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In The Midst Of A Recovery, The Enigma of De’Veon Smith

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NCAA Football: Michigan at Iowa Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Forty-eight points a game. Michigan had the best pro-style, run-based offense in college football. They leaned on a brutally effective ground game, helped out by a dose of defense and a passing game that was evolving from “turnover-free” to genuinely deadly.

In theory, this meant Michigan could survive getting pinned into a corner of a 5x5 cell, in a brawl with someone whose game was built on toughness, and make it out alive. Obviously that didn’t happen. Iowa outgained Michigan in total yards, 230-201, and they held onto the ball for 54.6% of game time. The Wolverines lost the turnover battle, which in this metaphor equates to losing the number of clean punches straight to the face.

There’s always blame to go around when things go wrong. There’s also a lot of room for cliches: didn’t get it done, toughness when it counts, focus, pride, playing for your brothers. It did seem that Michigan didn’t have enough tenacity in this game, and for all the talk of Michigan being one of the most senior-laden squads currently in the playoff hunt, the lack of energy the team displayed ultimately goes back to the oldest and wisest on the football team. You can’t win on the road, or anywhere, without winning the energy battle. The veterans know this.

A deflating moment early in the Iowa game: Devin Bush's ejection for targeting.

It would be absurd to pin all this on one guy, and that’s far from what I’m about to do. But I do want to think about this game through the lens of De’Veon Smith, who finished with 12 carries - most on the team - for 2.3 yards a pop. Given what we think we know about Smith as a runner - plus the phone booth quality of this game and Iowa’s somewhat undersized linebackers - you would think a game like this would be a chance for Smith to shine.

That hardly tells the whole story, however. While Smith technically started, many of the snaps on standard downs went to Chris Evans. More often than not, De’Veon was used - with glaring obviousness, I might add - as a blocker and in the red zone, plus that infamous run in the second quarter from the 98-yard line that resulted in a safety. Meanwhile, Karan Higdon and Ty Isaac didn’t play nearly as often as Smith or Evans.

Already, there are some problems unfolding with this scenario - and some indications of why Michigan fell flat against Iowa. The Wolverines don’t help their starters if the offense becomes predictable, and pigeonholing De’Veon as the “tough yards” guy is a problem Smith must get out of. But more on that later.

This team also doesn’t help themselves by shrinking the running back rotation, given that Isaac and Higdon are both deadly in their own right. I’ve alluded to this before, but Higdon has been a pretty valuable red zone weapon:

Running In The Red Zone
Carries Yards Average Opportunity Rate Touchdowns
De'Veon Smith 35 91 2.60 22.86% 7
Khalid Hill 16 22 1.38 0.0% 9
Ty Isaac 12 37 3.08 25.0% 4
Karan Higdon 11 62 5.64 54.55% 3
Chris Evans 9 46 5.11 33.33% 2

Meanwhile, Ty Isaac has managed 6.0 yards a carry overall with better advanced stats than De’Veon Smith - such as a better opportunity rate (46.4% to 37.2%), fewer negative plays and fumbles, and an impressive 7/7 on converting third downs. In short, both guys are key components to keeping a defense on its heels.

Still, pulling a few stats from the ether shouldn’t sway what we all know about Smith. Smith is a cornerstone of this offense, a terrific blocker and a leader by example. A tough nut to crack, known for shedding tackles and fighting for extra yards. A guy who was overshadowed by Derrick Green when he first stepped on campus, but has led the Wolverines in rushing for two straight years and is on pace to do it again. A guy who’s easy to overlook sometimes, but who still hasn’t reached his potential - remarkably enough.

In fact, the closer and closer you look at De’Veon, the more of an enigma he becomes. But, understanding Smith just a little better might also help us dissect where this team stands after its first loss of the season.

NCAA Football: Colorado at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

For a guy who has been a three-year starter at one of Michigan’s premier positions, De’Veon Smith has impressively managed to stay well outside the limelight. In fact, if you see him on campus, he doesn’t immediately stand out as the powerful, violent running back that you see on Saturdays. There’s a chance he prefers it that way.

De’Veon was one of the top recruits in the nation coming out of high school - he was a finalist for Ohio’s Mr. Football award, but lost out to North Carolina’s current starting quarterback, Mitch Trubinsky - but once in Ann Arbor Smith was outshined by a merry-go-round of five-star tailbacks and all their boundless potential: first Derrick Green, then Ty Isaac, plus some recruiting flirtations with Mike Weber and Damien Harris. Smith had a reputation for being unathletic for a while, then he had a more deserved reputation for some bad vision during various plays. The whole time, fans felt like Michigan needed a splash at running back.

But Smith kept working at it, and somehow or some way he has stayed on top of the pile - while creating more than a few piles of his own. He was a surprise favorite of Jim Harbaugh when the anointed one came to town. And he’s grown leaps and bounds from the 195-pounder he was in high school.

In short, De’Veon Smith is the personification of what this team needs to remember even as it reaches for fame and glory. He is a walking embodiment of tenacity - and playing on the road, just like playing from behind, is a mindset this team needs to find, quickly. After all, the big games are coming.

Ilinois v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

It is safe to say this team can learn from De’Veon. It is also safe to say this offense works better when the tailbacks are used in a diverse but effective way, so that defenses can’t key in on what kind of play is coming. Also, it will be a shame if Michigan uses Smith in the role they tended to used him in during the Iowa game, because he has another, very different level he can still reach.

Here comes the rub - the part I’ve been mulling over for a few weeks. De’Veon Smith is an interesting back, sometimes hampered by injuries and remarkably diminished once he gets into the fourth quarter: a career 3.1 yards per carry in the fourth, 4.9 otherwise. He’s also one of Michigan’s worst backs on third down - only five third-down carries all year, only six yards, only one third-down conversion.

This might seem to jar with De’Veon’s hard-hitting reputation, but the fact is that teams usually know what to expect from him on tough-yardage situations, and are able to bring enough numbers to make his life treacherous. Sure, he can break some tackles, but it’s better to do so against linebackers and DB’s - and the fewer, the better. He can churn for yards throughout the game, but it’s better to support him with other talented tailbacks, so that he has enough gas left in the fourth.

And for Smith to really keep growing, I think he needs to make a leap forward in catching the ball. He has surprising speed at times, but lacks the kind of shake and bake that Chris Evans has. He can be deadly going east and west, or anywhere out in space, so as long as he has a chance to run a route and avoid the kind of punishment that defensive linemen give, he can get chunk yardage and still preserve his body at the same time.

Basically, I think he needs to take one, small step toward being an H-back in the mode of Curtis Samuel. He won’t be as fast, certainly, but being able to play in the flat will mean he has to break one tackle for a big gain, rather than three or four. It means that linebackers can’t crowd the line or blitz the gaps, because De’Veon might slip behind them for a pass. It adds another wrinkle to a pro-style, smashmouth offense.

It would be a step too far, maybe, to say this team will only go as far as De’Veon Smith, the quiet one, can take it. But at the very least, the Wolverines need to be ready and eager to lean on the running game when times get tough. Because things will be getting a little tougher from here on out.

Against Iowa, Michigan’s worst quarter was the third, when they ran seven offensive plays for 15 yards. Iowa controlled the ball for 11 minutes and 34 seconds, and Wilton Speight went 1-for-3 plus a sack fumble. The running backs were responsible for 4.6 yards a pop in their three carries, plus that one completion and the fumble recovery protecting Speight. Smith, for his part, never touched the ball.

The running backs are what got us here. They are the bread, the butter, and just a little bit of caviar. We can’t forget that going forward.