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Roundtable: Michigan Will Go As Far As Its Run Game Can Take It

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

Nick: Hey, guys. I wanted to get your thoughts on Michigan’s run game, and also wrap up some overall impressions you have of Michigan’s offense going into 2017.

But first - the run game. It’s kind of been the bane of Michigan’s existence for a while now, is that fair to say? I mean, there’s been some talent, there have been some good games and good seasons that you can point to, but it still feels like it hasn’t rebounded back to what it was during the Carr years. Am I off-base with that?

Drew: Michigan can’t rebound back to something it’s already equal to or better than. It’s easy to get swept up in the nostalgia of the great running backs that donned the winged helmet under Lloyd Carr. Tim Biakabutuka. Anthony Thomas. Chris Perry. Mike Hart. Running backs who topped 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns annually and imprinted their names in the record books, while there’s been only one year since when a U-M running back reached 1,000 yards (2011).

However, individual total rushing yards can be deceptive and should not be a measurement of team rushing success. Those running backs accumulated those stats because they were given the lion’s share of the carries. It’s much easier to top 1,000 yards when you carry the ball 267 times (Perry, 1,110 yards and 4.16 YPC in 2002) rather than 181 times (DeVeon Smith, 846 yards and 4.67 YPC in 2016). As you can see, just because Carr’s running backs were hitting 1,000 yards doesn’t mean they were necessarily doing so efficiently despite running behind NFL-caliber linemen. In Carr’s 13 seasons as Michigan’s head coach, the Wolverines failed to average more than 4.0 YPC nine times. Conversely, Michigan averaged 4.82 YPC last season.

Big Ten Rushing Leaders

Rushing Yards Average TD's Rushing S&P+ Rushing Success Rate
Rushing Yards Average TD's Rushing S&P+ Rushing Success Rate
Ohio State 3,188 5.47 33 3 53.7% (3rd)
Wisconsin 2,843 4.32 31 48 42.4% (76th)
Michigan 2,768 4.82 41 49 43.1% (69th)
Maryland 2,594 4.87 26 12 44.5% (55th)
Penn State 2,406 4.46 34 68 40.2% (100th)

Michigan has its issues in the running game. Most of those issues lie along the offensive line, whose inability to create holes in the fourth quarter of close games played an integral role in Michigan’s losses to Michigan State in 2015 and Iowa and Ohio State in 2016, while the Wolverines could use a dynamic playmaker that can turn nothing into something. But, ultimately, with Jim Harbaugh’s innovative schemes and run fits, Michigan’s running game is ahead of where it was under Carr even if it doesn’t have a primary ball carrier and has less talent up front.

Where Michigan wants to rebound to is where it was with Denard Robinson. In his two full seasons as quarterback, Michigan averaged 5.58 and 5.15 YPC. He was an incredible runner.

Michigan v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Von: It’s fair to say, but Harbaugh loves his running back by committee approach. I don’t love it, but it’s just the way it’s been since he came to town. Brady Hoke had some quality running backs in Fitzgerald Toussaint, Thomas Rawls, etc. but they never really lived up to the hype. Rawls could’ve been a superstar, but his problems off the field held him back.

Anthony: I would agree that it is not where it has been in the Carr years. Most of that to me revolves around the offensive line. In the Rich Rod and Hoke years, the coaching on the line was the biggest problem, whereas now Tim Drevno has had to coach up the guys that the previous regime brought on. I do believe it is headed in the right direction.

I like the backs that they have, despite not recruiting at the level they may have liked at the position during the 2017 cycle. I still think there is enough there if the guys up front are opening up holes for them.

James: I’ll join the chorus pointing to the offensive line on this one. What really stood out during the Rich Rod and Hoke years was the absence, or at least relatively decline in quantity, of NFL caliber offensive linemen. Guys like David Baas, Jon Jansen, Steve Hutchison, and Jake Long made those teams in the early 2000s and made things alot easier on the running backs of that era. Our quality at running back right now is solid. There isn’t a Reggie Bush on the roster, but there doesn’t need to be for this sort of team to succeed. It all starts up front, and Harbaugh et al. are making big strides in that department.

David: We have a good rotation of RB’s, not great. If the OL continue to improve and allow Evans, Isaac, Higdon and Walker to find their rhythm, we can find a better running game and not rely so much on TE and WR play. This group of RB’s have talent so I can see a guy like Evans, who had four touchdowns and 614 yards last season, improve and see a lot of playing time as a sophomore.

It helps that Mason Cole is returning, but there are several other question marks on the line. Will Grant Newsome return in an impactful way from his gruesome knee injury? Will Ben Bredeson continue to be one of the more reliable work horses on the offensive line? Consistency is what killed Michigan’s offensive line last season, so getting Newsome (maybe) back to his form and having Bredeson take more strides will be huge in 2017.

If Michigan is without Grant Newsome, there’s going to be some major unknowns at tackle.
Photo credit: Bryan Fuller, MGoBlog

Nick: Obviously there’s an important link between the productivity of the running backs and the quality of the O-line. Fans are looking at Michigan’s front five right now, probably more than any other position on the team, and wondering if they’ll be good in 2017. Will they?

Drew: For now, since it’s only February and there are more than six months until Week 1, I expect the offensive line to take a step back in 2017, which may alarm Michigan fans because most considered that unit to have been U-M’s Achilles heel in 2016. Michigan has the task of replacing three multi-year starters in Ben Braden, Kyle Kalis, and Erik Magnuson. Yes, teams have completed similar transitions before without a hitch, and it can be argued that this task shouldn’t be as arduous for Michigan because its outgoing linemen had their bouts with inconsistency. That would be the case if Michigan had proven talent waiting in the wings.

However, Michigan does not. Michigan’s lone proven talent on the offensive line is Mason Cole, a three-year starter who was named to the All-Big Ten second team as a center last season. However, Cole may be asked to move back out to tackle where he was as a freshman and sophomore because the Wolverines have a dearth of quality tackles. Grant Newsome suffered a significant knee injury against Wisconsin that likely will prevent him from seeing the field in 2017. Juwann Bushell-Beatty was so shaky in his start against Rutgers after Newsome’s injury that the staff decided to shift Braden out to left tackle and insert Ben Bredeson at left guard. Bredeson has the versatility to play tackle as well, but he had his fair share of struggles and was overwhelmed at times as a freshman. Nolan Ulizio was a low-three-star recruit who only saw action as a redshirt freshman last season in the waning minutes of blowouts. If those names don’t work out, Michigan is counting on a true freshman, such as Chuck Filiaga or Andrew Stueber. And that’s just to find a second tackle if Michigan decides to move out Cole.

The good news is that Michigan should have enough capable bodies to fill out the interior if it moves out Cole. Bredeson can retain his role at left guard, seeking to make a big leap between his freshman and sophomore seasons. Patrick Kugler, a former top-100 recruit and the lone survivor of Michigan’s cursed 2013 offensive line class, can fill in at center, while the 350-pound grape aficionado and former top-100 recruit, Michael Onwenu, should slide in at right guard. Plus, early enrollee center, Cesar Ruiz, is expected to be ready to contribute from Day 1. That would give Michigan a line of (L to R) Cole/Bredeson/Kugler/Onwenu/JBB or true freshman.

Michigan could make that work -- only way I see it with Cole remaining at center is if Bredeson moves to left tackle and Kugler is inserted at left guard -- but, because there is so much youth, inexperience, and question marks, Michigan’s offensive line will endure lots of growing pains.

Von: It will be a work in progress, but it can be good. A lot of the incoming offensive lineman prospects are hungry and ready to play. Cesar Ruiz and Chuck Filiaga will likely get a lot of playing time to begin the season. Even a guy like Ja’Raymond Hall may get a significant amount of playing time.

Anthony: I think it will take some time, but they will figure it out in 2017. I sort of feel about the offensive line that I did about the linebackers coming into last season. Yes, they have lost a lot of guys, but it will be an opportunity for fresh blood. I would not use the term “inexperienced,” but I would say they are unproven and there are some pieces to like there.

James: 2017 is going to be another year of progress up front, but not without growing pains. The unit will be helped by Mason Cole returning, but there is much to replace - and that often leads to some chemistry issues. On the plus side, it’s hard to not be impressed by the OL prospects Harbaugh has brought in these past two years - and this will be the year that some of them will start to filter into the two deep and show us what they’re made of.

David: We need see this group working together and create a very consistent OL as a unit: Cole/Bredeson/Ruiz/Onwenu/Bushell-Beaty/Newsome (missed 9 games with a knee injury).

If this group improves over the season allowing for the offense to establish a run game and help the quarterback find with time to throw without having to do much scrambling, we could see a solid offense and surprise many as one of the most improved units in the Harbaugh era.

Capitol One Orange Bowl - Florida State v Michigan
Only one runner had more than 100 carries last season, but six more had between 15-90. Fullback Khalid Hill was the only one of those six to average less than 5.0 yards a pop.
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Nick: Talk some more about Michigan’s talent in the running back room. How good are these guys, and what do you expect out of them in the next two or three years?

And, kind of a follow-up question, are you willing to predict one of these guys to take over the position? Or do you think this is more of a running back by committee for the foreseeable future?

Drew: Whereas some viewed Najee Harris as a need in Michigan’s 2017 class, I viewed him *only* as a luxury. Harris would have been a luxury because he would have provided U-M with a dynamic, powerful back that it hasn’t had in quite some time. However, he was not a need in my eyes because Michigan is not lacking talent in its backfield with Ty Isaac as a fifth-year senior, Karan Higdon as a junior, Chris Evans as a sophomore, and Kareem Walker and O’Maury Samuels as freshmen. Last season, Isaac, Higdon, and Evans each rushed for over 400 yards, averaged over 5.6 YPC, and scored at least four touchdowns, while Walker and Samuels have yet to see the field but have tantalizing attributes and promising potential. Accordingly, I expect that Michigan will continue to deploy a running back by committee and get the ball into the hands of multiple backs. But, if there is one back I expect to break out, it is Evans. Just watch.

Von: I do want Harbaugh to have one established running back, and I think the Wolverines already have that in Kareem Walker. I think he can be the guy that Speight/Peters/whoever the hell the QB hands the ball off to 20+ times per game. Chris Evans also showed flashes as a freshman, but he also hit a “freshman wall” late in the season. I’m curious to see who will get the bulk of the carries to start the year, but I believe Walker can be that guy early on next year.

But these guys are pretty damn good. O’Maury Samuels could probably bench press two of me with ease. Kurt Taylor is one of the hardest workers in the 2017 group. We’ve already seen the current backs, except for Walker, who I think is going to be a stud. But I expect Walker to take over the starting gig with De’Veon Smith out of the picture. He redshirted this past season and focused on the school-side of college (you know, the actual reason why these kids are at Michigan). Now that he has a year of experience in that aspect, he should be gearing to go when Michigan heads down to Jerry World to take on Florida.

Click To Open Video In New Tab | O'Maury Samuels has make-you-miss ability, but he's a tough downhill runner as well.
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Anthony: I think as long as the guys up front do their jobs, I think that they will find a guy that will emerge. Chris Evans has a chance to be very special and the jury is still out on guys like Karan Hidgon, Ty Isaac, and Kareem Walker, who I think still has a real shot to make a big splash for this team before too long.

James: I think we’ll see running back by committee continue at least for next year, and possibly for the foreseeable future. In today’s day and age, the temptation to rotate backs and keep guys fresh is just too much - especially when you have a stable as talented as Michigan has. There are some young guys at this position that have the potential to be very, very special.

David: The newer faces of Walker, Samuels and Taylor may find themselves earning time in the rotation. I can see Taylor as one that can develop into a solid RB in the next few years. He's got the work ethic and determination to do what it takes so it depends on which can excel with this coaching staff. With the history on Walker, he will be one that many will keep an eye on as a new face on this offense to do great things as a highly recruited player.

Jim Harbaugh passes it off to Karan Higdon, who will be a dark horse for the starting job.
Photo credit: Patrick Barron, MGoBlog

Nick: So, we’ve talked about the roster pretty thoroughly. What do you think the additions of Pep Hamilton and Greg Frey will bring to this team? And what do you expect from the offensive coaching staff as a whole, from Jay Harbaugh coaching the running backs to Tim Drevno serving as O.C. and interior line coach?

Von: Jim Harbaugh is Jim Harbaugh. He’s had many assistants and coordinators in the past go off to the NFL or get better collegiate gigs. I don’t really care who is doing what. As long as Harbaugh gets the guys he wants, I’m happy with it. I have 100 percent trust in Harbaugh hiring his assistants and coaches.

James: I’m excited about Greg Frey returning to Michigan, and I’m confident in the OL staff as a whole. Frey often gets written off because he was here during the, shall we say, “dark days.” If you take a closer look at Frey’s record at Michigan and the guys he was able to recruit and develop, though, it becomes clear that he was the most effective OL coach we’ve had in quite some time. Not only did he have success at Michigan, but he was able to continue that success in a sub-optimal situation at Indiana. He transformed the Indiana OL from one of the worst units in the conference to one of the best. Now just imagine what he’ll be able to do with the high-quality OL recruits Harbaugh has been bringing it. Expect the OL to improve by leaps and bounds over the next few years, folks.

Anthony: The offensive staff is still looking good and I like the hires that they made this offseason. Not all that concerned about the new guys as recruiters, seeing as it all comes back to the man calling the shots. This offseason sort of feels like a soft reboot and I’m excited to see how it all comes together with the new staff members in place and young guys getting a shot to play.

Nick: One last question, and then I’ll let you guys go. Will this offense be worse, better, or about the same as it was in 2016?

Von: If it’s not better, the team is in trouble. After watching the Orange Bowl live, I was real skeptical of having Speight back as the starting quarterback. I believe it will be better, though, even with losing Jake Butt, Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh and possibly Grant Perry. This receiver class is probably the best Michigan has ever had. I’m confident in Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black, Nico Collins, Oliver Martin and Brad Hawkins to carry those torches and lead the offense.

The Wolverines didn’t get an elite RB in the class, but I don’t need to talk anymore about Walker, as I did above.

If Speight is 100 percent healthy heading into the year, he is going to have a lot of new shiny toys to play with come September.

Anthony: The offense has a chance to be better, but it certainly will look different. I know everyone wants to dog Wilton Speight and let Brandon Peters play, but Speight’s injury changed him down the stretch. When he was at his best, he was playing excellent football and another offseason in Harbaugh’s system may help him put it all together.

There will be growing pains with them breaking in new skill players in expanded roles, but I would expect it to be a lot like 2015 where from start to finish, you really see the group blossom heading into the next season.

James: I’m going to shy away from “worse” and “better,” and say simply that I think the offense will be more consistent this year. Last year there were times when the offense couldn’t produce, and there were times when they looked like world-beaters. If you think about the games we lost last year (Iowa & OSU, specifically), the offense was inconsistent during times when it didn’t even need to score - it just needed to possess the ball and run clock (i.e. 4th quarter in both games). I think that happens less frequently this year, which very well could make the difference in a game or two - but I expect metrics like points scored and points per game to be in the same ballpark as last year.

David: It can definitely be better, if:

  1. OL improves and consistently improves throughout the year.
  2. Starting QB remains healthy with a few new weapons at WR generating some explosive performances. I predict Speight earns the job.
  3. A few of the early enrollees getting in the starting unit and being ready for that first game against Florida. See my article breaking down the 11 guys for more details about each of them.
  4. RB rotation has a healthy group with someone rising above the pack and becoming that dominant player.

Thanks to everybody here for participating in this week’s roundtable. Is there somebody we didn’t mention that you think we should have? It’s your turn: sound off below.