Heading into last season, Michigan’s starting running back position was up for grabs.
A year later, the situation remains very much the same.
Four running backs enter the Wolverines’ training camp with a shot at the starting job, but much like last season, the role of starting running back could be a very fluid thing. Four different guys started last season, and all four had their ups and downs. All four had big days and no-show days.
Will one guy emerge from this year’s quartet?
“I'm hoping that happens,” new head coach Jim Harbaugh said at last month’s Big Ten Media Days. “We're at the start of camp here. And there will be plenty of license and plenty of opportunity for one, two, three of our running backs to assert themselves, come to the fore and be counted on. That we'll be watching very closely and hoping that occurs early here in camp.”
The position battle is being waged by Derrick Green, De’Veon Smith, Drake Johnson and Ty Isaac.
“All the running backs in that room have the potential to bust out any game,” Smith said last week at the team’s media day.
Each guy boasts serious credentials, but it’s about what have you done for me lately. The thing is that for all four guys, “lately” is a bit of a complex issue.
Smith had the best numbers of the bunch in 2014, carrying the ball 108 times for 519 yards and six touchdowns. He had 115 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the season-opening blowout win over Appalachian State, but he did little after until a huge game against Northwestern in November, when he rushed 18 times for 121 yards and a score. He rushed for 32 yards in the final two games combined.
“Competing every day isn’t a bad thing,” Smith said. “And I’m a competitive person, so I like to compete at every thing I do. It’s going to be fun. I like all the running backs that I’m competing with, and I know they’re going to give me a run for my money.”
Green went for a season total of 471 yards and three touchdowns, going over 100 yards twice but playing in only six games due to injury. He rushed for 170 yards against Appy State, 137 against Miami (Ohio). But a 13-carry, 25-yard day against Notre Dame showed it wasn't all good.
Johnson had 361 yards and four touchdowns on the campaign. His season was also limited by injury, just six games long. He had a 122-yard, two-touchdown game against Indiana, went for 94 against Maryland and reached the end zone twice with 74 yards against Ohio State. He also had 10 carries for 30 yards against Northwestern.
Isaac could be the X-factor. The Joliet Catholic product was the fourth-best running back in the Class of 2013, according to Rivals, and he had a fine showing despite limited carries in his one year at USC, rushing 40 times for 236 yards and a pair of touchdowns. That's 5.9 yards per carry, and that's not bad at all. He's back in the Midwest so he can be closer to his Joliet home, and that could be a big deal for Michigan if his recruiting rankings translate to his collegiate career. Mostly, he’s just itching to finally get back on the field.
“I’ve got to keep things in perspective,” Isaac said. “That whole cliche, one day at a time, but especially in camp, that’s really how it is. You’ve just got to stay in it mentally and physically. Obviously you have to stay healthy and do what you can. But it’s hard for me to not look at Sept. 3 when I’ve got to worry about Aug. 6 right now.”
It’s a crowded backfield and one that has no clear-cut frontrunner at the moment. Running back by committee could work, though it hasn’t in recent years for Michigan. Since Mike Hart's final season in 2007, Michigan has had one running back rush for more than 1,000 yards. The past three seasons have been a disaster. Yes, quarterback Denard Robinson did fine (he's now an NFL running back, by the way) in 2012, rushing for 1,266 yards. But Fitzgerald Toussaint managed just 514 in 2012 and 648 in 2013 after going for 1,041 in 2011.
Whether one guy emerges or it’s a four-headed running back monster, the guys have faith in the unit as a whole. This competition ought to be interesting, but it won’t be one that ends with hurt feelings.
“I think it’s a very brotherhood-esque relationship,” Johnson said. “A lot of us have been here a while, we’re all about the same age. We all started young. Fitz kind of was our lead back. Fitz left, (Justice) Hayes took his talents elsewhere, same with (Thomas) Rawls. All the older backs have kind of dissipated from the ranks, so we don’t have that — we haven’t had for a while that authority in the room as a running back. … We have to kind of come together and figure it out. It wasn’t necessarily a one-man kind of deal, it’s more so us as a unit growing together.”