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The case for Donovan Edwards to be RB1

Could Edwards give Michigan a more balanced identity as the first-down back?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 03 Big 10 Championship - Michigan vs Purdue Photo by Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Alright, let’s take a breath. This is no way, shape or form slanderous of the king of (short) kings Blake Corum. Instead, this is an analytical endorsement of Donovan Edwards’s versatility and value-added by making him the first-down running back.

Passing on first down has become one of the key analytical advantages uncovered in recent memory. In 2019, FiveThirtyEight published a piece titled, “You Called A Run On First Down. You’re Already Screwed,” which detailed this advantage in the NFL.

“On first down, passing will net you at least 5 yards (enough to make the play a success) 47 percent of the time, while running the ball will get you the same result just 32.8 percent of the time, 14.2 percentage points less often. On second down, the gap closes to about a 7 percentage-point advantage for passing.”

In simpler terms, passing on first down is more likely to succeed than rushing, setting up shorter second and third downs. The reason passing is more likely to succeed is because of an unpredictability created by each drive’s initial down empowering play-callers to choose from a variety of formations and plays free from most situational restrictions.

We are all painfully familiar with the early Harbaugh Michigan offenses which occasionally seemed to delight in the run-run-pass-punt play-calling rhythm. Similar to the reliability of a Don Brown defense allowing another completed slant route, the offense consistently lacked any situational unpredictability.

When Josh Gattis took over the offense in 2019, he certainly injected some surprise elements (on the field and recruiting trail), but he negatively impacted the team’s identity.

The team would throw more on first down, but Gattis would fall too in love with the flash of the passing play that he would forget to establish a physical presence at the line of scrimmage, a la Ryan Day.

However, in 2021, when Sherrone Moore was promoted to co-offensive coordinator, the team rediscovered its identity, while still utilizing a more analytical approach.

Most are familiar with Moore’s “SMASH” mantra and the overwhelming physicality of his offensive lines. While “Run the damn ball” shirts flood the stands like it's the 1970s, Moore is much more nuanced in his approach than his reputation would suggest.

As a co-play caller last season, Moore’s unit was extremely balanced. Even factoring in the late-game rushes against Ohio State where the Wolverines were running out the clock, Moore called 14 runs and 10 passes on first down. In fact, half of Michigan’s touchdowns scored against the Buckeyes came on first down — two passing plays and one running play.

Unpredictability gives the offense an advantage, and Edwards’s ability as a receiver almost makes it unfair. Edwards is the best receiving Michigan running back since Jamie Morris in the late ‘80s and the argument isn’t even close.

As a freshman, Edwards broke the single-game receiving yards record for a Michigan running back securing 10 passes for 170 yards and one score against Maryland. In total over the last two seasons, despite missing seven games and playing as the third-string back in 2021, Edwards has hauled in 38 passes for 465 yards and three touchdowns.

Comparatively, Corum saw his receptions share diminish from 24 in 2021 to only 11 last season because of his increased focus as the lead rusher. He is a capable receiver, but Michigan relies on him to shoulder the burden more between the tackles which has dramatically shifted his usage as a pass catcher.

By inserting Edwards as the first-down running back, Moore can have the complete playbook at his disposal. If defenses see Corum, they can anticipate a run nine times out of 10. This personnel decision could highlight each player’s strengths, help keep both guys healthy and keep defenses guessing on all four downs.

Corum is still king, but Edwards is who we should see first.