After a downturn in productivity during the latter half of the 2016 season, Michigan running back Ty Isaac did not appear to be next in line to take over the Wolverine’s running attack when De’Veon Smith went to the NFL. Owing to Isaac’s inconsistency, all the focus was on sophomore Chris Evans and junior Karan Higdon during the offseason. However, over the course of the first two games of the 2017 season, while the Wolverine offense has been off to a less-than-perfect start, Ty Isaac has provided sustained productivity and needed leadership as a fifth-year senior. With back-to-back 100+ yard rushing games, Isaac has already posted 247 rushing yards on only 31 carries for the year - which averages out to 7.97 yards per carry.
During Ty Isaac’s first two seasons as a Michigan Wolverine, he was always firmly behind De’Veon Smith on the depth chart and competing for the RB2 slot. The 2016 season was his best year on paper, as he totaled 417 yards and five touchdowns. But now, only two games into the new year, Isaac is already more than halfway to that yardage mark and has seemingly surpassed Evans and Higdon to become the starting running back.
What has changed about Isaac’s gameplay that has led to this significant improvement? First and foremost, he is in the best shape of his career. In Isaac’s presser after the Florida game, he could not name one specific aspect of his weight and strength training that has had the most impact on his performance, but instead praised a holistic improvement owing to a long and tedious workout routine. On film, he looks leaner and quicker than we have ever seen him; and this goes directly into the second aspect of the noticeable progressions about Isaac. In seasons past, Isaac had a tendency to try to be a more shifty and elusive back instead of playing into his obvious strengths: size and speed. In Michigan’s games against Florida and Cincinnati, both of those attributes were on full display.
The third improved element of Isaac’s game is his vision and patience, which allow the play to develop in front of him. When running up the gut, Isaac has become a reliable back for a gain of about four yards. Occasionally, as we have already seen, he has been able to turn a run up the middle that was supposed to be for short yardage into a gain of 10+ yards. As of right now, the left side of the line is the preferred side for our running backs because of the higher level of experience and talent there, but Isaac has also had several great plays plowing through holes created by center Patrick Kugler and right guard Michael Onwenu.
The best of Isaac’s plays through the start of the season, however, have been when he attacks the edge behind lead blockers. Whether they are tight ends, Onwenu or Ben Bredeson on a pull, or Mason Cole attacking the second level, Isaac has stayed behind his blockers, allowing the hole to open, and then bursting through it. On the topic of lead blockers, Fullback Henry Poggi (No. 19) has been doing an outstanding job this year and deserves recognition. While watching film of Isaac, Poggi has stood out as consistently making effective blocks, blowing defenders backwards and creating holes that running backs could hit with full steam. The Poggi-Isaac tandem is going to create long days for opposing defenses.
Returning to Isaac, he is running considerably harder and faster than we have seen from him in previous years. He might not have the speed to outrun a defense’s secondary when he reaches the second level, but at 6’3”, 230 lbs. the raw power that Isaac runs with is making him into a tackle-breaking machine. Unless a defender is able to square him up with a hard hit or get a lucky hand on his ankle, bringing Isaac down is a tall order. When you combine this ability with the blocking by our line, tight ends, and fullbacks, as well as the speed Isaac is capable of exhibiting when running around the edge, the Wolverines’ have found themselves a running attack that the Maize and Blue have not seen in quite some time.
Let me show you a little of what I’m talking about with these two clips.
In this first clip, you see a pull to the left by Michael Onwenu, terrific down-field blocking by Mason Cole, and Ty Isaac hitting the outside hole hard for a gain of 36 yards after breaking three tackles.
This second clip is from the game against Cincinnati. While it is not a run to the sidelines, you see Isaac patiently wait for Poggi and a pulling Bredeson to deliver their blocks before he hits the B gap for a gain of 12.
Despite benefitting from good play up front, Ty Isaac’s game has not had to rely completely on good blocking for him to be productive. I mentioned earlier that in years past, Isaac had a tendency to be too shifty in his run play. While he has mostly moved away from this style, he is still able to be elusive when necessary due to his vision and speed.
In this first clip, watch as he bounces outside and uses his vision and a nice cutback to gain 8 yards on first down against Cincinnati. In years past, he may not have had the vision to see the hole opening to the outside or the quickness to make such an abrupt cut to evade tacklers in the backfield.
In this second clip, you see Isaac make a great play after the intended hole collapses in front of him. His game awareness, speed, and running power are on full display, and turn a two yard loss into an eight yard gain.
In essence, through Michigan’s first two games of the 2017 season, Ty Isaac looks to be an excellent lead running back. While the Wolverines will still have a running attack by committee, Isaac brings the best power and all-around running ability to the table. He also appears to be the best blocker of the current running back stable. Therefore, his presence on the field alone will keep defenses on their heels, help open passing lanes during play action sets, and protect Speight in the pocket. The only statistic not in Isaac’s favor so far is his TD count, which stands at zero. However, the season is young, and his lack of scoring appears to be the result of play calling and running back rotation, rather than Isaac’s abilities. He will find the end zone soon enough.
For this coming week’s game against Air Force, hopefully Isaac will see his carries increase to between 25 and 30. Air Force dominated the Virginia Military Institute last week 62-0 and only allowed 55 rushing yards all day. However, VMI is an FCS school and Air Force is going to have a much tougher game against the Wolverines. My prediction for Ty Isaac’s stat line at the end of the day:
27 carries for 140 yards and 2 touchdowns
Lastly, this analysis would not be complete without including Isaac’s amazing run against Cincinnati in the fourth quarter for 53 yards, his longest of the season. Enjoy.