The Case For Stephen Hopkins as Michigan Football's Starting Tailback

If you've spent any time here at Maize n Brew you've probably figured out that we're full of advice. Advice on who to root for, what to drink, what notto drink, and how best to go clubbing in Hamburg (hint: leather pants. German chicks love men in leather pants. True story. Ish). We're also full of advice for the Michigan coaching staff, and after weeks for relentlessly harping on them to play Kenny Demens, they finally did. Yes. We're taking total credit for that. We also took credit for being the driving force behind playing Mario Manningham, the need for Chad Henne to be healthy, and the importance of a sustainable ecology (because we're global like that).

So, in order to serve the Michigan fan base and to properly wield this awesome power (that we didn't ask for... but will happily take and abuse), we're here to make the case for playing Michigan running back Stephen Hopkinsas Michigan's number one, everydown back.

Trumpeting a freshman tailback is generally a tough sell in Division One football. Sure there are exceptions, the Claretts, Petersons, and Marcus Latimores of the world see early time at tailback and make an immediate impact. Usually they wait their turn behind a veteran back or until they acclimate to the speed of the game. But in the case of Stephen Hopkins, I don't think that's the case.

There are a lot of reasons for this. First is Hopkins' size. He's a biiiiig dude. 6'1", 227 lbs of helmetted wrecking ball. Second, strength. You don't have to be a football coach to see the obvious physical difference between Hopkins and the rest of the tailbacks that have seen time this year. The guy's got legs like tree trunks and as we've all noticed, he's got no trouble pushing the pile for an extra two to three yards.

 

Third, Hopkins' running style is perfectly suited for Rodriguez attack. Sure it's nice to have a shifty jitterbug in the back field, dancing around and picking up the spectacular yard or two, but 90% of the time football requires someone who can fall forward and pick up four yards. Hopkins is that back. He's a punishing runner who doesn't go east-west, he goes north-south only. You might look to the occasional jump cut and dispute that, but his jump cuts are always going forward. There's no backward or wasted sideways motion, Hopkins goes forward.

Fourth, attitude. I haven't met the kid, but I've seen him run, and he likes contact. More importantly, he likes initiating contact. Hopkins can run through a hole as well as any back on the roster, but when he's going to get tackled he seems to accelerate into the tackler and force the poor schmuck trying to tackle him backwards, as though he's Obi Ezeh.

Fifth, he gets the necessary yards. You need two yards, Hopkins will get four. You need three, he'll get five. he's just that kind of back. Hopkins' knack for picking up first downs and tough yardage makes him a critical part of this offense. Finally, he's a load of a blocker. Hopkins size gives him a natural advantage over both Vincent Smith and Mike Shaw in the blocking game. Hopkins is big and strong enough to stand up a linebacker and enough of a load to slow down a 300 pound tackle.

The main rationales for keeping him off the field are speed and experience. Hopkins is not going to run away from anyone. While he's not ploddingly slow (he's got decent wheels for a big man) he's not a track star like Michael Shaw. Even so, Hopkins ran roughshod over Texas' highest high school football division, racking up over 2000 yards in a season and generally decimating any defense he came in contact with. When you don't have break away speed and rack up those kinds of numbers it's because you've got a turbo diesel under that hood capable of moving the space shuttle into launch position. That is Stephen Hopkins. So the speed issue is one I can live with. I'll trade speed for four 4.9 ypc.

The second issue is a little harder to refute. Hopkins doesn'thave a lot of experience, and he's not magically going to get it without playing a lot. Both Smith and Shaw have two and three years respectively in this system. Hopkins can't match that, so it's a point I'll just have to accept. Hopkins has only 17 carries on the season for just 84 yards, abd he's already fumbled the ball. Against BGSU. Experienced backs don't do that.

But experience doesn't mean you're going to get positive yards. But after Hopkins, the next closest back has just 7 attempts on the season, so depth is becoming a greater issue than experience. As you're probably aware, Michigan is struggling to run the ball with anyone not named Denard Robinson, and lately we're having trouble running the ball with him. Ahead of Hopkins, Smith and Shaw have 70 and 51 carries respectively and over the last two games neither have been effective. Shaw's lack of production is somewhat understandable after the leg whip he suffered blocking in the BGSU game. Smith, however, isn't producing enough to warrant the carries he's getting.

The current, ACL-on-the-mend version of Vincent Smith simply hasn't been up to the task. On the season Smith sports a surprising 4.6 ypc on 70 touches, 325 yards, and four touchdowns. However, if you take out Smith's 56 yard scamper against Indiana's hapless rush defense, Smith has just 269 yards on 69 carries for a 3.89 ypc. No es bueno.

Part of the big problem is Smith is the size of an electron, and Rodriguez offense relies on tough yards as much as it does the explosive ones. The result has been Smith getting stopped between the line of scrimmage and three yards out. He's simply not going to get the tough yards at 5'5" 170-something pounds going up against a 300 pound Nose Tackle. The other part of the problem is Smith simply isn't that fast. Freshman year, ACL-is-in-one-piece Smith was fast. This incarnation isn't. Smith just doesn't have the burst necessary to make the big play right now. I'm hopeful he'll return to form, but until he does it's hard to justify him as Michigan's leading back.

If I had it my way, Mike Shaw would be made out of titanium and always be able to take the ball in this offense. He blocks well. He's got great speed. He's great out of the backfield as a receiver. But Shaw's amazing ability to get hurt is beginning to rival Brandon Minor's. That's not good.

Ideally, Michigan would go to a double back set with Hopkins and/or Shaw, package dependent. But whenever Michigan needs critical yards or simply needs someone capable of picking up yardage on an every down basis, I really wish we'd see more of Stephen Hopkins and his 4.9 ypc average.

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