2014 Michigan Football Preview: The Running Backs

Previously: Offensive Line, Defensive Line

About as closely related as two position groups could possibly be, the overall success of Michigan's running game will have just as much to do with their offensive line as it does their running backs. But unless both positions can improve dramatically from last year, another 5-6 loss season will be a reality for the Wolverines. It really is just that simple.

And its not that Devin Gardner is a bad quarterback. Actually, he's probably underrated. But if the Michigan State and Nebraska games last year taught us anything, its that no quarterback is good enough to shoulder the entire load of the offense all the time and still win football games that maybe he shouldn't.

Its been seven years and three former offensive coordinators since Michigan could boast to have a moderately impressive rushing attack*.

And its been five years since one of the top two rushers on Michigan's offense wasn't a quarterback. Last year, Fitzgerald Toussaint led Michigan in rushing with 648 yards on 185 carries. That 3.5 ypc average is the lowest season-leading per carry average since the I don't even know when. I'd take the time to look it up, but let's just all agree its been decades.

No matter which way you look at it, Michigan's running game was about as bad as it could get last season…
...I mean...I don't even...

Firstly, 1,643 rushing yards is just miserable. By contrast, 4,321 yards by our biggest rival is just an evil twist of the knife. Secondly, even in the best of recent rushing times at Michigan (i.e. 2010), Michigan was still 1,220 yards short of what Ohio State put together last year. That's what having a dynamic senior-laden OL and a pretty talented RB will do for you.

So how does it get better? Again, same as it goes for the OL…a new OC and a totally new scheme will certainly help. Nussmeier needs to quickly build his brand of offense from the pieces currently in place. But the good news is, the pieces in place are pretty good and certainly worthy of pulling off one of the greatest transformations Michigan fans have ever seen.

First order of business is to fill the void of the outgoing Fitz Toussaint. Which should be simple enough because it basically happened last year. His combined 73 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns over the course of the last 6 games of the season last year shouldn't be too difficult to replace.

The contenders...
Derrick Green
He was Michigan's 2nd leading running back last year with 270 yards which really doesn't mean anything now. With the new offensive boss in town, everything from a year ago goes out the window.

Green tipped the scales at 227 on the spring roster...down from 240 on last year's fall roster, which was probably on the lighter side if you ask me.

De'Veon Smith
While Green may be getting a lot of the attention from media/fans, Smith's ability, toughness and speed remind me a lot of Brandon Minor. It wouldn't surprise me to see Michigan develop a two-headed attack of Green and Smith as the season goes on.

Justice Hayes
Somehow a fan favorite despite having just 2 carries last year…which was an 89% falloff from his 18 carries in 2012. He gets talked up a lot by coaches and teammates, but we haven't seen anything on the field yet. I predict he can find a role on this offense if given the chance.

Drake Johnson
Carried the ball twice last year (for 9 yards!) against Central Michigan and then tore his ACL on a special teams play.

Also, former defensive back Ross Douglass is now a running back. I assume to pad the depth chart where Thomas Rawls once lived.

Ty Isaac?
May or may not get his hardship waiver. Is he does, great, but welcome to a crowded field of sophomore running backs. If he doesn't (likely scenario), could be better for him and Michigan.

Fullbacks have been underrated and under-appreciated (same?) in recent years at Michigan. They provide much needed help in pass protection, and can…from time to time, be asked to help move the ball forward.

The big question is how will Nussmeier treat fullbacks in his gameplan at Michigan? At Alabama, Nuss didn't have any fullbacks listed on his roster, but he did have fullback-ish running backs, such as 6-1, 250-pound Jalston Fowler. His primary duties included pass blocking and clearing paths for TJ Yeldon. He and Derrick Henry, also a big dude at 6-3 and 238 pounds, combined for 470 yards on 55 carries.

At Michigan, Joe Kerridge (6-0, 247) and Sione Houma (6-0, 240) were both go-to's for Borges and should expect the same or better from Nussmeier. The wildcard for me is redshirt-freshman Wyatt Shallman. Originally recruited as somewhere between a RB and a DE with maybe potential to play TE, he's listed on the spring roster as a RB at 6-3, 243…which puts him right in that same size range as Derrick Henry at Alabama. I think Shallman, if he could find his niche, could be a sleeper for this offense.

*= with running backs.

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