Freshmen RBs and reasonable expectations

Submitted by Ron Utah on August 21st, 2013 at 2:59 PM

How long should we wait for this guy?

There is constant chatter on this board and in the media about how freshmen RBs should be able to contribute right away.  The basic tenet of this belief is that if a RB is athletic and is any good, he'll be able to produce right away.  Sure, he might not have the nuances of pass protection and route running down, but he should at least be able to pick-up some yards on running downs as a true freshman.  Guys like T.J. Yeldon make this easy to believe.

So, I decided to find out how true this is.  If you suck as a freshman RB, are you likely to be any good at any point in your career?  If Derrick Green doesn't contribute significantly this season, should we crying?  Going even further, is Rawls a lost cause at this point?  Hayes?

Having a little less time than I'd like to do a thorough examination of the data, I used a somewhat limited sample: the top 40 RBs in terms of yards/game from 2012.  I broke seasons into three categories: Primary starter (PS), significant back-up (SB), and insignificant season (IS).

These categories are actually surprisingly simple to define: Primary starters are obvious, and guys that are significant contributors at the position are equally easy to separate from the dudes that get trash-time and spot carries.  Insignificant seasons also include redshirts, but not medical redshirts.  I also took out JUCOs.

Here are the top 40 RBs from 2012 (NOT in order of production):

PS SB IS Player School Class
1 1 0 Ka'Deem Carey Arizona SO
2 1 0 Le'Veon Bell Mich St JR
2 2 0 Montee Ball Wisconsin SR
4 0 0 Johnathan Franklin UCLA SR
3 0 0 James Sims Kansas JR
2 1 0 Joseph Randle Okla St JR
2 0 0 Jahwan Edwards Ball State SO
4 0 0 Montel Harris Temple SR
1 0 0 Kenneth Dixon La Tech FR
1 0 0 Todd Gurley Georgia FR
3 1 0 Zach Line SMU SR
3 0 0 Tim Cornett UNLV JR
3 0 0 Charles Sims Houston JR
2 2 0 Zac Stacy Vanderbilt SR
1 1 0 Darrin Reaves UAB SO
1 2 1 Kenjon Barner Oregon SR
2 0 1 Giovani Bernard N Carolina SO
1 2 1 Kerwynn Williams Utah State SR
3 0 1 Robbie Rouse Fresno St SR
1 0 1 Bishop Sankey Washington SO
3 0 1 Stepfan Taylor Stanford SR
1 1 1 Dri Archer Kent State JR
1 1 1 Carlos Hyde Ohio State JR
1 2 1 Latavius Murray UCF SR
1 1 1 Jerome Smith Syracuse JR
1 1 1 Jawon Chisholm Akron SO
1 0 2 Stefphon Jefferson Nevada JR
1 0 2 Antonio Andrews Western Ky JR
1 0 2 David Fluellen Toledo JR
1 0 2 Beau Blankenship Ohio JR
1 1 2 Kasey Carrier New Mexico JR
1 0 2 Adam Muema SDSU SO
1 0 2 Venric Mark N'western JR
2 0 2 Raymond Maples Army JR
1 1 2 Eddie Lacy Alabama JR
1 1 2 Mike Gillislee Florida SR
1 1 2 D.J. Harper Boise St SR
1 0 3 Zurlon Tipton C Mich JR
1 0 3 Cody Getz Air Force SR
1 0 3 George Winn Cincinnati SR
61 22 31 Totals    

I have to admit, I was pretty surprised.  Only 15 (37.5%) avoided having insignificant or redshirt seasons their first year on campus.  And only six (15%) were the primary starters as true freshman, leaving nine (22.5%) as back-ups.  That means the vast majority, 25 players (62.5%) spent at least one year doing nothing or next-to-nothing.  Of those 25, only four (10%) went from insignificance to starting in one season.  The rest (21, 52.5%) spent at least two years developing before becoming starters.  And nearly as many (14, 35%) spent multiple years doing almost nothing as jumped right in as contributors (PS or SB) in their true freshmen campaigns.  Heck, even Eddie Lacy redshirted.

This is admittedly a small sample size, but it's enough to draw some basic conclusisons:

  • Plenty of talented RBs have insignificant seasons; many have more than one
  • RARELY does a freshman RB burst onto the scene as a primary starter
  • About half of these guys spend at least two years developing before they start
  • The experts are idiots (of course, I must admit that I believed the "if they're any good they'll contribute as true freshmen stuff before I looked at it)

And some Michigan-specific conclusions:

  • If Green and/or Smith doesn't contribute significantly this year, he's unlikely to start next year
  • We shouldn't worry if Green and/or Smith doesn't contribute significantly this year
  • Hope is not lost for Hayes, Johnson, or even Rawls.

It's worth noting that a few of the guys that spent multiple seasons developing turned out to be pretty darn good players.  Guys like Eddie Lacy, Venric Mark, Carlos Hyde, Kenjon Barner, and Stefphon Jefferson all spent at least a couple seasons as insignificant contributors.  On the flipside of that coin, lots of the best talent contributed early: Ka'Deem Carey, Le'Veon Bell, Montee Ball, Johnathan Franklin, and Todd Gurley.

Basically, we don't need to worry if Green and Smith don't contribute this year.  It's definitely a good sign if they do, but there are much better things to be concerned about (S, OG, OC, and now WR) in 2013.



August 21st, 2013 at 5:17 PM ^

Interesting. But remember, many of these cases are team-specific, and your definition of "insignificant contribution" can mean a lot of things. Kenjon Barner, for example, was behind guys like LaMichael James, but at times demonstrated significant talent and contributed to the team. 

One interesting player who showed lots of promise his freshman season but whose actual contributions were relatively small was Reggie Bush, and USC wasn't exactly fielding Anthony Davis in front of him. So there's that.

The issue with Michigan is that there is lingering uncertainty about which Fitz (and what offensive line) we will see. If Fitz returns to his 2011 form, nobody will mind seeing only occasional contributions from the freshman. If we have a situation like last year, where Fitz never got going, fans will want to see the freshman produce. If they don't, the disappointment will be similar to that we felt in Rawls.

Ron Utah

August 21st, 2013 at 11:35 PM ^

Barner's contributions didn't affect the Ducks significantly in 2009, and he probably would have played even less if Blount hadn't been suspended.  It was not a significant season, and you are, in fact, proving the point: talented players often do NOT contribute significantly early in their careers.  Same goes for Reggie Bush.

But you're arguing with facts, which is silly.  The fact is that lots of talented backs just don't contribute much early in their college careers.

As to your point about Fitz, I agree somewhat.  If NO ONE produces at the RB position, it will be disappointing, but if Fitz isn't that great and Johnson, Hayes, or Rawls end-up being good, then the freshmen won't be missed.  AND, even if they aren't that good, that doesn't mean they won't be later in their careers.

I'm afraid you've missed the point...


August 22nd, 2013 at 8:13 AM ^

There are two distinct issues being muddled together, here.  There is the significance of a player's contribution to the team, and then there is the ability displayed by a player (in whatever capacity that may be, limited or not).  Thomas Rawls struggling as a freshman is not the same thing as Kenjon Barner being stuck behind a stud, but showing flashes of brilliance in limited duty.

My point is, lack of contribution, in itself, may not be cause for concern.  But all lack of contribution is not created equal, and lack of effectiveness still could very well be cause for concern.  I'm guessing this is similar to what stephenrjking was getting at. 

Ron Utah

August 22nd, 2013 at 12:27 PM ^

I won't disagree with that.  But that argument is easily countered by the same "mitigating factors" argument that you are both making.

I could argue that Rawls lacked the proper scheme and blocking to be effective, and it would be hard to say that's not true.

The point is that you can point to external factors on any team, but the reality from the numbers is that RBs often take multiple years to develop, and patience isn't a bad thing.


August 22nd, 2013 at 2:45 PM ^

I haven't missed a thing. You are taking a large list of players from last year and using that list to argue "patience." Presumably, in case neither Green nor Smith look particularly good.

I am arguing that the fact that Barner produced a statistically small performance (behind another freshman, LaMichael James) did not conceal his very real ability.

Let's get more to the point: many Freshmen don't produce huge numbers not because they aren't ready to produce, but because there are satisfactory players playing in front of/alongside of them. That did not mean that they were ineffective or unable to contribute, just that another (usually older) player was capable.

Good examples of how this works can be seen in players like Ty Wheatley, Anthony Thomas, Beanie Wells, Saban Bama Specimen Back of your choice, etc.

In situations where there is not a satisfactory established back, talented freshmen tend to get better opportunities to produce right away. LaMichael James, Knowshown Moreno, Mike Hart (took a couple games for the staff to realize he was the guy, remember?), Jamal Lewis, Darren McFadden, etc.

There are also guys who are so dominant they excel from the moment they touch the field--Adrian Peterson, Herschel Walker, etc.

I was and am still using this to suggest how we judge the production of our freshmen. If Fitz performs at a 2011 level, there is no need for Green or Smith to put up huge numbers. But that doesn't mean we won't see serious ability. Your defense of Rawls undercuts your argument a bit, because he not only didn't produce, but showed no signs of being capable of producing when healthy and with the job wide open to win.

So you seem to misunderstand my point: that judging a young back's performance by stats alone is insufficient.

My paragraph about Reggie Bush may have been a bit subtle, but it was actually a counterpoint to my initial idea. In situations where there isn't a particularly good established RB, freshmen often put up big numbers-but that was the case with Reggie and he still only hinted at his future greatness. If this year's running game is a disaster, he supports your thesis that greatness may yet be near.

It seems as if you read sharp disagreement into what was really just an attempt at diverse discussion.

Ron Utah

August 22nd, 2013 at 6:17 PM ^

I am not doing anything.  I'm not building an argument, or constructing a thesis.  The facts are saying that VERY productive RBs often have slow starts to their careers.

Have you bothered to look at the numbers yourself?  You should do that.  What you'll find is that most of these guys had starts even more insignificant than Bush and Barner, and lots of them redshrited.

Your argument about Rawls is just an extension of your own point: external factors that can affect a player's performance.  If the O-line can't block and the scheme doesn't fit him, are we sure Rawls isn't any good?

Don't get me wrong--I'm not arguing Rawls is a good player.  He hasn't produced much.

What you're saying is that the only reason these guys aren't playing early is because there are better options.  While that MIGHT be true, it's really impossible to say how a player would have performed if they had played.  Also, lots of these teams did NOT have great options ahead of the young RBs...look for yourself.

There is no "point" to true statistical analysis.  That it has been distorted into something about making a "point" is one of the major concerns of our time.  I wrote this diary believing that the data would confirm my gut and tell me that if a RB doesn't produce as a freshman, he's probably not very good.  That turned out to be wrong.

I'm not advocating patience, I'm simply pointing out that even RBs often take time to develop.  If you want to argue with that, you'll have to change facts.


August 22nd, 2013 at 9:37 PM ^

You undercut the value of your diary significantly by taking every note that doesn't completely agree with everything you say as a personal insult and responding accordingly. It is, frankly, unseemly.

But let's address a couple issues of substance:

1. You are really big on "facts" and "statistical analysis." Indeed, I find your chart interesting and even useful, but let's not get carried away. You produced a list of one season's worth of RBs (a pretty poor year for RBs as it happens) and present it. That is not statistical analysis.

2. You seem to have a habit of inventing things to disagree with for the purpose of flaming. Examples:

"What you're saying is that the only reason these guys aren't playing early is because there are better options."

I said that that is often the case. To leap to "only" is careless.

"Also, lots of these teams did NOT have great options ahead of the young RBs...look for yourself."

You mean like Reggie Bush, right? I wrote about him in both posts that you are arguing with, and made it clear that he is an example of a player that matches up well with the argument proposed in your OP. Your suggestion that I have ignored such occurrences is silly.

The mistake you are making (besides reducing yourself by bickering with anyone who does not fully fall into line with your ideas and even with some who do) is that you are asserting the supremacy of your numbers while denying any other way to analyze what we see on the field.

This is not baseball. Not everything can be quantified statistically. Your arguments about Rawls demonstrate this perfectly: You deny that any conclusion can be reached by watching him play, yet you speculate that his lack of production could be due to scheme or line play--and those are precisely the elements that those of us who watched him are basing our conclusions on. We saw what he did.

Your entire premise was to judge whether or not a "statistically significant season" would be sufficient criteria with which to assess the future production of running backs. My entire argument is that the mere fact that many RBs do not emerge as freshmen does not mean that there will not be information available with which to make an informed assessment.

You say you are just "presenting facts," but you appear incapable of leaving alone any conclusion that uses data other than the chart you posted, as if your chart of 2012 RBs was the only available information with which one may draw conclusions.

Your information was fine. Your arguments are not. Pretending that people with whom you choose to disagree must be arguing against "facts" does not make it so.

Ron Utah

August 23rd, 2013 at 10:44 AM ^

What makes you think I am bickering?  How are the arguments I'm making any different than yours, other than being rooted in data instead of gut feelings and bias?  Why do you think you're handling this so well, and I'm not?

If I've offended you, I apologize.  That's never my intention.  But you bringing up one or two names as anecdotal evidence to say it negates the value of my statistical analysis (which IS what I did, even though you claim it's not) is akin to politicians claiming their laws are working because one or two people were helped by them.

If you presented actual data to support your assertions that mine was flawed, I would LOVE to see a better way to measure production.  But you did not.  You just named a couple of players--one of whom (Barner) was a 3* recruit--and used them as anecdotal examples to undercut the analysis.

I am NOT arguing that my data is infallible.  Quite the opposite, as was stated in the OP.  However, what is true is that RBs often spend multiple years on the sideline before becoming productive starters.  This is a fact.  And you continuing to argue that it's not a fact without presenting anything other than a couple of stories that don't seem to support your argument is what I take issue with.  I'm merely challenging you to come-up with some adequate data that actually refutes that RBs often spend lots of time developing before they produce.

If you are taking this as a personal attack, I think you're being a bit hypocritical.  I am no more bickering with you than you are bickering with me.  If honest debate about an issue means that the other guy simply agrees with your unfounded or anecdotal assertions, then I think we're both wasting our time.

Your mistake is that I am making "arguments."  I am not.  I am presenting evidence that yields conclusions.  That is what statistical analysis is.  If you want to undercut those conclusions, present some meaningful data to do so.  Like I said, I believed that if RBs were any good, they would play early.  And then I looked at reality.  I was wrong.  If you could prove that I was right, I would love that.

BTW - If you don't think what I did was statistical analysis, you need to review the definition.  And you seem to undercut your own assertions by simply saying the work I did was invalid, but your two examples (which don't support your point other than anecdotally) are adequate for drawing conclusions.  Your post seems strikingly hypocritical.


August 23rd, 2013 at 2:54 PM ^

I have some time over lunch, so let's have some fun here. First, let's concede that though things appear heated, neither you nor I are actually interested in insulting or personalizing anything, and that this is really just an enjoyable debate taking place late in the pre-season doldrums when we are all waiting for real football to talk about.

Now, onto your post:

"What makes you think I am bickering?"

The fact that you have picked out numerous comments on this thread and argued heatedly with all of them, regardless of what those posters actually said. You also use inflammatory language that seems designed to needle and insult rather than discuss.

" How are the arguments I'm making any different than yours, other than being rooted in data instead of gut feelings and bias?"

This is essentially an ad hominem that falsely accuses me of arguing from prejudice; it also misrepresents my arguments since I used neither of those. Pretty insulting, too, whether you meant it or not.

"Why do you think you're handling this so well, and I'm not?"

I make no claim to be handling this well. However, your choice to argue a significant proportion of the comments, many of which do not contradict your OP, comes across as over-sensitive and prideful. It may occasionally be appropriate, but when it happens all the time it becomes tiring. Let your original post speak for itself. If well put together (and yours, despite some of the missing details that were pointed out, was assembled and presented just fine, as reflected in your deserved Diarist of the Week award) it will stand fine on its own. Note that Brian rarely ever engages in discussion about his posts--a practice common among successful bloggers.

"If I've offended you, I apologize.  That's never my intention.  "

Not offended, but thank you.

"But you bringing up one or two names as anecdotal evidence to say it negates the value of my statistical analysis..."

I made no such claim. I did produce more than "one or two names," however. My argument concerns whether or not your numbers alone are sufficient to judge the production of freshmen RBs, or whether more information is useful. You have made no attempt to seriously address this.

"(which IS what I did, even though you claim it's not)"

This is a fair statement; what I said was inflammatory. I apologize and I retract the statement.

"If you presented actual data to support your assertions that mine was flawed,"

I think you are suggesting that I said your data was flawed. I did not. I said that your data was insufficient to make your OP argument (which was: "Basically, we don't need to worry if Green and Smith don't contribute this year"). 

" But you did not.  You just named a couple of players--one of whom (Barner) was a 3* recruit--and used them as anecdotal examples to undercut the analysis."

I used more than a couple. And they aren't just "anecdotes." Pressed for space, time, and interface (all posts prior to this one were composed on my iphone--I'm on my computer in order to quote you properly this time) I was brief, but these are in fact capsule case studies used to illustrate the argument that I am making, which is that there is information available to begin evaluating a freshman running back beyond whether or not he produces "significant" statistics.

"I am NOT arguing that my data is infallible."

You have, in fact, stated the following in this thread: "The data says it doesn't mean he ends-up a bust, but if you want to worry, it's a free country." "You don't have to like it, you don't have to be patient, you don't have to agree.  BUT IT'S A FACT." " I can't understand why people are fighting that so hard." "If you want to argue with that, you'll have to change facts." "But you're arguing with facts, which is silly."

You certainly are suggesting that any perceived disagreement is an assault on some infallible body of "facts." Crucially, in the context of those statements, you are typically misrepresenting the arguments of the people you are critiquing; "I can't understand why people are fighting that so hard," for example, is in the context of "RBs... often spend multiple seasons as back-ups or worse before becoming very successful." Which is interesting, because zero people in this thread have argued against that. If you wish to continue suggesting that people do argue against it, I suggest that you actually demonstrate where that has been said.

" However, what is true is that RBs often spend multiple years on the sideline before becoming productive starters.  This is a fact.  And you continuing to argue that it's not a fact without presenting anything other than a couple of stories that don't seem to support your argument is what I take issue with."

Perfect example. I have argued no such thing. Not once. You are indulging in a straw man fallacy.

"If honest debate about an issue means that the other guy simply agrees with your unfounded or anecdotal assertions, then I think we're both wasting our time."

"Honest debate" begins with correctly understanding what other people are saying, something which you have not done in this thread.

"Your mistake is that I am making "arguments."  I am not."

Lazily gleaned from
Argument: noun. 

1.          an oral disagreement; verbal opposition; contention;altercation: a                  violent argument.


a discussion involving differing points of view; debate: They weredeeply involved in an argument about inflation.


a process of reasoning; series of reasons: I couldn't follow hisargument.


a statement, reasonor fact for or against a point: This is astrong argument in favor of her theory.


an address or composition intended to convince or persuade;persuasive discourse.

Your OP was pretty clearly an exercise of #5, and involved healthy utilization of #3 and #4. If you deny that you have engaged in these three, well...

" I am presenting evidence that yields conclusions."

Your evidence is fine, as far as it goes. It does not, on its own, yield the absolute conclusions that you assign to it. In your OP, your stats indicate that productive RBs "often" do not have productive first years, but then you declare that, regardless of any other information or context, unproductive seasons from Green or Smith "cannot" be reasons for concern, an absolute statement whether you intended it that way or not. In our context as Michigan fans, there are situations where this can be true, but there are also situations where there are still reasons for worry. That is much of what we have discussed. You have, essentially, countered such posts with "worrying is silly because FACTS" without considering the additional information discussed. This is flawed.

" If you want to undercut those conclusions, present some meaningful data to do so."

One in which my argument is weak is my negligence in providing case studies of highly rated players who had poor freshman seasons... and it was a reason to worry. So here is one:

Games played: 8
Attempts: 32
Yards: 132
TD: 1

That stat line belongs to Max Martin in 2004, a season in which the RB position was wide open. Remember him?

"  Like I said, I believed that if RBs were any good, they would play early.  And then I looked at reality.  I was wrong.  If you could prove that I was right, I would love that."

I have neither desire nor need to prove that you were right, since that is not my argument. Though let's clarify that your initial hypothesis, as stated, does not clarify that you mean "always" (as your language, absent an adverb, suggests) or "usually" (as I am surmising you may mean) play early. Qualifiers like that are important.

" And you seem to undercut your own assertions by simply saying the work I did was invalid"

I have stated no such thing. The work you did, producing those stats, was fine. I find the arguments you made based on those statistics to be flawed.

" but your two examples... are adequate for drawing conclusions."

You concluded: "Basically, we don't need to worry if Green and Smith don't contribute this year." Perhaps the problem lies in the language of your conclusion. Lingually, your argument suggests that regardless of any other information, the fact that many RBs have unproductive freshman seasons requires that we CANNOT draw any conclusions about their future (that is, "worry") productivity based on what we've seen. And I have argued that there can be scenarios in which such concern would be warranted. In this case, I do not need to provide my own statistical analysis--I just need to prove that there are sometimes ways of assessing a player's play (or lack thereof) in an unproductive year. 

Now, a reasonable conclusion from the stats is that we cannot look at an RB, see negligible statistics in their freshman year, and conclude that there is a problem. I think that may have been what you were getting at, but that is not what you said in the OP. Words matter.

"Your post seems strikingly hypocritical."

As I have demonstrated, it is not.

As I said before, other than a conlusion that is needlessly absolute (and possibly inadvertent) this was a fine diary OP that gave me food for thought. The Diarist of the Week award was deserved. I encourage you to continue to do such research, but please consider that you may grow more effective if you temper the language you use both in debate and in conclusions. Thank you for the diverting conversation.

Ron Utah

August 23rd, 2013 at 6:20 PM ^

I'm not going to retrace your entire post, but I appreciate it.  I think we largely agree on most points, in fact.  What I would say is that I believe you need to take some of your medicine, and I appreciate that you have pointed out some specific ways I can improve my writing.

I am certainly not suggesting that we ignore the "eyeball" test when discussing how good a player is.  What I am pointing out is that players do improve, and more often than I thought (and more than I think most want to admit) at the RB position.

Last season's #2 rusher was Stefphon Jefferson.  He redshrited his first year.  His RS freshman year, he had three carries.  His RS sophomore year, he had 70 carries, but was still the #3 back on the team (and #4 rusher behind the QB).  Finally, last season, he got his chance and produced 1,883 yards and 24 TDs.

Now, Nevada is a rushing team.  That's how they move the ball.  But in 2009, Jefferson redshirted.  In 2010, he barely played.  In 2011, Jefferson was the #3 RB.  In 2012, he was one of the best players in college football.  That certainly suggests some development, no?

This is just one of many examples I studied in order to compose the statistical data.

My frustration with the responses--including yours--is the lack of a significant body of evidence to back-up what appears to be a mostly "in my experience" argument, based just on the football you've watched, read about, or been aware of.  Actually studying data can help us see patterns that we didn't believe existed.

Perhaps the misunderstanding arises from posts such as yours that do not concede there is any validity to the data.  This leads to what may be a false assumption on my part that you believe the data is invalid.  If you had said, "There are many cases where RBs don't produce early and take time to develop, but it seems to me that lots of players demonstrate their talent as soon as they step on the field," I would have agreed with you.  Statements such as this are at least as inflammatory and "bickering"ish as my posts:

"This is not baseball. Not everything can be quantified statistically"

I will say that I can certainly do a better job of using less absolute language.  I could have written, "The data suggests that even if Green and Smith don't produce this year, they may have productive years in the future."

That said, I think you should also review your posts and that you'll find plenty of condescending/inflammatory language (one example above; another you already retracted).  If you don't see it that way, I can provide more examples.

'"Your post seems strikingly hypocritical."

As I have demonstrated, it is not.'

These are the kinds of absolutes you argued against in my post...perhaps I should have said self-righteous instead of hypocritical?  Just as my conclusions should not have been stated in the absolute, nothing you have said disproves my conclusions, it only suggests that they may be wrong.  I would post the definition of hypocritical, but I trust you know it.

Finally, if you started by working from common ground or admitting that there is some validity to the work presented in the future, I think you'll find a more beneficial discussion ensues.


August 21st, 2013 at 10:18 PM ^

I know this has been pointed out a few times on here but it is critical to the success of the season: Pass blocking is awfully important this year with a thin QB depth chart. I think the coaches will take solid blocking over a top 10 rushing performance and while I don't know if blocking is what is holding Green or Smith back, I find it hard to believe that the coaches would think anybody but Fitz would be the best man for the job right now.


August 21st, 2013 at 10:38 PM ^

But what you conveniently failed to mention is that Alabama had Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson on the depth chart ahead of him. We had no such logjam of talent last year, so any running back who didn't contribute in 2012 isn't likely to be destined for much.

If you want to be Michigan-specific, look back at this program over the past 20 years or so. Every running back who's turned out to be even halfway decent has seen the field as a true freshman. Not as a starter or the #1 guy, necessarily, but the good ones always play their first year, unless they're injured.


August 22nd, 2013 at 6:24 AM ^

this year, with only one decent running back ahead of him, that won't be a good sign, especially for a guy who is supposed to be one of the top freshman RBs in the country.

Can you name any decent Michigan RB in the last 20 years who hasn't played at all as a true freshman, other than for injury reasons?


August 21st, 2013 at 11:11 PM ^

"RARELY does a freshman RB burst onto the scene as a primary starter"

I'd say that is because teams good enough at running the ball to get on this list (and as we learned last year, run yards are not solely based on back quality) usually make sure they have an upperclassmen starter every year with their recruiting, because they base everythin around the run consistently. Rare are teams like Michigan who have only freshmen replacing seniors as high quality options.


August 21st, 2013 at 11:18 PM ^

probably the single easiest position to contribute early and at a high level. However, college seems to be the level where there is not only personal oddities to the rule but situational. HB relies on physical attributes and vision alone in the personal sense. A truly elite HB (like a Peterson, etc) should start in HS as a Freshman and have zero issue going up to college/NFL unless the situational issue pops up. The situational issues being a team OL and system. No HB can succeed behind a truly atrocious OL. Some can show flashes but week ultimately show that little can be done if you have 4+ guys on you the second you get the ball. The same can be true by lining up a small speed back and asking him to run between tackles, etc.
In Green's case, we have a potentially shaky OL as well as a HB that was given high rankings but it's not in the same league as a Peterson or general "can't miss". I think our excitement of landing of Green led us to forget our fail to see any issues his FR year. He absolutely needs a great OL due to the fact that it takes him a bit too get going and he has nice movement for a guy his size but it's not elite level. I was (still am and even before weightgate) not in the camp that thought he would take the BIG by storm as a true FR.
Smith, imo, is more ready to succeed on this Michigan team than Green due to still being large but a bit more shifty with his power. Ultimately, I always assumed Fitz would be our main HB. This OL and our FR HBs need time to develop before it's a thumping running game leading to pa passes offense again.


August 22nd, 2013 at 1:34 AM ^

If you look at our history, most of our better ball carriers did not really get a massive dose of carries until, minimum, their sophomore years. And I'm talking about a lot of "future greats," Bells, Lytles, Morrises, Woolfolk, et. al.  They all had to learn a system that was built around reading the blocks of the "great Ols" we had in front of them. And on that issue, there shouldn't be too many arguments because aside from Mike Hart, and this is a period covering 40+ years of UM football, we really didn't have too many backs that stepped on campus as 18 year olds and were "naturals." Most of them were products of our system and that's why although many went onto the NFL, very few really flourised there.   That is not necessarily a bad thing because Hoke, through his great recruiting is establishing an OL tree that will dominate like those in the past and when that occurs, we will have RBs that seem to be interchangeable inasmuch as each have been in the system, coached the same way and will know how to read the blocks initiated to determine which path to take.  I can still recall Bo's stories about Morris and how he used to shout "Become an ass runner.  If his ass. speaking about the lead blocker, goes left, you run right." He labeled him as "Ass runner."  Like I said, Hart was a freak. He could have excelled at any school. He was the only rb in my many years as a M fan that I saw lose a fumble, during his first game while carrying three IA tacklers, get put back in on the very next possession. It was a given that if you fumbled you didn't see the field for a minimum of two offensive series.   ^ So with all the great linemen we had and the rbs that had been "in the system," it was not unusual to see one man go down and his replacement just step in and perform equal to or greater than who he was replacing.  Realistaclly, however, I see more of a chance of more Mike Harts, simply because Brady is getting the "best of the best" at all positions. ^Green is perhaps a little overweight(?), and we can agree the OL, albeit talented is green. He might blow up this year, but chances are he'll have a much better ypc avg during his sophomore year when these OL, like himself, are a year more experienced and all that brings with it. However, those that follow will normally step in behind an OL line that has seen plenty of playing time the previous year(s) and if Hoke keeps getting these top rated runners, there will be a few that are exceptional from Day one. And based on the limited film I've seen to date, it looks like Fitz is real close to being back to where he was two years ago. I'm in total agreement there.  


August 22nd, 2013 at 8:58 AM ^

There are too many factors going on here to draw conclusions IMO. Depth chart being one of them. Of course Eddie Lacy is going to redshirt when he has 2 Heisman-contending running backs in front of them. 

There is also the issue of talent. A truely talented running back (let's just say consensus 5*) should have no issue walking on to any team and being a contributing factor out of the backfield. But take a look at Rivals, 247, Scout, & ESPN. How many consensus five star RB are there a year? How many with at least 2 sites giving them 5 stars? That's only a handful of opportunities per year for a Freshman RB to get playing time. 

RB's that are rated lower are rated lower for a reason, they have something to work on. Yeah, it can come together down the road, but other factors can impact that as well. Offensive line, scheme, etc. 

Michigan is in a unique position of having a feature back, and then the depth chart looks like air. Alabama was in this position last year. They had a true freshman stud RB. We have (what is supposed to be) a true freshman RB. In these circumstances, you are supposed to be able to rely on that guy. Other teams have stables of backs, backs that fit there system, and we are just not there yet. Brady Hoke is doing his best to change that though.

Ron Utah

August 22nd, 2013 at 11:28 AM ^

Every school has different factors that may encourage/discourage RBs from being productive early.  The only thing about this study that is lacking is its size--40 is probably not enough.

The point is that the list is composed of extremely diverse schools, each with different identities and reasons for having freshmen play/not play early.  And with that sample--not tiny but certainly not insignificant--the average is clear.

I don't know why everyone is arguing with an obvious point: some RBs--lots of RBs, in fact--take time to develop.  You don't have to like it, you don't have to be patient, you don't have to agree.  BUT IT'S A FACT.

Like I said above, if you want to freak out about a lack of production from our young backs, go ahead.


August 22nd, 2013 at 12:23 PM ^

that there are a ton of running backs that need/take time to develop. But the top backs in the nation (coming out of high school) shouldn't need that time. That's where you get lines like, college ready, high football IQ, etc., when reading the scouting reports. They are expected to contribute if called upon.

That's why the general thought on this blog was that Green would step into the 2nd RB slot and give us some of the production we lost with Denard. If he needs time to develop, maybe he was a little too hyped in HS. 

I personally am not freaking out if Green cannot contribute. Because I think De'Veon Smith or Drake Johnson can help. I even believe in Hayes more than I do Rawls, because I haven't seen enough out of Hayes to draw conclusions. But if Rawls is our second RB, I think it does spell trouble. He has had two years to show something. At least a flash. And I haven't seen it. The other skills you can learn as time goes by cannot make up for the FACT that he can't blow over a CB, or make a LB miss. 

[EDIT]: Keep in mind we are looking for a significant back-up. Not a primary starter role. So 37.5% is pretty reasonable to expect 1 out of our 2 pretty damn good freshman to come in and have an impact year 1.  That number jumps up to 65% if you add in Johnson (RS Fr.) that we can expect production out of one of our "Freshman RBs."


August 22nd, 2013 at 1:28 PM ^

Nobody is disagreeing that some/many RBs take some time to devlop. What we're saying is that your study has no mechanism to capture RBs who are objectively very good when they show up on campus, but don't get production because they are stuck behind someone better than them. You're missing a variable.

Take a QB example, Matt Cassell. We have no way of knowing whether he showed up at USC NFL-ready or not because he spent his entire career behind Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. Using your method we would say that he didn't develop into good quarterback until he showed up in the NFL, but we don't really know if that's true or not. He could have been a great quarterback, he was just stuck behind a Heisman winner and a top-10 draft pick. Your output doesn't determine your talent, it is only an indicator.

All people are pointing out is that you may be drawing a conclusion that isn't completely supported by the evidence. The collective mGoHivemind is pretty bright, you should take input and revise or temper your conclusions. Mathlete and others do it all the time.

Edit: grammatical in nature

Ron Utah

August 22nd, 2013 at 6:37 PM ^

I'm not doubting the intelligence of the mGoHivemind.  And I appreciate criticism.  But it needs to be informed.

The "variable" of "good" players being ahead of a freshman is impossible to measure.  Did Fitz become a worse player last year?  Or was it all about the blocking?  Or did teams key more on him?  Or all of the above?

These things are impossible to know.  As is your "variable."  It is a possible error source, I will grant you that, but lots of these guys were sitting when their rushing attacks were NOT all that productive.

Here's another example: Zach Line dropped from being the 7th leading rusher to being the 34th leading rusher from 2011-2012.  His ypc dropped over 1.2.  He scored four fewer TDs, despite playing in four more games.  What caused that?  Was he a worse player in 2012?  Should younger guys have gotten more snaps?  Was his level of competition significantly higher?

And there is no way to know if a RB is "objectively" good if he doesn't play.  Athletic?  Measurable.  I'd argue it's even easy to spot "potential".  But potential often doesn't pan out, and the best atheltes often aren't the best players.  But objectively good?  For a guy who is not producing?  Not possible to know.

There's no way to know.  The "variables" being discussed are all possible error sources.  I did not discuss possible error sources in my post, as this is not a thesis.  But is an inarguable fact that RBs often don't play early, and still turn out to be pretty darn good.


August 23rd, 2013 at 8:53 AM ^

Which please don't take that the wrong way. I appreciate that you dug up the info. And it was pretty good analysis. But I just was not comfortable drawing black and white conclusions based on the variables that have been left out. I guess that is what I was getting at. 


August 23rd, 2013 at 1:57 PM ^

When you post something and everyone says it's crap, it's probably crap. It's time to just say, "welp, maybe I took my logic a bit too far here" and move on. If your analysis were good, or right, everyone would be saying "wow man, that's pretty interesting", Brian would have put it on the front page, and people would be calling me an jerk for criticizing you. As far as I can tell, none of those things has happened.

It IS an inarguable fact that RBs often don't play early and still turn out to be pretty darn good. If that were your only conclusion, we'd be telling you that your results are valid...and completely uninteresting. Unfortunately, that isn't the point you made. Your point, as I read it, was that these players are developing in the time that they aren't being productive. That is not supported by your data. We have no idea what they're doing. Like you said: it is unknowable. If it's unknowable, it can't be a conclusion of your data.

By the way, measuring how good of a player is ahead of these guys isn't at all impossible to do. It wouldn't be difficult at all to control for how good the player above these guys is, and actually would make the data a lot more interesting. Your hypothesis could be that highly rated running backs who can't beat a mediocre starter/backup (not Fitz, just in general) turn out to be busts more often. Go back and look at all the 5 star running backs, measure the productivity of the RB that started/backed up instead of them, and then see how they turned out. Might not yield anything, but if it did it would be really interesting.



Ron Utah

August 24th, 2013 at 12:11 AM ^

First of all, there's not a single downvote.  Critics tend to post more on just about every post on this site, if you haven't noticed, and people aggressively downvote "crap."

Second, it was diary of the week, mentioned on the front page.  But to be honest it isn't thorough enough to warrant front page material.  I never intended it to be.

Third, you just agreed with the whole premise of my data, which DID include looking at the players ahead of the guys on my list (though not all of the guys on my list were highly rated) and in many cases, the guys ahead of them weren't that great.  To argue that a player isn't improving while he is training and getting limited playing time with his team is pretty ludicrous.  I can say with absolute certainty that these players are improving, and anyone who has ever played or coached college sports will agree with me.  Sure, a few guys flame out, but the vast, vast majority of players improve every year in college.  And the stats bear that out, too. 

Fourth, many, many posters on this site have made it sound like Green is a lock to win the starting job this year, or come close, and if he doesn't, then he's not very good.  So I do think this is news to people.

Fifth, calling someone's unpaid, done for your information and entertainment, and admittedly (in the OP!) simple analysis of a concept "crap," is pretty much the definition of being a dick.


August 24th, 2013 at 7:51 AM ^

1 and 2. Your delusion knows no bounds. He said the exact same thing were all saying: your analysis misses too many potential variables. Then you were awarded the diarist of the week for "effort" because you posted two of them. That's not a good thing, man. Get a grip.

3. I'm not arguing that they're not developing! I'm just saying that the data doesn't support that conclusion. You can make that claim, but it isn't data analysis it's Ron Utah's opinion.

4. Your data doesn't prove anything on whether or not its a bad thing if Green doesn't play. It suggests that if Green doesn't play he may still turn out to be a strong performer.

5. Yep, it is. And like everyone else here, I started off polite but you're so unbelievably defensive of your work that it seems like the only way to get through to you. The remarkable part is, even that hasn't worked. We're just haters and jealous, right? If you can't even see what Seth wrote as a critique, you're beyond hope.

/participation in this thread

Ron Utah

August 24th, 2013 at 11:35 PM ^

1 & 2.  I will ignore this and not resort to more personal attacks.

3. How does data showing increased opportunities and improved performance NOT support the conclusion that players are developing?  The data does not unequivocally PROVE that they are developing (though they obviously are, even by your own admission) but it certainly supports that conlcusion.

4. We agree here.  Not sure why you think otherwise.  All the data proves is that good players often spend years being pretty unproductive.

5. I don't think you're jealous, or a hater.  And we seem to agree on nearly everything.  I certainly never felt better than anyone else on this thread.  I was hoping responses would be more driven by research, and hoped my responses would challenge others to do that.  I have learned a good lesson in this thread about phrasing, and not stating things as absolutes.  I will do a better job of using softer language.


August 22nd, 2013 at 11:43 AM ^

with a lot of the negative/worrying posts on here...The fact is we have a solid back in Fitz, and mutiple backs with a good amount of experience compared to other positions like interior o-line and the safeties...Green ans Smith will develop with time, no one on here should be worried if they blow up or hardly see the field...the fact remains we have a solid coaching staff and a brighter future with our o-line...the RB situation will work itself out, it may just take some time to find the back-up to Fitz...but like with all sports, someone will step-up given the chance, and i have no doubt that our great team and coaches will follow suit


August 22nd, 2013 at 7:57 PM ^

I like the premise here, but as others have noted, oftentimes early-career performance is more team-dependent than player-dependent.  One of Green or Smith will see the field; Green looks like the best option near the goalline and in short yardage, if nothing else.  But depending on the circumstances and the play of guys like Fitz and other returning players, we may get an incomplete picture of their abilities.  For every Mike Hart or Anthony Thomas who stepped in early and established himself as a viable starter, there are guys "stuck" behind established players that never took the step forward - I still remember Jerome Jackson and Carlos Brown getting hype all those years behind Hart but never really becoming more than garbage-time backs.  Heck, while people remember Chris Perry for his Doak-winning senior year, I don't remember anyone expecting that type of season coming off his 1,100 yard junior year.  Sometimes guys just figure it out, or (more likely) have better players around them from year to year and perform better as a result.  I fully expect Green and Smith to be solid backs at UM, but I also suspect that with a retooling interior line and some question marks on offense, we might see both of them struggle this year only to "improve" once the guys in front of them mature and improve in talent.  

Ron Utah

August 22nd, 2013 at 9:20 PM ^

You really could make that argument about any position.  Again, I'm not claiming Rawls will be good, Hayes will be good, or even that Green and Smith will be good.

All I'm saying is the data shows a pretty clear pattern of successful backs (even at unsuccessful programs with relatively little talent in front of them) that have taken time to develop.

Obvioulsy the talent around the players makes a difference.  So does scheme and coaching.  So does weather, schedule, minor injuries, etc, etc, etc.

The only thing I really gleaned from the data is that RBs do in fact often spend multiple seasons as back-ups or worse before becoming very successful.  I can't understand why people are fighting that so hard, especially without a body of evidence.


August 22nd, 2013 at 11:08 PM ^

Probably because you're implying that this somehow applies to Michigan's situation with Green; but your "statistical analysis" doesn't have a great deal of relevance, as others have pointed out. I don't think anyone is arguing that some players take time to develop, but if you truly want to conduct an analysis that may have relevance to Green, then this doesn't strike me as the one. I would expect that analysis to be focused on running backs who are very highly touted coming into college (starting with the 'top 40 rushers' -- which, in itself, has many flaws -- is very different); that were already physically ready (I suspect this added a lot of insignificant seasons to your analysis that aren't relevant to this particular situation); and, in the ideal world would take into account the influence of the team's offense and depth (probably could be addressed by a better sample).

Bottom line, your analysis doesn't preclude the possibility that nearly every highly-touted running back who is already physically ready to play in college, and who isn't behind upperclassmen with just as much talent but more experience, doesn't end up making at least a solid contribution as a freshmen (else, they never do).

Ron Utah

August 23rd, 2013 at 10:29 AM ^

The only reason I'm focusing on Green is because he is the current Michigan tailback.

I stated that my analysis my be faulty, especially due to sample size.

No statistical analysis precludes any possibility.

A look at only highly-touted backs would be interesting, but your sample size would be even smaller since recruiting rankings are relatively young.  You'd have similar problems.


August 23rd, 2013 at 5:59 PM ^

And that's why you're seeing disagreement here. Not because your conclusion isn't (likely) true, but because the relevance to Green seems tenuous at best.

I'm visiting my parents and so have some time I'd like to kill. Here's my half-assed attempt to create a relevant look. I'm going to look at Rivals 5* RBs (not ATH, I am too lazy to look at whether they ended up at RB or not) and what they accomplished in their first college season (rather than choose only college-sized backs, I'm just going to ignore whether the first year was as a true freshman or RS freshman though that's noted). Also, since the interest is in exploring impact as a freshman, I'm going to ignore subsequent seasons.

RS? Player School Touches Touches: Team Leader
Yes Lorenzo Booker FSU 81 153
No Ciatrick Fason Florida 9 262
No Gerald Riggs Jr Tennessee 19 162
No Michael Johnson Virginia 31 254
No Jerious Norwood Miss St 71 116
No Maurice Clarett Ohio State 234 234
Yes Reggie Bush USC 105 147
Yes Kregg Lumpkin Georgia 126 163
No Adrian Peterson Oklahoma 344 344
No Jonathan Stewart Oregon 60 208
No Marlon Lucky Nebraska 45 268
No Jason Gwaltney West Virginia 49 217
No Kevin Grady Michigan 135 166
No Antone Smith Florida State 41 157
No Chris Wells Ohio State 106 256
No CJ Spiller Clemson 148 209
No Stafon Johnson USC 3 166
No Joe McKnight USC 117 202
No Noel Devine West Virginia 80 237
Yes Marc Tyler USC 37 145
No Darrell Scott Colorado 96 139
Yes Jermie Calhoun Oklahoma 47 212
No Bryce Brown Tennessee 111 307
No Trent Richardson Alabama 161 303
No Christine Michael Texas A&M 181 187
No Marcus Lattimore South Carolina 278 278
No Michael Dyer Auburn 183 183
No Dillon Baxter USC 70 188
Yes Lache Seastrunk Oregon/Baylor 140 180
No Malcolm Brown Texas 175 175
No James Wilder Jr Florida State 37 135
No Brandon Williams Oklahoma 46 128
Yes Dee Hart Alabama 23 226
No Isaiah Crowell Georgia 193 193
No Mike Bellamy Clemson 59 245
No Johnathan Gray Texas 160 160
No TJ Yeldon Alabama 186 226
No Trey Williams Texas A&M 77 156
No Duke Johnson Miami YTM 166 177

(Yes, in many cases seasons were cut short by injury, but many also benefited from injuries to starters, so I assume that's roughly a wash).

Some takeaways:

  • Redshirts among 5* RB recruits are uncommon (<20%), and in at least a few of those cases it was for medical reasons
  • Over 40% (16/39) had at least a 60/40 carry split with the team leader.  50% had at least 100 touches
  • 6 of 8 guys on this list who have established themselves as regulars on Sundays had at least 100 carries as a freshman

Ron Utah

August 23rd, 2013 at 11:58 PM ^

It is cerainly clear that being a 5* increases your chances of contributing.  Thanks for this, it is great.  I am not the least bit surprised that most of these guys contributing in some way their freshman year.  I certainly hope Green does.  But this wasn't meant to be a Derrick Green thread.  I am interested in what to expect from Smith as well, and RBs in general.

You're still looking at 14 players (36%) with 60 or fewer touches.  To put that in perspective, Rawls had 58 last year.  Some of those guys haven't finished playing yet, so we don't know how they'll turn out.  The notable successes: Jonathan Stewart, Ciatrick Fason, Marlon Lucky, Gerald Riggs, Jr.

Notables w/at least 100 touches as freshmen that never gained 1,000 scrimmage yards in a season: Kevin Grady (grrrr), Kregg Lumpkin, Bryce Brown, Christine Michael.

There are quite a few busts that played a lot early.

I think your data demonstrates that most 5* RBs play early, but there are quite a few whose careers are still in progress (which is why I couldn't study this group) who may still breakout, and there are a significant number that developed into great players.

My takeaway from this whole process is that it's obviously a good sign if the freshmen get on the field early, but they can't be written off if they don't.  Especially if our rushing attack produces without significant contributions from them.

Thanks again.


August 23rd, 2013 at 11:30 AM ^

I think Anthony Thomas is the comp here and hopefully the career arcs will be close.  Both big, physical backs and similarly (highly) rated as recruits.  Thomas was a rotational / situational player (130 carries, second leading rusher with 529 yards) as a freshman and moved into a starting role as a sophmore but only 167 carries (19 more than second leading rusher Clarence Williams.)  

It wasn't until his junior (283 carries) and senior (287) seasons that he became the workhorse / feature back we all remember.  

As good as he was, it took some time (and a Justin Fargas injury) for him to definitively grab the top spot and fulfill all the lofty expectations.  In short, don't freak out... this is pretty normal for freshman and we're not even remotely close to having anything to worry about.