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Michigan Football's Biggest Storylines in 2015: The Running Back Rut

In the fifth installment of the series that addresses the 10 biggest storylines surrounding Michigan football in 2015, Anthony Broome and Drew Hallett discuss the issues Michigan's running backs have had recently and whether one can rise above the rest as the main back in 2015.

Bryan Fuller-MGoBlog

We continue our series where Anthony Broome and Drew Hallett address what they believe are the 10 biggest questions and storylines surrounding Michigan football and whether the Wolverines will be successful in 2015. This is the fifth edition of the series. Anthony and Drew spent the past two days debating who will win Michigan’s quarterback competition and whether a wide receiver will emerge as a playmaker in 2015. Today, they round out their discussion of the offense by investigating whether Michigan’s rushing attack can get back on track.


Drew: When I arrived in Ann Arbor as a Michigan freshman in 2007, Mike Hart was a senior. That season -- one that was plagued with injuries that forced him to miss two games and parts of others -- Hart still managed to rush for 1,361 yards at 5.14 YPC and 14 touchdowns. It was quite a way for him to cap his stellar career, and, given the running backs that Michigan had churned out before him, I was naive and just assumed the next Michigan back would carry the torch.

Boy, was I wrong.

Since Hart, Michigan has not had an established threat at running back. In the seven seasons after Hart graduated, only once has a Michigan running back gained more than 1,000 yards on the ground: Fitzgerald Toussaint in 2011 (1,041). In fact, that is the only time a Michigan running back has exceeded 650 rushing yards in that span. Yikes. Now, one explanation for this plummet is that, from 2010 to 2012, Denard Robinson was the focal point of the rushing attack, accumulating an impressive 4,144 rushing yards in those three seasons. However, another explanation is that, other than Toussaint, Michigan has not had a running back rise above the rest. The Wolverines have relied on a running-back-by-committee and split carries among their ball-carriers. So here’s my question to you, Anthony: can Michigan find success on the ground with a committee of running backs or does Michigan need one back to emerge in order to be dangerous?

Anthony: Michigan has enough guys to do a "by-committee" approach in terms of the run game, but naturally someone needs to emerge as the lead guy based on the number of carries they get over everyone else.

In an ideal running back committee, you have guys that can fill different roles. You have your bruiser. You have your short-yardage guy. You have the home run hitter that can catch the ball out of the backfield.

Michigan has a lot of running backs that can play in Derrick Green, De’Veon Smith, Ty Isaac, Drake Johnson and Karan Higdon, but they are all extremely similar and none really have stood out above the others to this point. So I feel like the run game will be vastly improved, but I don’t exactly know who exactly is that next Mike Hart. There may not be one there, yet, but that does not mean they will not be able to run the ball well. Everyone is going to get a shot at playing.

Drew: Michigan needs one running back to separate himself from the pack. Period. This is not to say that a committee cannot be effective because it can. As you mentioned, Anthony, a committee works when a team has a group of talented backs that have different skill sets. One running back can be the bruiser that runs between the tackles. One can be the dynamic speedster. And another can be the third-down back that excels at pass-blocking and has soft hands out of the backfield.

However, here’s the problem: not only does Michigan not have backs with distinct skill sets, I’m not convinced that Michigan’s group of running backs is talented. Yes, we point to recruiting rankings, see that Derrick Green, Ty Isaac, and De’Veon Smith were all five- or four-star prospects in the 2013 class, and assume that there must be talent. I don’t disagree. At least one of them should live up to his recruiting chops, but all three of them? Given what we have seen from them thus far -- to be fair, Isaac played sparingly at USC as a freshman before he was required to sit out last season due to transfer restrictions -- it’s unlikely. So, if I hear that no back has separated himself, I don’t view that as all of Green, Isaac, and Smith have improved and Michigan will have a three- or four-headed monster at running back this season. Instead, I view that as all of them still are inconsistent and mired in some form of mediocrity. Michigan needs one not to be.

Anthony, because you think feel like the run game will be vastly improved, you likely disagree with my assessment. Nonetheless, we both believe that Michigan needs someone to emerge and help Michigan out of this running-back rut. I’ll make this a two-part question. First, do you think Michigan has that player? Second, if so, whom do you think is the most likely candidate to do so?

Anthony: I do think they have a guy that can stand out, and my pick is Ty Isaac simply because he may have the most diverse skill-set of any of the others at the position. He played well when called upon in his freshman season at USC. My excitement for him comes from the fact that he hasn’t seen game action in a few seasons and is definitely the least-known commodity the Wolverines have there.

Isaac is a powerful, physical back like the others, but he can catch the ball out of the backfield and be a weapon in the passing game much more than a Smith or Green can. Because I think that the pass game will be reliant on a lot of checkdown throws, this makes what Isaac can bring to the table more valuable as a guy who can come out of the backfield on a flare route or something like that.

It looks like I am a bit more optimistic when it comes to the run game. Drew, are you ready to call guys like Green or Smith a disappointment or are their career’s still salvageable? They’ve shown flashes at times, but have not been able to put it together.

Drew: Before I answer your question, I want to add a few thoughts on Isaac. From a pure physical standpoint, Isaac seems like the real deal. He is 6-foot-3, weighs 240 pounds, and, yet, has devilish speed. I remember watching his high school film and being incredulous at how a man of that size can slice through a defense like he did. And you’re absolutely correct that Isaac seems to be the best third-down back due to his hands, though we’re not sure about his pass protection.

However, my concern about Isaac is his toughness and durability. Since he arrived on campus last summer, it feels like Isaac has been hurt or hampered by some injury the entire time. For example, we saw Isaac for only one snap in the spring game, and, per practice reports from this fall training camp, he routinely hasn’t been 100 percent. Maybe this is just a string of bad luck, and this injury bug will pass. On the other hand, maybe Isaac is more willing to let bumps and bruises affect his performance on the field. I don’t know the answer because I’m not at practice, but there have been enough rumors and reports that have leaked to give rise to this concern about Isaac.

As for your question,, I’m not ready to guarantee that either Smith or Green are disappointments. One, some of their production has been impacted by the play of the offensive line. Two, they still have two more years of college football to play. However, I’m more optimistic about Smith flipping the switch than I am about Green. One thing that really struck me when I watched the spring game -- and I noted this in my Film Focus post about the running backs -- is that Smith seemed to have the vision and patience to find the open holes. He allowed his blockers to get into place and then used those blocks to put defenders in suboptimal situations. Smith will never have the extra burst to be a home-run threat, but, with that vision and his lateral quickness in the hole, he can be a capable starter in the Big Ten -- reports indicate that it is between he and Isaac for the top spot right now. On the other hand, Green lacked that vision in the spring game, often opting to run up the backs of his offensive linemen even when he had a spacious cutback lane. That’s a problem. Another problem is that, despite his bruising size at 234 pounds, Green does not break many tackles. He frequently is brought down on first contact, which is a problem for a running back of that size because he doesn’t have the speed to compensate. Unless something changes, don’t be surprised if Green finds himself buried on the depth chart behind Smith and Isaac this season.

The one running back we have not discussed much is Drake Johnson, who, in my opinion, was about to settle the debate as to who should be Michigan’s starting running back late last season until he tore his ACL in the finale against Ohio State for the second time. What’s your take on Johnson, Anthony? When do you think he will be 100 percent? And will he win back his job?

Anthony: I have no idea when Johnson will be back, but I do think he is close and that it will be sooner rather than later. The coaching staff loves what he brings to the table and if he is able to stay healthy, he could be the wild card in all of this. He is arguably the most complete back on the roster and easily was the most impressive last year.

I’m not sure if he will be what he was, but I still think he can at least be a nice cog in the run game. It all kind of depends on what being 100 percent is for him now. Is it what he showed he was last year? Or is the new Johnson going to be 80 percent of what he used to be? Time will tell there. It is just so damn disappointing that he got hurt again because his story is one to really root for. A guy that comes out of nowhere to be the best back on the roster. It seems like we see that with running backs more than any other position, but it was extremely cool to see Michigan have one of those types of players.

So to sum him up, I’ll say I’m a fan and that his inclusion in the rotation intrigues me if he is able to get out there and make an impact.

Drew: I’ll say this about Johnson: if he can return to 100 percent, he is the best back on this roster, and he will be the running back that separates himself from the rest. He has the straight-line speed. He has the shiftiness in the hole to make one cut and explode. He has the vision to wait for his blocks to develop. However, per reports, the staff has not let Johnson go full speed yet, and we just don’t know if he can recover to 100 percent after a second major knee injury. I hope he does, though, because that kid has worked too hard to see it all end like that.

We’ve covered the running backs extensively here, but, ultimately, whether or not a running back emerges will not mean much if Michigan’s offensive line, which has been a large target for criticism the past two seasons, does not pull it together and perform well. So let’s end our discussion of Michigan’s rushing attack on this question: does Tim Drevno work his magic here?

Anthony: I’ll keep this one short and sweet: yes. In terms of what the run game can be for Michigan’s offense, it will be a night and day difference. I’m really excited for them moreso than any other position group not named quarterback.

Drew: I think there is little question that Michigan has upgraded its coaching at offensive line with the hire of Drevno. Drevno worked as an offensive line coach with Jim Harbaugh at the University of San Diego, Stanford, and the San Francisco 49ers, and there's no need to rehash the success Harbaugh's teams have had running the ball at each of those stops. I want to direct the attention to Drevno's most recent stop: USC in 2014. As the running game coordinator and offensive line coach, Drevno needed to develop a rushing attack behind an offensive line that started three different true freshmen throughout the season -- two of which started at least 11 games. You never want to start one true freshman on the offensive line, let alone three. That's an unenviable task. Yet, though USC's offense was more effective moving the ball through the air than on the ground, USC's offensive line still graded out as slightly above average in run blocking according to Football Outsiders' advanced metrics. If Drevno can do that with three true freshmen, then I think he can work his magic with four returning starters in left guard Kyle Kalis, center Graham Glasgow, right guard Ben Braden, and right tackle Erik Magnuson -- all of whom have spent at least three years in the program -- and a starting left tackle in Mason Cole who was a Freshman All-American last season.

However, if we do see a night-and-day difference, I don't think we will see it right off the bat. Not only will there be some transition costs due to Drevno introducing new schemes that favor more man blocking after Michigan used quite a bit of zone blocking last season, the line may need some time to gel as Magnuson kicks out to tackle, Braden slides in at guard, and Kalis moves from right guard to left guard. It may take a few weeks, but I think that, in time, Michigan's offensive line will begin to display how great it can be.

And, if that happens, it will make carrying the football much easier for the running backs.


On Monday, we will resume our storyline series as Anthony and Drew discuss just how much weight Michigan's defense needs to pull for the 2015 season to be successful.


Previous Installments of Michigan Football's Biggest Storylines in 2015

August 17thThe Impact of Jim Harbaugh's Return
August 18thDid Brady Hoke Leave the Cupboard Bare?
August 19thJake Rudock vs. Shane Morris -- Who Wins?
August 20thWill a No. 1 Receiver Emerge?