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With a committee of physical running backs, Michigan struggles to find room to run

Paul Sherman/Daily
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By Greg Garno, Daily Sports Editor
Published April 5, 2014

The Doug Nussmeier offense won’t often be Wilton Speight’s deep bomb down the left sideline to streaking wide receivers.

It also won’t be Justice Hayes’ run to the outside around the offensive line.

And it certainly won’t be Devin Gardner’s scramble up the middle to make defenders miss.

No, the newly hired offensive coordinator’s offense will be a three-yard run up the middle by 223-pound running back De’Veon Smith into a pile of battling linemen. It will be a silent crowd after an ordinary play and piped-in music to compensate for the silence. It won’t be entertaining.

And more importantly, it may not even work.

With just 80-85 percent of the offense installed and an offensive line missing two potential starters, the Michigan football team’s biggest backs were continually stuffed at the line of scrimmage by a defense undergoing changes of its own.

“With the new system, (the running backs) struggled early, played a little slower early because of that,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke.

Nussmeier will use a running back-by-committee scheme, alternating his two primary backs, sophomores Derrick Green and Smith. Both weigh over 220 pounds and both were highly touted out of high school — Green the No. 1 back, according to Rivals, and Smith the No. 1 back out of the state of Ohio.

“All of our running backs run hard, so when you hit them, you have to be ready,” said senior linebacker Brennen Beyer. “When you hit them, they don’t go down too easily. If you can take them down, you can take down almost any running back.”

Added defensive end Frank Clark: “Them some big boys, and they run hard.”

But time and time again, the defense swallowed the attempt. The longest run on the day may have been Green’s eight-yard burst through the middle.

Smith was stopped for a one-yard gain on the first run of the day and racked up little after that.

“One thing we won’t tolerate is them running on us in practice,” Clark said. “They had the better edge here and there, but for the most part, as a defense, we did what we have to do to contain them.”

In the Doug Nussmeier offense, a successful ground game is a necessity, though. It’s counted on to make the 40-yard play-action throw down the field to freshman Freddy Canteen.

In Doug Nussmeier’s offense, Gardner hands the ball off on a quarterback read instead of tucking and rolling with it. It’s about putting less on Gardner and means a successful offense happens when the ball isn’t in his hands.

“That’s the plan. That’s what coach Nuss is always talking about,” Gardner said. “Even when we have read plays. I feel comfortable with it because it keeps me a little more healthy toward the end of the season.”

Added redshirt sophomore Ben Braden: “I think for any offense, especially as a line, running is big. You always have to have a good running game. So that’s one of our focuses for this offseason is to just keep working on technique for the run game.”

Nussmeier comes from Alabama, where last season, the Crimson Tide were less than 10 seconds from finishing undefeated instead of 11-2. Nussmeier runs an offense filled with inside-zone runs and utilizes an H back.

“I’m excited because I think we’re better,” Hoke said. “From the beginning of spring to the end of spring … they’re starting to grasp (the new offense) pretty well. I think it will be fun to see who emerges.”

But in the Doug Nussmeier offense, mistakes don’t last long and don’t go unnoticed. Good plays are unacceptable until they’re perfect, and no one earns high praise.

So in the Doug Nussmeier offense, big running backs won’t be swallowed up much longer. As long as it’s working.

He demands perfection, because he’s used to nothing else.

“He’s insane,” Gardner said with a guilty laugh. “I think that helps. “