smith Sr. De'Veon Smith Sr. Jabrill Peppers So.*
Ty Isaac Jr.* Kingston Davis Fr. Drake Johnson Sr.* Chris Evans Fr.
Drake Johnson Sr.* Ty Isaac Jr.* Karan Higdon So. Drake Johnson Sr.*
Jabrill Peppers So.* Kareem Walker Fr. Ty Isaac Jr.* Ty Isaac Jr.*

Last year was more of the same from a Michigan running back corps that had slowly devolved since the moment Mike Hart left. Upticks from Brandon Minor and Fitz Toussaint were more than offset by yards eschewed, random running, that year Toussaint couldn't pass block a soul, and a steady stream of Michigan discards who blew up as soon as they landed on another team.

Large sections of your author's time were spent fighting with people about how bad it was or was not, so here's Dane Brugler on De'Veon Smith:

His vision and run instincts tend to run hot/cold, leading to questionable decisions, and with his lack of explosive traits, Smith needs to be more decisive and trust what he sees. He tends to leave you wanting more due to his marginal burst and instincts, but there is a place at the next level for Smith due to his power, ball skills and upside as a blocker.

It was pretty bad… and then it got better. Smith's outstanding Citrus Bowl was the exclamation point on a mid-season turnaround that looks a lot like those Chesson and Rudock experienced. It wasn't as dramatic, but it was there. I'm going to whisper the next sentence: it almost kind of looked like someone had figured something out.

Running back coaching matters? I want to believe.

THE MAN THE MAN THE MAN

Rating: 4

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[Seth Fisher]

After consecutive years where this preview listed options at all three roles above in an almost but not quite entirely arbitrary fashion, Michigan enters the season knowing who their first-choice back is: DE'VEON SMITH. They know who their short-yardage back is: De'Veon Smith. They know who their third-down back is: De'Veon Smith. They think he's good enough to put him in the bin with Amara Darboh and Jourdan Lewis and all the other veterans who don't need spring contact.

Survey says... eh, maybe. Smith's bravura Citrus Bowl against some tough, if potentially disinterested, customers was the exclamation point to a rollercoaster season. If you don't want to read the rest of this section here it is in 15 seconds:

Smith abandoned his pulling guard, disappeared into a pile of bodies, was still upright seven yards later, got caught from behind, shook off a defensive back, got caught by the same guy again, and shrugged him off once more like so much lint on his varsity jacket. Few sixty yard touchdowns in the history of Michigan football have been as likely to cause the coaching box to exclaim "what are you DOING?" the instant before the breakthrough.

That was Smith's 2015. For every shattered defensive back left trembling in a puddle of his own making...

...there was a truck lane ignored.

Last year's UFRs invariably contained a book-length subsection on the running backs and the yards they made or, more often, set on fire. As the lead back Smith came in for the plurality of the discussion. Depending on the week this discussion was either generally positive and hopeful...

/spittle shields at 70% and dropping

Actually… I got nothing this week. I thought the backs did well. I complained about a lead zone run last week. Michigan didn't block it well; Smith mechanically ran into the gap he should go in if they in fact did block it well. He ate a DT for minimal yardage. I didn't care if Smith actually got anything on the play, I just wanted to see him see what was going on in front of him and put a foot in the ground to give himself a chance.

He did that on this one:

That cutback doesn't look like it'll amount to much when he makes it but Michigan gets on some blocks and Smith runs through some guys and it's a nice gain. If he'd gotten swallowed by an unblocked LB back there it's still the right cut.

...or blackly grim:

I feel like this is going to lead into another running back diatribe.

Are they really diatribes?

YES

Large portions of last year's preview focused on Smith's tendency to run at random, which outlets other than the Michigan obsessive bits of the internet picked up on:

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The hope was Harbaugh and Wheatley could get Smith moving in the right direction more often, and for most of the season that was dashed.

But the frustration I experienced was not limited to Smith. Everyone who took more than a dozen or so carries made at least one mindbogglingly bad cut, from Drake Johnson to Ty Isaac to Derrick Green to Sione Houma. That's widespread enough to seem like a coaching issue, and Smith's trajectory confirms:

[UFR charting for ballcarriers is another spot where zero is bad. Zero means you got what was blocked and nothing else.]

Game Opponent + - TOT Pass- Team- Comment
1 Utah 5.5 7 -1.5 0   Cuts late let M down.
2 Oregon State 15.5 4 11.5 0 4 Brutal Legend
3 UNLV 2 8 -6 0   Two very bad plays and not much to make up for it.
4 BYU 9.5 4.5 5 3 2 Beast mode.
5 Maryland           DNP
6 Northwestern 7.5 1.5 6 0   On just 8 carries.
7 MSU 5 5 0 0 2 Grinder; a bit frustrating with the cuts again.
8 Minnesota   2 -2 0 1 No YAC.
9 Rutgers 6 0.5 5.5 0   Good game.
10 Indiana 4.5 2 2.5 2 2 Frustratingly slow sometimes but made up for it with power.
11 PSU 9.5 4 5.5 3   +2 blocking, +2 on catches, and then +3 late, which fits a pattern discussed below.
12 OSU 7.5   7.5 0 1 Made a significant number of yards himself. Zero pass pro minuses.
13 Florida 15 2 13 0 1 I be like dang
  TOTALS 87.5 40.5 47 8 13  

That is a veritable late-season surge. Smith came in for some clucking after the PSU game since I didn't care for three of his 13 carries, but in the context of the last five games that's the outlier and being good at running is the trend.

This was clearest in the bowl game. Smith probed for holes, showed off a Mike Hart-level backfield stutter, and fired off a decisive backside cut on his first three carries. The stutter's probably the most impressive but the cut is the most important:

That's vision, and I was floored as it continued for an entire game against the #5 S&P run defense:

And this continued! Presented with a DL penetrating almost to the handoff point Smith cut off his OL's back and blew through an arm tackle. On the three, Smith turned negative two yards into two by juking two dudes and running through a couple tackles. Even on certain runs where it looked like he'd screwed up, the tape revealed he was trying to make the best of a bad situation only to find that there was no relief elsewhere. It took me a couple takes to realize that this was Smith avoiding a wholly unblocked LB in the hole:

As I said in the table above, he's probably better off running right at the guy for a few yards but I prefer Smith seeing trouble and adjusting even if it doesn't work out. Early in the second half Smith cut to the backside of the line and got hewed down early because a safety blitz prevented Darboh from getting to the guy. That's an RPS minus; without the playcall Smith is ripping off another backside cut. Even with it if Cole had cut off penetration a little better Smith can attack the S head-on, and that usually ends badly for the DB.

At that point I hadn't done the OSU game and wondered if that was a one-off; now that the entire picture is in view it's obviously not. I mean… it's kind of a Rudock trajectory. It wasn't quite as obvious since Michigan tried its hardest to avoid the defensive lines of PSU and OSU, but it's there. That's why Smith was placed amongst the revered elders during spring.

So. The dude remains a nuclear-powered icebreaker. The number of tackles he blew through was truly impressive, and even when he was in fact being tackled piles had a tendency to lurch two or three yards towards the endzone:

I have literally dozens of these clipped:

Smith grinds out yards after contact better than any back I've seen at Michigan. Yeah, he's slow. Yeah, he's not going to juke a guy in the open field. But in the right situation he can be a killer. That situation is surrounded by very good blocking that delivers him three yards downfield on a consistent basis. Smith will turn that into five or eight or eleven yards better than anyone not named Fournette. Is he going to have that this year? Maybe, maybe not. Michigan should get closer to it.

Smith's peripherals are unambiguously positive. He fumbled just once last year. He was also a strangely effective third-down back, to the point where I called him "King Hippo Vincent Smith." This is mostly because of his consistently excellent pass blocking:

Smith has the oomph to stand up linebackers like nobody since Mike Hart. This was a point of discussion after Penn State, a game in which Smith only got eight carries and still managed to stick out as an asset:

Smith has power and agility and can pick guys up. Even big guys. … Then in this game he added a couple of dumpoffs on which he displayed that fun Smith-vs-defensive backs stuff. On back to back plays at the end of the first half he turned nothing into something, first getting a few when Rudock got nailed, and then plastering a DB across his windshield for a first down:

This is something you can work with.

His eight protection minuses on the season are only twice what Ty Isaac managed to acquire in scattered snaps against Oregon State, and there was a distinct lack of the "team" minuses I hand out when I'm not sure who screwed up. 13 over the course of the season is a really low number and off the top of my head I'd guess that two-thirds could not be on Smith.

As a bonus, Smith is a solid outlet option because of this SAT analogy:

De'Veon Smith : defensive back :: windshield : insect

His hands were good—one drop in 17 opportunities and a circus catch—and if not tackled immediately he's going to tack on 5 or so yards after contact.

In limited opportunities he's shown that he's also an asset as a run blocker:

After that game I described him as a "low-to-the-ground 230-pound brick"; after the pass block above I broke my longstanding commitment to pooh-pooh all motivation/effort talk:

I usually assume everyone's going all out all the time and dismiss motivation stuff, but this week I got frustrated with a couple players for a lack of want-to. Smith never lacks that. Smith wants to end you. Even if he's slow and his vision is lacking, that's something.

He's the kind of guy willing to play through just about anything, and that's something Harbaugh has noticed.

Smith is a good bet to be Michigan's first 1,000 yard back since Fitz Toussaint. He's got a half-season of being pretty good and has more upside than you'd expect because so many of his issues stemmed from an unfamiliarity with the offense and running back basics. Wheatley:

"(Now we're trying to) get guys like De'Veon and Ty Isaac (and Drake Johnson) to what I call a mastery level. Progressing past the things we did last year."

It says here that Smith's 2015 is a better version of his second half. Michigan will rotate him a bunch to keep him as healthy as possible—his pounding style is tough on him and caused him to miss chunks of multiple games—and this will keep his counting numbers from attracting national attention, but his YPC should take a big step forward along with his reputation amongst Michigan fans.

[After THE JUMP: Jabrill Peppers! And other guys, but also Peppers!]

THE ROTATION THE ROTATION THE ROTATION

While Smith figures to get a plurality of the carries a cast of thousands will chip in as well.

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being able to run away from Peppers is a thing [Upchurch]

The most prominent figures to be USC transfer and former five-star TY ISAAC. Isaac saw his 2015 playing time come to an abrupt halt after two fumbles in short succession against Maryland, the second of which was due to an engaged DL gently wafting through the general area Isaac occupied. In between he ignored both the fullback and the guard pulling outside into acres of space. This was that game Matt Millen did...

"Follow the fullback" says Matt Millen for the millionth time. Nobody does. Not Maryland, not Ty Isaac. I know we all hate him because the Lions but this is a little much.

...so Isaac setting ten or thirty yards on fire by not doing so was especially grating. Isaac sat down, and did not get up again except to set another chunk of yards on fire against MSU.

As first impressions go it wasn't great. In addition to the last straw(s) above there were a number of busted blitz pickups that could only be on him:

This was a reasonable point for Michigan fans to write him off for good, and many did so. This space defended him against incessant accusations that he was "soft" in the Maryland UFR* only for Harbaugh to get excited about Isaac's spring because he was a "rougher, tougher" guy. So congratulations, internet. You win.

*["He's not getting worn down or blown up. He's just holding the football like it's a foot-tall Hitler clone someone is making him babysit. Don't do that. Hold the football like it's a foot-tall Denard clone. Hold it so tight you hurt your heart a little."]

Harbaugh was probably referring to Isaac's ability to stay on the field in camp more than any of the on-field issues internet complainers noticed. Going to the wrong guy on a blitz pickup isn't soft, but maybe he went to the wrong guy because he sat out most of last spring with a hamstring injury and then couldn't stay on the field through fall camp.

An Isaac that's on the field and on the same page with Harbaugh still offers a lot to work with. His 76-yard touchdown was against Just UNLV but featured a savvy cut upfield, a nasty stiff-arm, and the long speed to make those count:

His size allows him to move piles, and despite the two major biffs referenced above I thought he was amongst the least frustrating guys when it came to reading his blocks. Here his bounce comes after a threat inside and his stiffarm makes it count:

I asserted that he "makes the most reliably good cuts" amongst the RB corps early in the season, before Smith's light went on. The sample size was low but add in 40 carries from his freshman year at USC where he makes the most of what's in front of him and you've got enough to make some medium-confidence estimates.

All that is well and good and completely useless if Harbaugh doesn't trust Isaac enough to put him on the field. Isaac set to rebuilding that trust with a very positive spring. Harbaugh offered up his highest praise in an interview with Webb:

"(I've noticed) a harder rougher guy. He just does. There's never an excuse.  Just harder. You watch him just get rougher and get harder right before your eyes.  I'm really pleased. Really pleased the way he is doing that now."

That harder version of Isaac impressed onlookers at both Ford Field and the spring game, where he was the most prominent offensive player on either team. I declared him the most impressive back amongst those chasing Smith after the open practice:

He dropped a little weight and showed a wiggle through the line that wasn't present for much of last year. One run saw him lower the boom on a safety trying to tackle him. And Michigan used his ability out of the backfield—perhaps not by choice given the coverage, but they used him.

Isaac's spring production was a little too bounce-heavy to expect all of it to translate to actual games, but his cuts were decisive and correct, his speed remarkable, and his ball security good. He raised a lot of eyebrows when he managed to outdistance one Jabrill Peppers for an extra ten or fifteen yards:

That speed at 230. There is a five star still lurking in there.

And while we haven't seen much of this yet, Isaac's large frame and soft hands make him a natural receiver…

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.

…if he can get the protections down he can be an asset as a third down back.

By most accounts Isaac's followed up on his strong spring with a similar fall. Webb's mentioned him positively a couple times, stating that he's "making a strong case for the #2 running back." An early fumble or two could short-circuit his year, but if Isaac cuts out the mental errors and delivers on the spring promise he will get triple-digit carries. It says there that he establishes himself as the clear heir apparent in 2017.

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please bless this back, Hartfairy [via Smoothitron]

Michigan will also deploy redshirt senior DRAKE JOHNSON when he is not busy dodging forklifts, fighting off harpies, and visiting the Baba Yaga in an attempt to find out what he must do to lift the curse on his bloodline. As you may have heard, Johnson narrowly escaped disaster when he was literally run over by a literal forklift this offseason. That bizarre incident followed ACL tears in consecutive years; on top of that he was asked to run behind Michigan's late-Hoke-era offensive line. One time he was meeting with Fred Jackson and his position coach tried to drink three different beverages at the same time. Drake Johnson has seen some things.

Johnson has a role on this team as an outside runner and yards-after-catch specialist. He's the fastest of Michigan's veteran backs, and he's produced whenever the storm clouds have cleared enough to provide an opportunity. Your author wasn't a huge fan when he first started playing because he looks like a dang flamingo out there, but has since come around somewhat. In the late Hoke era Johnson was able to shoot through the narrow gaps that edition of the OL could provide in a way it seemed doubtful Smith or Derrick Green could replicate:

As Michigan gets better at carving out gaps the pendulum swings more towards Smith and his ability to pile misery on would-be tacklers. Johnson's ability will still remain useful situationally, as he demonstrated on a burst through the line against Florida.

Johnson still looks like the high school track guy he was. Sometimes this is a good, like when he smoothly hurdles opposition and continues on his merry way:

Sometimes this is bad, like when he is asked to make a quick cut of any description. Johnson is not elusive in the least. His cuts are rounded; jukes are rare. This run against Minnesota is a good example of how Johnson takes a long time to change direction:

His speed once he does so is good enough for the first down but that cut isn't exactly Mike Hart. Johnson lacks that foot-in-the-ground ability that leaves linebackers in the dust when you pull it off. Neither is he a pounder. He runs fast until contact is made and then goes down. This against Oregon State was dubbed a "Carlos Brown/Derrick Green moment":

But he produces. This has long been baffling to me:

I'm still not quite sure what he does that well other than run fast

He still seems to change direction like a guy 50 pounds heavier than he is

It is still undeniable. By now I have come up with something I think Johnson's good at other than running fast: seeing the field in front of him. There were a zillion complaints about bad cuts in UFR last year and Johnson only got knocked for one of them. That's a much better rate than anyone else who saw significant carries.

Johnson should get a handful of touches a game, mostly when Michigan goes to shotgun and other spread-ish formations. If he makes the open field he'll eat up ground quickly and go down when he encounters opposition; he'll get what his blocking offers, hurdle a guy, and be generally effective, if not amazing.

WHAT ON EARTH IS "SPREAD H" AND CAN WE USE IT TO TALK ABOUT JABRILL PEPPERS

This Jabrill Peppers?

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zooooom [Eric Upchurch]

Yes!

Yes.

Okay, then proceed.

As you might imagine, I struggled to classify JABRILL PEPPERS. He was mostly a running back but kind of a receiver; he never, ever pass blocked. Michigan used him all over the backfield, occasionally motioned him into the slot, and deployed a suite of exotic formations in which Peppers was anything from a FB to RB to H-back. He doesn't fit neatly into any of our categories.

But he does have an archetype. Spread 'n' shred offenses frequently use a WR/RB hybrid who they try to get in space with the ball whether via pass or run:

Percy Harvin was that guy. Tavon Austin was that guy. Last year OSU used Braxton Miller (and Jalin Marshall) in that role. Tavon Austin famously defenestrated the Clemson defense with a series of "touch passes" that were just end-arounds, adding a touchdown out of the slot late. He also famously defenestrated the Oklahoma defense, mostly as a running back.

They call these gentlemen H-backs. Clearly we can't do that because of Hill and Poggi and the million other blocky/catchy guys. So "spread H" it is.

Can we talk about Peppers now?

Fine! Fine.

SPREAD H: PAGING ALL REGGIE BUSH IMPERSONATORS

RATING: 4.

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Use the Force, Jabrill [Patrick Barron]

Oh hey look, it's JABRILL PEPPERS.

Peppers's first offensive touch didn't require him to do a ton on a well-conceived and executed play, but the way he blew past a safety with an angle was reminiscent of a certain play in Denard Robinson's oeuvre. Peppers is electrifying. By Minnesota I was theorizing that if he was a primarily offensive player he would probably be something approximating Reggie Bush, and I still think that. Bush was equally capable as a running back and receiver; Bush was also a ludicrous athlete; Bush made you stand up whenever he got the ball.

Peppers lined up anywhere and everywhere, sowing chaos whether he got the ball or not. Peppers's first offensive snap was the sweep above; it was immediately preceded by not one but two MSU timeouts. Michigan got an easy touchdown against Rutgers thanks to the Peppers effect:

(I know Matt Millen can be incredibly annoying but this is terrific analysis.) A reverse involving Peppers against Minnesota saw Chesson turn the corner with nobody in the same zip code:

You can veritably hear the tightening of sphincters when Peppers enters the field. This is why pessimists can cool it on worries that Peppers is a mirage. The way opposition coaches and players reacted to his mere presence is evidence enough that his athletic ability is gamebreaking.

And he's not bad when you actually provide him the ball.

Peppers wasn't just a space player. Michigan lined him up in the backfield and had him run plain old zone plays, on which he showed natural running instincts, good balance, and a surprising amount of power:

After Penn State I was struck by his ability: "But, I mean, he's just got it, you know? He has burst. When he gets hit he displays power and balance. He sees and hits holes." Combine that with his eyepopping acceleration and the fact that momentum is mass times velocity and you have quite an all-purpose offensive weapon.

The one area Peppers hasn't displayed his abilities yet is down the field. Michigan hit him with a few short passes; he was 3/3 on routine catches. The one time they tried to hit him deep he got run over by a linebacker before he had a shot at the ball (which was about 30 yards short). If Michigan can work a similar mismatch he's going to be wide open. Peppers will probably be able to track the ball expertly given his punt return work. Contested situations remain an unknown, if anyone should manage to force one.

So what can we expect this fall? Here's a brief accounting of where Peppers lines up in the various clips I took of him a year ago. I'm conflating all the various ways you can get a guy like him into an edge run by motioning him presnap into "sweep threat":

  • running back: 7
  • wildcat QB: 1
  • offset H-back: 1
  • slot receiver, no presnap motion: 2
  • slot receiver, sweep threat motion: 1
  • outside receiver, sweep threat motion: 1

That's probably a bit heavier on RB than you might expect; it's still close to 50/50. Since it was the last game Peppers played in last season, and the one in which he featured most heavily, his deployment against OSU is probably the most useful as we try to project Peppers in big games:

You mentioned Peppers Peppers Peppers?

This game was close to what I think we'll see this fall with Peppers. He wasn't quite fully weaponized but Michigan had him in on about 25% of their offensive snaps before the Rudock injury made things academic. They lined him up as a slot and hit him with a drag route; they used him as a plain-ol tailback; they got him in space with a couple of screens that deserved better blocking than they got; they pitched it to him with the intent of having him throw; they got some free yards despite bad blocking because a Peppers sweep with a throw attached dragged two guys to the endzone with Jake Butt; they busted out some truly exotic stuff:

He got nine touches in this game; while he didn't break anything big he demonstrated good vision and running instincts plus his trademark explosion. If his blockers get it sorted out this season he's going to score ten touchdowns.

Harbaugh told reporters earlier this fall that two-way players like Peppers could expect to see "90 to 100 snaps" if it's necessary. Figure Peppers is on punt return and no other special teams and that the defense sees 60 snaps and you've got 20-30 to play with on offense. That's against the likes of Penn State and Iowa and OSU—Peppers isn't going to get more than a cameo if Michigan thinks they're going to win a game by 20.

That's why I didn't issue this a 5, as some of you have no doubt already scurried into the comment to rend your clothes about. There's a cap on how much Peppers we can see. What we do see should combine with double-digit TFLs and some bonkers punt returns to get Peppers to NYC for the Heisman ceremony.

BACKUPS

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Evans is lightning in shoulder pads [Indy Star]

DRAKE JOHNSON is a natural fit for spread H stuff and could get some snaps in that role. Ditto TY ISAAC. Another guy to keep an eye on after a torrent of fall camp hype is freshman CHRIS EVANS [recruiting profile]. He is in fact the impetus for this positional designation after posting a screenshot of practice in which he's lined up as a spread H-back:

image_thumb6

Evans was a divisive recruit with a huge split in his rankings lacking a definite position; if half the talk over the past few weeks pans out Evans will hit the upper end of his range. Jim Harbaugh was willing to say this about Evans just a couple weeks ago after being asked about the freshman class:

"Chris Evans is maybe one of the most outstanding of them all."

You know who else is in this class. That's a thing, there. In addition to Harbaugh's public disclosure, various insiders have been swearing up and down that Evans is the truth. When Steve Lorenz talked to six sources about early camp standouts, Evans was the first word out of four of their mouths. Sam Webb has mentioned him twice in his practice reports:

He has very quickly become their best open field player (at least in practice). On a daily basis he is juking guys out of their shorts.

Webb cautions that he is "very raw as a route runner" but that he's still going to see the field.

Evans's rep as a recruit was as a very, very fast person. Clint Brewster:

excellent downfield speed and is a long strider. …excellent explosive quickness coming out of his breaks. …. mismatch on third down coming out of the backfield matched up against a linebacker. … Nice agility and plus balance. Feet keep moving in tight spaces.

Even caveat-prone ESPN said his "speed is better than anyone else on the field." That's backed up by his track exploits and 40 after 40 in the 4.4 range. Drake Johnson, a track star himself, is impressed:

"He's mad athletic. You just see some people and think 'yeah, he's an athlete.' He's an athlete, he just does stuff. He's smooth, he's real smooth. He's like butter smooth, we're just like 'ooh, wow.' He's like *sound effects* someone flips to the side, like he had no chance. Like, I'm sorry you could've tried but it sucks to suck. He just makes it look easy."

Johnson relates he's practicing at both running back and wide receiver, which further confirms our hypothesis. Evans performed both roles with equal aplomb in high school, rushing for over 2,300 yards and catching 91 passes during his final two seasons.

Also Evans might be Roast Beef.

"And I was like, 'Chris, you ready for camp?' And he's like, 'Yeah dog! I'm so ready!' And I'm like, 'No, you're not! You think you're ready, but you're not! Just give it a couple of days.'

So he's got that going for him.

Despite the fact that Webb has twice asserted that Evans has moved past Drake Johnson to be #3 on the RB depth chart, our bet is the Evans hype is likely to peter out into not very much this year. There are only so many snaps to go around and you know Smith, Isaac, and Peppers are going to get their cuts.

One advantage he has as he searches for playing time is the Peppers overlap. Michigan's not going to put Peppers on the field for 100 snaps against the UCFs of the world, but they will have his role in the offense. When Peppers is taking it easy, Evans will be getting those snaps. Also, here's to sticking him on kickoff returns.

BACKUPS: NEW BLOOD IN TOUGH FOR SNAPS

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Higdon is slippery. [Upchurch]

Michigan's got younger options as well. The oldest of the young is sophomore KARAN HIGDON [recruiting profile]. Higdon burned his redshirt midseason for 11 carries on which we was almost always buried in the backfield by no fault of his own. His one opportunity to operate in space did feature a slick cut past a Northwestern linebacker:

This concludes useful information from his time on the field. Higdon was a signing day yoink from Iowa with one four-star ranking, that from 247, and while he's not shaped like a typical Harbaugh back coming out of high school he was regarded as a tough inside runner with good vision.

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Walker and Davis probably won't be big factors this year. [Upchurch]

Freshmen KAREEM WALKER [recruiting profile] and KINGSTON DAVIS [recruiting profile] will also push for playing time after enrolling early. OSU decommit Walker was the most ballyhooed tailback in the 2016 class until a late slide. In the aftermath his rankings are all over the place, from five-star to fringe four-star; scouting reports are contradictory. My attempt to resolve the impasse:

Walker is a weird back with chicken legs and a wily ability to shoot into creases in the line, and the running back version of Denard Robinson we saw against South Carolina is the closest thing in the recent history of Michigan football. Both guys have excellent agility in tight spaces, the vision to make it count, and reasonable power largely dependent on not getting hit square and spinning through for a couple extra yards. Walker will end up bigger—he's got an inch or two on Robinson and is already around the same weight Robinson got up to his second year in the NFL—and slower—he is not Denard Robinson.

I started that profile ready to gently depress expectations and came out of it pretty positive about Walker and his future. He's not the consensus top back in the country who will immediately go Keyser Soze on the Big Ten like Fournette or Peterson or... uh... Green, but he's a very good prospect for a little down the road. Walker missed the team picture as a wake-up call after some iffy grades early. Webb says he is practicing, so the issue isn't that serious.

Davis is less controversial to recruitniks. He is a truck. He is not a fullback. This much has been made clear by Davis in every interview he gave. But I compared him to Sione Houma anyway, because he's that kind of not-a-fullback tailback, if you catch my drift. Despite Davis's low recruiting profile, Michigan pursued him with fervor. They offered an early enroll spot; they fended off offer-type substances from fellow manballers LSU, Florida, and Nebraska. He's a Harbaugh kind of guy.

At least one of the freshmen is going to play in anticipation for next year, when Johnson and Smith are gone. Ideally one would get a redshirt, but Higdon's experience last year suggests that may not be the case. Walker's issues may make Michigan inclined to give him one so he can take this year to get on solid academic footing.

Comments

Harlans Haze

August 30th, 2016 at 12:50 PM ^

There were plenty of times when Kalis was bad, and plenty of times Smith missed a hole, but I don' t think the run featured against BYU was one. On the play, both fullbacks went into the hole, that Smith was supposed to take. By the time Kalis got there, there was nowhere to go, and he saw the defender on the edge, so he attempted to seal him, which he did. Smith trusted that his fullbacks would be able to give him a hole, which they did, and he took advantage of it. I think it was a well-executed play by everyone involved.

Kevin13

August 29th, 2016 at 4:22 PM ^

as I think Issac does finally start showing that 5* ranking out of high school. Kid has great size and speed and if the light bulb finally comes on could end up with a very nice year. You stated maybe north of 100 carries, which I think he gets, means no 1000 yards for Smith. If he does show that ability he could possibly go for more yards then Smith as I think he has better potential for big plays.

Also think we still see some RB by committee this year. Think Johnson will get some carries then throw in a few for Peppers and maybe even Johnson and throw the FB's a bone every now and then, just don't think Smith gets enough work for 1K this year. Probably end up with 800 range.

Esterhaus

August 29th, 2016 at 4:58 PM ^

 

Nothing - and I mean nothing - will be allowed to interfere with my 300+ yard/game Biakabutuka fantasies for the running backs this year. Got that? Good!

socalwolverine1

August 29th, 2016 at 5:08 PM ^

Great piece on the all-too-familiar preseason potential of our upper-classmen RB corps to suddenly break out and be the modern day equivalents of the great Michigan backs of the past.  Then the season starts...enough said...we'll see.  I'm waiting for someone to come along (Chris Evans - ??) who has the attributes (speed, vision, conditioning) and instincts to do what one does to move the sticks.  If Penn State, with its garbage OL last year, could trot out a true freshman (4*) and get the kind of production out of Saquan Barkley like they did, then it can happen for us, too.  If not this year, then give Harbaugh another year or two and we'll find someone with Barkley's qualities. 

Mr Miggle

August 29th, 2016 at 5:23 PM ^

Some irony considering what happened to the coaching staff that recruited him.

 

“Because there’s a lot of stupid coaches out there and that’s why they get fired. They take 4.3 guys that can’t read, write, block, tackle, hold the ball or win. That’s the bottom line.”  Howland, OH HS football coach Dick Angle on why Deveon Smith didn't have any offers yet

 

WestQuad1982

August 31st, 2016 at 8:09 AM ^

Given this in depth analysis of Smith's pros and cons ... and given that Poggi & Hill are unknown quantity in the backfield... why not shift Smith to FB? I'm bummed we lost our two outstanding FBs from last year (Houma & Kerrage).

This assumes Issacs + Johnson + Higdon + Evans plus others can handle duties at RB.

Thoughts?