2009 Michigan Football Season Preview, Part II: The Running Backs

Part I: The Offensive Line, can be found here.

Three days till the 2009 Michigan Football season kicks off. If you're not bursting from the seams with excitement you should probably see a doctor. Or a mortician. It's almost kickoff time, baby. We'll get to the Western Michigan preview in good time. But for right now, we need to figure out what we've got on our side of the football. Now if you can't wait until the season starts to know how it's going to turn out, we got you covered there as well. Here are Beauford's, MnB Dave's, and SCM's 2009 Michigan Football season predictions. There's your quick fix if you need a baseline.

But this is the time of year when we break it all down. Position by position. So we're splitting things up in to a couple of separate posts to give you all the information you can handle on what to expect out of Michigan this season. The Depth Chart is out, so we'll break it down. Since we know what to expect out of the Offensive Line, lets move on to a position overflowing with talent, depth and expectations, but short on results last year.

2009 Michigan Football Season Preview: The Running Backs

In a dismal year, the running game was the only bright spot for the Wolverines in 2008. And by bright spot I mean it wasn't so time and space warpingly bad that some light actually managed to escape its grasp of its implosion, unlike the passing game. Sarcasm aside, the ground was the only place Michigan was able to do anything offensively. In conference the team average 3.9 yards a carry and actually outgained Michigan State and Minnesota (two bowl teams) on the ground. Eees goot, yes?

Mostly. to be perfectly honest the run game, like most of the offense stunk, prior to the Penn State game. But if the loss at Happy Valley had a silver lining it was that the offense finally started to click on the ground. The oft concussed Sam McGuffie was no longer in a starting role and the oft one-handed Brandon Minor was toting the mail. During the Northwestern game, Carlos Brown took over and went for over a 100. Against Minnesota and Purdue, the running game clicked, accounting for most of the offense. There were break away runs. There were cut backs. There was excitement.

This year the position is absolutely stacked with power and speed. But the big question is can anyone stay healthy? Everyone who suited up as a tailback last year suffered some kind of injury that really should've knowcked them out for the year. Carlos Brown missed half the season. Brandon Minor probably should've missed most of it. McGuffie? He doesn't remember. Mike Shaw moved so fast his muscles protested by giving him a hernia. Kevin Grady, injuries and the dog house.

If the unit can stay healthy this is hands down the deepest, most talented stable of backs in the Big Ten. If they can't, Michigan's going to have a lot of problems.

The Starters

In the one back set, Brandon Minor appears to be the unquestioned starter. When a preview includes the caveat of "appears to be" you have right to be worried. Minor was held out or in the green light-contact jersey for a good portion of fall camp with various dings, bruises and pulls. Compound that with recovering from a right wrist injury last season that only allowed him to carry the ball in his left arm, and any time the injury bug rears its ugly head with Minor, you're right to be a little concerned.

But when he's healthy...

More of the preview after the jump....

 

Minor's one of the those unique running backs that has the perfect combination of size and speed that makes him a threat to run your ass over or sprint right by you. In a lot of ways he reminds me Tyrone Wheatly. A big, upright runner with good change of direction skills. As with all backs it took him a little while to start learning the scheme and spot the proper holes to dart through, but toward the end of last year his running took a giant step forward. On top of that Minor's become an outstanding out-of-the backfield pass catcher. You don't have to look any further than his twisting "that ball is nowhere close to me, but I'm catching it anyway" pseudo touchdown catch against MSU to see how well he's developed in that area.

Last season Minor's stats looked like this:

Year Carries Yards YPC Long TD
Rec
Yards
YPC
Long TD
Fmb
Lost
2008 103 533 5.2 45 9 5 59 11.8 27 2 0 0

 

Not bad for a guy that had 13 carries in the first 6 games, and missed another game with injury. Realistically, Minor put up these numbers in five games. Five. Are you kidding me? Extrapolating that out, if he runs at his average in all 12 games with we're looking at close to 1,500 yards this season out of Minor and close to 20 touchdowns on the ground.

But life doesn't work that way. Knowing Minor, it's impossible to say he'll stay healthy the entire season. So counting on him missed roughly three to four games this year to injuries of playing time limiting injuries, a 1,000 yard season is not an unreasonable expectation. As for touchdowns, probably somewhere in the 13-15 range is another good target as Michigan primary back. If Minor can stay healthy he's one of the elite backs in the Big Ten and could give Evan Royster a run for his money. Especially when you consider Michigan's returning offensive line. But given his track record, that'd be one hell of a jump. Minor should have an excellent season, barring injury. He's going to be a great leader and a great runner for us this season, but I can't jump on the Doak Walker band wagon.

Brownrun_medium

After Minor is Maize n Brew favorite, Carlos Brown. Brown's long been kind of a tragic hero around these parts. An explosive, game changing speed back who just can't stay healthy. But when he is, he's a 100 yard plus a game back. It's really just not fair. Brown came in a top 100 recruit at tailback. He's been shuffled to cornerback and back. He's thought about transferring. He's been a practice and spring game all star, but almost never an in-game, when it really matters game changer. Except once. And man was that special.

Over the last four years we been tantalizingly close to seeing what Carlos Brown can really do. Every spring there is a "Good-Holy-Lord!" dash to the endzone from Brown that has everyone shaking their head and saying, "If he can stay healthy...." before they trail off. Just like Minor, if Brown can stay healthy, he's a game changer.

But the two backs couldn't be more different. Brown is a low to the ground speed demon. He's not a run-your-ass-over kind of player. Instead, he hits the seam and is gone. With an explosive first step into the gap, he gets up to speed in milliseconds, and is best (oddly) running between the tackles and guards so that he doesn't have to make sharp cuts. Unlike Minor, Brown has never displayed much "escapability." He's a straight ahead runner who can make a cut or two but is never going to juke a guy out of his jock. That's just not who he is. He's lightning to Minor's Thunder. He's speed in a helmet. And if we try to make him something he is not, we're going to be disappointed.

Brown's number over the last three years are really irrelevant. The kid's played sparingly due to any number of dings he's suffered at Michigan, so projecting numbers for his is really like pulling numbers out of thin air. But isn't that what all preseason predictions do anyway? Best case scenario, Brown joins Minor as a 1,000 yard plus back, and chips in 7-9 touchdowns. Carlos hasn't played enough for me to judge his pass catching ability, but you can rest assured that if he's healthy enough to play, they'll try to get him the ball in space from time to time and see if he can turn the jets on. Realistically, again given the injury bug, I'd project Carlos at Minor's numbers last year. Realisticall about 500 yards and 5 TDs, maybe a receiving TD as well.

Combined, Minor and Brown should have a prolific season for the Wolverines. So many things are in their favor. The Line. A QB who won't spike himself. Good receivers to take the pressure off. Experience. In the two back set, combined with Forcier or Robinson, Minor and Brown should be deadly. Between them, there are three options capable of running for a touchdown at any moment. I think that balance, combined with experience and knowledge of the system will end up with one of Michigan's highest running out-puts in two decades. If the stars align, the tandem could reach 2,500 yards and close to 25 TDs. If the sky falls, injuries, etc... 1,300 yards between them and 14 TDs. My prediction is, caveated with "they could get injured at any moment," is Minor and Brown, best case, combine for close to 2,100 yards and 22TDs on the ground. You can't tell me you wouldn't take that.

The Backups

After Minor and Brown, the depth chart lists Michael Shaw, Vincent Smith, and Michael Cox. All three are talented backs. All three are very, very different. Of the group, I've got a soft spot for Mike Shaw is is likely going to be the first guy off the bench into the game. Shaw is fast. There's no other way to describe him. He's got good hands as a receiver so he's just as effective running between the tackles or flaring out for a pass. Shaw only managed to get in a handful of carries last season as a true freshman and in the process managed to rip up his groin to the point he required off season surgery. But when he was on the field, he was pretty good. Shaw piled up 215 yards on 42 carries last season, including a pair of dazzling 30 and 48 yards runs. While Shaw didn't find the endzone last year, it's fair to say a gimpy private area probably had something to do with that. This year, Rodriguez told me at BTMD that Shaw has his explosion back and that he's running as well as he ever has in a winged helmet. So keep your fingers crossed.

865452b7591786d4440389c7c867d670_medium
Smith via mlive.com

Next up is true freshman Vincent Smith. Generously listed a 5'8" Smith doesn't look anywhere near his posted height. But that really doesn't matter. The kid's a hell of a football player. He got a glimpse of it in spring practice when he dodged half the defense in the "M" Drill. But the thing that impressed me the most is that he absolutely trucked Michael Williams in one-on-one tackling drills. Knocked his damn lid right off. Then he bounced up like a superball. Smith has an escapability and elasticity that none of the other backs really seem to have right now. Sure, he's got to get in a game to show it, but his practice reports really make you excited. Like Shaw, I think you'll see quite a bit from the freshman this year.

Then, we get to Mike Cox. Despite his humorous name, Cox has yet to see game action. Most of that was due to recovery from high school injuries, so it's hard to judge. However, with the advent of practice video on Mgoblue.com, I was able to see a little bit of Cox on the practice field and I came away impressed. Cox is a big, big dude. He hits the hole very hard and has good pad level on his runs. Not having seen him run in space, I can't attest to his speed, but there was something there that I can't put my finger on. He just looks like a Michigan running back. MGoBlog reported hearing some nice things out of practice on the kid, so take it all for what it's worth. We could see plenty of him if Minor goes down.

Fullbacks

The Fullback seems to be the forgotten part of Michigan's running game after years and years of the Carr style pounder coming out of his stance and shuffling toward the left or right tackle, tipping Michigan's hand every time it ran right or left. The hold over from that regime is Mark Moundros, a junior who currently sits atop the depth chart at his position. Moundros' production will be limited, but should aide Michigan's young quarterbacks as a safety valve and blocker. As an added bonus, he's got decent hands and concentrates more on protecting the football than trying to make people miss when it's in his hands. He's a fullback, so you're not looking at a lot of speed. But you're going to get a consistent effort and results out of Moundros. So what's not to love.

Finally, we get to Kevin Grady. A five star recruit turned hanging-on-by-the-skin-of-his-teeth back up player. Grady's tenure at Michigan hasn't been anything like he, or we, hoped. He hasn't shown the burst we saw in high school. He hasn't been able to hold onto the ball. He's been in trouble with his coaches and the law. I don't care. I really want him to succeed. Grady's been through a lot at Michigan. He's had a nasty culture shock in the transition and from learning to play within the team. But the kid's a senior now and I desperately want him to leave Michigan on a high note. Maybe I'm just being a sap, but there's something in those photos of him playing around with his brother from media day. a glint in his eyes that says he's finally at peace. Grady has always been an insanely talented athlete, but he's never been able to harness it all because of whatever mental demons that have consumed him over the last four years. But now he's got his brother there. He's going to leave Michigan with a degree. He's free and clear of the DWI nonsense from the spring. He got one last chance to leave on a good note. How can you not root for the kid? Realistically, I know Grady's not going to see a lot of early playing time. But I'm hoping, for at least one shining moment, he can deliver a glimpse of that talent and see the endzone one more time.

Overall and Projections for the Season

It's hard not to look at the talent, the speed, and the size of the Michigan tailbacks and not be excited about what they can accomplish this year. But I think the biggest difference you'll see this season will come from simply knowing and understanding the offense as a whole. The improvement on the offensive line is going to be a HUGE difference for the tailbacks, and would easily tack on an extra five hundred yards to a season for a stable of mediocre backs. But when you're talking about a group as fast and talented as Michigan's, you get all tingly.

Everything hinges on the players health this season. Minor's been battling headaches after a fall car accident. Brown is Brown, so you never know if some he's going to wake up each day with both his feet still attached to his body. Shaw had the hernia. Cox and Smith are exciting, but unknown. Grady is simply fighting for playing time. If the group stays mostly healthy, it's arguable that they could be the most productive tailbacks in the Big Ten and put Michigan in the top 25 in YPC and total yards. I'm not being optimistic on that assessment, I'm being reasonable. However, even if the injury bug does bite (and history says it will), this is still a vastly improved unit over last year that will benefit from some fresh faces and considerably more depth than it's had in years.

Personally, I'm expecting big things from Minor and Brown. I've got Minor cracking 1,500 yards and Brown coming up just shy of a 1,000 yard season. Shaw and Smith contribute consistently in and out of the backfield and Mike Cox concusses some poor safety during mop up time. And since the theme of all this is redemption and achievement, I'm hoping for a 300 yard 3 TD season from Kevin Grady. That would be the icing on the cake.

Go Blue.

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