Michigan's running back situation has been grim since the miniature, yet magnificent, Mike Hart left after 2007. In the seven years before Hart graduated, a Michigan running back rushed for over 900 yards six times. In the seven years after Hart graduated, it's happened once: Fitzgerald Toussaint's 1,041 yards in 2011. Not only is that the only time a Michigan running back has topped 900 yards in a season since 2007, it's the only time one has topped 650 yards. Though some of that decline in production by Michigan's running backs can be attributed to Denard Robinson's role in the offense, it's been a long time since Michigan's had a running back worthy of being the go-to, every-down guy.
There are various ways for running backs to excel at the college level. Some have turbo boosters for feet. Some have tremendous balance and can pivot on a dime in the hole. Some have bruising strength that punishes defenders by the game's end. And some can keep their legs churning forward no matter many defenders are draped over them.
And some can do all of these things. Those are the unicorns.
But, for a running back to excel at the college level, there is at least one requirement: vision. A running back could be a physical specimen or an athletic freak that should be able to run over, around, and through every defender on the field, but, if he can't see the hole or spot where the open running lane is, he isn't going anywhere. Not in college.
Now, having vision doesn't guarantee that a running back will excel at the college level. It's a necessary condition, not a sufficient one. A running back can have vision and see the hole, but, if he can't burst through the hole fast enough or run through tacklers that are in the hole, seeing the hole won't do much good. But it's a building block to success.
And it's been something that Michigan's running backs have lacked for too long. Too many times last season, as I reviewed the tape, I noticed Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith missing running lanes that could have led to significant gains. It's a large reason why Green and Smith averaged only 3.6 and 4.0 yards per carry, respectively, when their numbers against cupcakes Appalachian State and Miami (OH) were removed. The one running back that did spot holes well and capitalized with one-cut bursts was Drake Johnson, who ran 55 times for 320 yards (5.8 YPC) in the final four games of the season before he re-tore his ACL. That's what Michigan needs from its running backs in 2015.
Will Michigan have that in Jim Harbaugh's first season in Ann Arbor? Johnson seemed to be that back, but he's still recovering from his second major knee injury. It's unknown how he'll perform when he returns. Ty Isaac could be that back. Isaac provided flashes of greatness as a freshman at USC before he transferred to Michigan, but he was limited to one carry in the spring game before he was removed with a hamstring issue. He's still a question mark. So, as I reviewed the tape from the spring game and paid special attention to the running backs' vision, I focused on the three running backs that earned more than five carries -- Smith, Green, and Wyatt Shallman -- to learn if one of them could be a legitimate candidate to be Michigan's next go-to back if Johnson and Isaac are not ready.
One running back performed well. The other two: not so much.
Smith was the best among the three backs, and it wasn't close. Both the numbers and tape support that finding. Smith had seven runs for 50 yards (7.1 YPC). Of course, if I extract his 34-yard run on the first play, he had six carries for only 16 yards (2.7 YPC). But Smith still had the 34-yarder, which was the only run longer than nine yards in the game, and, even during his short runs, Smith demonstrated that he had the vision I have been searching for, solid north-south running, and an ability to churn out extra yards.
I'm going to save Smith's 34-yard run for later because I'm not even sure I would call that his most impressive run of the game. Smith was at his best near the end of the third quarter when the Maize offense decided to feed him the ball, and he rewarded their decision. On this one drive, he was given the ball four times, and he turned it into 20 yards. What stood out was Smith's ability to see the open back-side gap and hit the hole hard, which is something I didn't see from Michigan's other running backs in the game.
For example, on the first play of the drive, the Maize team is in its big Ace formation with a tight end on the outside of both tackles. The Blue team is in its 4-3 Under. The Maize team's plan is to give the ball to Smith on an inside zone to the far side as they double both defensive tackles. Just prior to the snap, Dymonte Thomas runs up into the box:
Alex Malzone goes to hand the ball off to Smith. Smith sees that the hole that he is designed to run through inside of Kyle Kalis and Erik Magnuson's double on Willie Henry is open, but he recognizes that Ryan Glasgow is being shoved into that space and, if Glasgow doesn't clog it, Dan Liesman will shut it down for a minimal gain. On the other hand, Smith notices that Mason Cole has crushed Chris Wormley on the left side and Chase Winovich can pick off Liesman at the second level. The back side is open:
Smith plants his right foot into the ground when he receives the hand-off and cuts to the back-side hole. Liesman changes directions to get in position to tackle, but Winovich should be right there to block him. Thomas is in the best position to make a stop, but he doesn't realize that Smith has the ball and vacates Smith's running lane to track Winovich like Winovich is running a pattern. This should mean that the only person that can prevent Smith from turning this run into a 15-yard-plus gain is Allen Gant, who remained in contain on the edge at the snap in case Malzone rolled out. However, Gant was too far outside and may have no choice but to arm-tackle Smith to bring him down:
However, Winovich whiffs on his block, and Liesman forces Smith to adjust his path more towards Gant. What should have been a gain of at least 10 yards and likely much more now could be held to three if Liesman and Gant combine to lay a solid hit on Smith:
But Smith will have none of that. He sees the contact coming, lowers his center of gravity, and drops his shoulder. At contact, Smith knocks Liesman back and keeps his legs churning until he rumbles forward for an extra five yards and an eight-yard gain:
On the next play, it's 2nd and 2, and the Maize team decides to give it to Smith again. This time, it's power from their strong formation as Kalis will pull left from right guard. The Blue team is in its 4-3 Under, but Thomas is the hybrid space player looking like a fourth linebacker on the far side. The Maize team isn't worried about him, though, because, if the blocks are executed, the Blue team won't have a free hitter in the box for Smith:
After the snap, Smith takes the hand-off and begins to follow behind his lead blockers, fullback Bobby Henderson and Kalis. A.J. Williams, who was set to the left of Cole, has walled off Royce Jenkins-Stone to the inside, and Cole has finished assisting Blake Bars with Henry and moved to the second level to block Liesman. If Kalis can pull into that open gap to the left Williams fast enough to block Desmond Morgan and give Smith enough space to burst through the hole, Smith should be able to break off a long run:
However, Morgan penetrates into that gap before Kalis arrives. Kalis will be able to block Morgan, but the angle Smith would need to take to run through that hole would be much trickier. Smith would need to bounce outside of Kalis and then slice back through the hole. And, with Morgan sitting there, it'll be a tight fit for Smith and may lead to Morgan pulling him down at the line. But Smith showcases his vision because he sees that there's a back-side gap open. Magnuson has kicked out Wormley, and Patrick Kugler has sealed Glasgow inside. Smith doesn't hesitate and plants that left foot to make a decisive cut:
It's an explosive cut by Smith, and, boom, he sees daylight at the end of the tunnel. If he runs through that gap, neither Thomas, who's still playing contain on the far edge, nor Liesman will get to him in time. The only defender that'd be between Smith and pay dirt is Jarrod Wilson, who was the lone deep safety as the Blue team had eight in the box:
However, as Smith sprints by Glasgow, Glasgow reaches out with his left arm in a last-ditch effort to slow down Smith. Glasgow just grabs a nick of Smith's leg, and Smith stumbles forward for five yards rather than what could have been a very sizable gain:
The stumbles are a problem. This wasn't the only play where Smith was tripped up as he ran by a defender that was preoccupied with a block. It happened again three plays later. Smith has the strength to keep his legs moving when he squares up against a defender, and he needs to use that same leg strength to run through arm tackles for more yards.
But, putting that aside along with that Smith doesn't have top-notch breakaway speed, the game seems to be slowing down for Smith. Not only is he seeing the back-side gap with more regularity, he's beginning to understand where his blocks are supposed to be and setting up those blocks. I lied earlier when I said that his 34-yard run may not have been his most impressive run of the game. It was. Why? It's one thing to see an open gap and hit it hard. It's quite another to open one up by faking a defender into a block.
The Maize team is in a Strong formation and will run a power behind a pulling Kalis to the strength of the formation. The Blue team is in a 4-3 Under with a safety in the box:
Smith receives the hand-off from Malzone. The Maize team's linemen have executed their blocks, with Cole getting to the second level to pick off Liesman, so this gives Smith two gaps from which to choose: the left of Williams and the right of Williams. The last defender that needs to be blocked is Morgan, who is sitting behind Williams' block and waiting for Smith to pick a hole, and Kalis pulls into the gap to the right of Williams:
Smith could just run right behind Kalis to the right of Williams, but the hole would be narrower because Morgan will be able to crash into Kalis' path. Smith recognizes this, so he decides to widen the hole and make Kalis' block on Morgan much easier. Smith takes a step to the left as if he plans to run through the gap to the left of Williams. Morgan sees this and takes a step or two to his right to close down that hole. The fake has worked:
Smith cuts back to the right into what is now a wide open corridor because his fake took Morgan out of position. Kalis seals off Morgan, Jehu Chesson runs up to block Wilson, who was the lone deep safety, and Smith spurts up the left sideline for a 34-yard gain:
This is not what I saw from Green, who had seven carries for eight yards (1.1 YPC), or Shallman, who had 12 carries for 22 yards (1.8 YPC). They missed open holes over ...
... and over ...
... and over ...
... and over ...
... and over again.
Shallman was the culprit more often than Green, cutting inside and charging into a mass of bodies when it wasn't necessary. Though Shallman ran hard, it does little good when a bit of patience and vision can allow him to avoid contact and spring him loose for many more yards. It would be understandable if Shallman was cutting inside to ensure he could pick up a first down in third- and fourth-and-short situations, but none of his runs diagrammed above were in such a situation. This was just Shallman failing to permit his blocks to develop and his running lanes to open. Green was better about following his blocks, but he received poorer blocking and didn't show much wiggle to open up holes.
Of course, the caveat is that this was only one game, and it was a game in which Michigan's best offensive linemen were split up and placed on separate teams. Vision is vision, but running backs do have a better feel for how their linemen will set up their blocks as they earn more reps behind that same offensive line. The mixing and matching of linemen could have complicated their reads and timing -- or, you know, their vision.
However, Smith was much better than his counterparts. He had a much better feel for the game, and his instincts kicked in. He understood how the blocks in front of him were developing and how to make one quick cut and hit the open hole. He did this on most of his seven carries, and it could be a signal of a productive junior season for him in 2015.
Or maybe not. Like I said, vision is a necessary condition to be a great college running back, not a sufficient condition. Smith still has other areas where he must improve, such as his initial burst and ability to run through arm tackles, since he does not have or ever will have the home-run top-end speed that fans crave from their running backs. And maybe Johnson returns at 100 percent and picks up where he left off last season or Isaac is a 6-foot-3 revelation that slices through opponents with ease and grace. Who knows?
What I do know is that Johnson, Isaac, and Smith are the three best bets to be Michigan's next go-to running back. And that Michigan sorely needs a second one since Hart left.