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Michigan Football Spring Rundown: Running Backs

Green, Smith, Isaac or Johnson? Maize n Brew's spring football coverage continues with a crowded position: running backs.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The most consistent part of the Jim Harbaugh offense since his coaching days at the national level has been the running back position.

It also happens to be one of Michigan's biggest offensive struggles since the Lloyd Carr era.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column detailing how the Wolverines haven't had a true feature back since Mike Hart, and that now-Ohio State signee Mike Weber could have been that player in the winged helmet.

That won't happen now, but Michigan still has a void in that regard. Fitzgerald Toussaint is the only running back that has eclipsed more than 1,000 yards rushing since Hart in 2007.

With the spring game one month away, Michigan has several players that could step up and be its feature back. In this installment of Maize n Brew's spring football coverage, we take a look at the running backs.

The Crown Jewel: Derrick Green

No. 27 | Junior | 5-11 | 234 lbs. | Hermitage HS | Richmond, Va.

Derrick Green vs. Appalachian State
(Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

Season GP Att Yards YPA TD Long YPG
2013 13 83 270 3.3 2 30 20.8
2014 6 82 471 5.7 3 62 78.5
Total 19 165 741 4.5 5 62 39.0

Not long ago, Derrick Green was Michigan's crown jewel — the cherry on its sundae, the cream of its 2013 crop.

Due to the suspense of five-star talent Green waiting until the final weeks before signing day to make his collegiate decision and Michigan beating out Auburn and Tennessee for his services two years ago, there was a buzz surrounding Ann Arbor. Once he signed on the dotted line, you could argue it was larger than the commitment of encompassing hometown gunslinger Shane Morris, who orchestrated the Wolverines' 2013 class. Fans salivated with the anticipation of Michigan returning to the ground-and-pound style of old. It was what Brady Hoke longed for during his tenure as head coach. And if the Wolverines wanted to successfully return to a pro-style offense, this was the first crucial step.

Two years later, Green's career at Michigan has been somewhat of a disappointment relative to his incoming hype -- Rivals ranked him the eighth overall prospect and top running back in the 2013 class. Whether it was his weight as a freshman or his season-ending clavicle injury after six games last year, Green has been unable to scratch his upside's surface.

But with the installation of Jim Harbaugh's offense, which features bruising running backs, a leaner, more muscular Green appears poised to breakout. He checks into spring practice 14 pounds heavier than last year, but it's doubtful that fat is the reason.

Just take a look.

Derrick Green - Instagram Photo

(via Derrick Green's Instagram)

Green was lodged behind Fitzgerald Toussaint as a freshman but was Michigan's main man last fall. And he made it known with a 170-yard performance in the 2014 season opener vs. Appalachian State. Through six games, Green was indeed breaking out. He had 471 yards and was one rushing attempt shy of reaching his 2013 total before suffering his season-ending injury at Rutgers. If he had not broken his clavicle and had continued his pace throughout last season, a 900-yard season was definitely in reach.

The time for Green to succeed is now. All the pieces are in place for the breakout: Harbaugh and his offense, an experienced offensive line, and 19 collegiate games under his belt.

Built Smith Tough: De'Veon Smith

No. 4 | Junior | 5-11 | 228 lbs. | Howland HS | Warren, Ohio

De'Veon Smith Appalachian State
(Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

Season GP Att Yards YPA TD Long YPG
2013 12 26 117 4.5 0 38 9.8
2014 12 108 519 4.8 6 61 43.3
Total 24 134 636 4.7 6 61 26.5

De'Veon Smith prides himself on toughness. It was a recurring theme during the former four-star prospect's media day session last year. And before the 2014 season, toughness was a reason I thought Smith could pass Green as Michigan's top back. That and the running back competition remained unsettled until the season opener.

But once he was given the nod following Green's season-ending injury, Smith's performance sputtered. In Michigan's final six games, he rushed for more than 40 yards only once: a 121-yard showing to pace an ugly win over Northwestern. This gave way to Drake Johnson, but we'll touch on that soon.

Like Green, Smith is a violent backfield bruiser. This quote from former Michigan coach Brady Hoke following a 52-14 season-opening win over Appalachian State last year sums it up.

"As you notice, Smith, he would rather run you over than play tag or try and make you miss," Hoke said.

Smith's days as Green's tandem might be coming to an end, though. And not because of him. Michigan has a resurgence of talent at the position.

Such as...

New Kid on the Block: Ty Isaac

No. 32 | RS Sophomore | 6-3 | 240 lbs. | Joliet Catholic Academy | Shorewood, Ill.

Ty Isaac USC

(Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Season GP Att Yards YPA TD Long YPG
2013 14 40 236 5.9 2 37 16.9
Total 14 40 236 5.9 2 37 16.9

Well, if there's one way to uncover Michigan's coveted feature back, it's through having multiple players capable of carrying the load.

The Wolverines had two backs capable of that last spring in Green and Smith, then, bam, former five-star talent Ty Isaac transferred on June 5th from USC. We'll take a more magnified look at Isaac tomorrow, but for the time being, here's a quick rundown.

At 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, Isaac has a unique mix of size and speed. He possesses nice backfield vision and can read blocks well.

Playing a minimal role as a true freshman at USC, Isaac totaled 236 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 40 attempts. Along with his skills, Michigan's experienced offensive line should catapult him up the depth chart, even with sitting out last year after transferring.

If anything, Isaac offers a nice complement to Green's style of play, assuming he cannot supplant the junior in spring practice.

The Hometown Hero: Drake Johnson

No. 20 | RS Junior | 6-0 | 207 lbs. | Pioneer HS | Ann Arbor, Mich.

Drake Johnson Indiana

(Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

Season GP Att Yards YPA TD Long YPG
2013 1 2 9 4.5 0 7 9.0
2014 12 60 361 6.0 4 32 30.1
Total 13 62 370 5.9 4 32 28.5

Drake Johnson starred in the shadows of Michigan Stadium as a three-star prospect at Ann Arbor Pioneer. Last year, he finally received his chance to do the same thing in front of a hometown crowd.

Johnson burst onto the scene vs. Indiana on November 1st with 122 yards and two touchdowns and became Michigan's main source of offense in three of its last four games in 2014. He kept national champion Ohio State on its feet until tearing his ACL after scoring his second touchdown of the game.

While Johnson provided Michigan fans with a feel-good story in a dreadful season, it's highly unlikely he can repeat his performance in 2015, let alone see the field. He won't be practicing in spring and it's unknown how long he'll be out with his ACL tear. Not everyone can recover like Jake Ryan or Jake Butt, and tearing an ACL twice, especially in the same knee, usually spells doom for athletes.


ReservesWyatt Shallman (RS Sophomore | Hartland, Mich.)

Incoming Freshman: 3* Karan Higdon (Riverview HS | Sarasota, Fla.)

Fullbacks: Joe Kerridge (RS Senior | Traverse City, Mich.); Sione Houma (Senior | Salt Lake City, Utah); Brady Pallante (Sophomore | Naples, Fla.)


Check back tomorrow as I will take an in-depth look at the running back that took a detour to Los Angeles before ending in Ann Arbor where he belonged: Ty Isaac.