Note: If you'd like to read the Michigan vs. Michigan State quarterback comparison, click here. The follow-up to today's post will hit the O-lines. It seems like the right thing to do after talking about the running backs.
The potential of Michigan's backfield--especially the tandem of Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith--has been discussed several times and viewed from several different angles.
The sophomores are, without question, the keys to Doug Nussmeier's rushing machine.
Now in the past, the era of Al Borges running Fitz Toussaint into the ground is nothing but a memory--one that's getting more distant by the minute. Today, Wolverines fans have the utmost faith in Nussmeier's ability to get the show rolling. It's been too many years since the Maize and Blue has dominated opponents on the ground.
The Spartans, however, have been doing that consistently under Mark Dantonio, who wasted little time establishing a forceful backfield. From Javon Ringer to Edwin Baker, Jehuu Caulcrick and Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State's been anything but short at running back.
Conversely, Hoke has a potentially great duo in Green and Smith. Given the proper conditions, they should flourish while in Ann Arbor. Maybe they'll be Ringer-Caulcrick. Maybe they won't. They're both bulldozers who can run downhill. Smith has a little speed.
Thunder and Lightning at The Big House?! It could happen.
OK. Enough of that. It's time to divert attention to what's a-brewing in East Lansing today--not 2007.
Who's No. 1?
As a sophomore, Jeremy Langford got the nod. No big deal. He certainly wasn't another Bell or Baker, right? A relatively slow start to 2013 didn't exactly build his hype. But once the Spartans faced Indiana on Oct. 12, everything changed for the better.
Langford emerged. And when I say "emerged," I mean that he rushed for better than 100 for the rest of the year (excluding the Rose Bowl, 84 yards). Keep in mind that he wasn't originally recruited as a running back. He was a defensive back, then flipped to fit Dantonio's needs.
A season later, he's among the nation's top returning ball-carriers thanks to a cool 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns (No. 16 rusher). Of course, changes on the O-line will come into play. But we're sticking to running back vs. running back in this one.
As it appears now, the Spartans have a No. 1 option that trumps anything Michigan has returning this fall. The lack of an effective ground game has plagued Michigan--its top five running backs bring back less production than Langford, who is clearly one of the Big Ten's shooting stars.
If one thing is certain, it's that Michigan State will reward the hot ball-carrier or -carriers. In 2012, Bell and Baker combined for 352 carries. In 2008, Ringer rushed 390 times.A year earlier, he and Caulcrick combined for 465 totes.
This past season, Langford finished with 292. Without a clear No. 2 in the fold, expect more of the same in 2014.
However, per the Freep, the race for second fiddle is becoming more competitive. So maybe it won't be The Langford Show after all.
The obvious upside to Langford, and mostly Langford, is this: The chance of repeating 2013, not to mention continuing the "more they run, the stronger they get" mentality that seemingly drives the Spartans backfield.
The downside is this: An injury could be detrimental. Delton Williams and R.J. Shelton, the candidates for Langford's backup, don't have much experience. As a freshman, Williams had 38 carries for 238 yards and a touchdown. Shelton had 21 attempts for 153 yards and two touchdowns.
Gerald Holmes, a redshirt frosh, and Nick Tompkins, a sophomore, could also be options for the reigning Big Ten champs, who welcome recruits Vayante Copeland and Madre London.
Now let's take a look at the Wolverines' situation...
It wasn't good enough, but it was something: With Fitz Toussaint on the roster, the Wolverines could talk about having a 1,000-yard rusher, and how there were others waiting for their chance to reach the coveted plateau.
Well, Toussaint is gone.
And there isn't one back with anything remotely close to 1,000 yards.
As freshmen, Green and Smith combined for 109 carries, 387 yards and three touchdowns. But that's a little misleading. As mentioned earlier, Borges sat on his hands while continuously calling Toussaint for two-yard disasters. The youngsters were barely used for weeks on end.
Here's the upside: Green and Smith have yet to show their true colors. They played well during the late stages of 2013. They deserve credit for that. But really, they're still raw and need this season to be the season that they earn their keep and truly set a tone for Michigan's ground tactics.
Justice Hayes could be a serviceable third-down option, although he may be more useful as a slot receiver. Either way, the redshirt junior has enough in his bag of tricks to get reps somewhere.
The uncertainty factor looms over Drake Johnson, who could actually evolve into a solid spell-back for Green and Smith. However, he tore his ACL in Week 1 of 2013, and the recovery from such an injury tends to be predictably unpredictable.
The word is "potential."
But you're sick of hearing that, right? Until players develop, that'll be the battle cry of the Hoke administration.
Follow Maize 'n Brew's Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81