Positions Previews 2016: Running Backs/Fullbacks

Wednesday, August 24, 2016 - 4:20pm

As the final days count down until game week — starting Aug. 29 before the Michigan football team opens the 2016 season against Hawaii on Sept. 3 at Michigan Stadium — the Daily breaks down each position group heading into the upcoming season. We continue with a look at a position where the Wolverines boast a wealth of experience: the backfield.

With all three of Michigan’s primary running backs from last season returning this year, the Wolverines won’t have a hard time finding dependable players to carry the ball. How exactly offensive coordinator Tim Drevno wants to distribute those carries remains to be seen, but it’s probably fair to expect steady production from the group — even if no single player with elite ability jumps out. An experienced offensive line (position preview coming soon) should help as well.

The fullback spot, however, appears to be a work in progress. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has an affinity for leaning on fullbacks and tight ends in numerous offensive packages, and he has two hard-working departing seniors to replace at fullback. Expect the Wolverines to turn to a combination of converted tight ends and potential unsung heroes to fill the void.

Here’s how the group stacks up this year:

Who’s back: At running back, senior De’Veon Smith (5-foot-11, 228 pounds), redshirt junior Ty Isaac (6-foot-3, 230), fifth-year senior Drake Johnson (6-foot-1, 201), sophomore Karan Higdon (5-foot-10, 189), and redshirt sophomore Joe Hewlett (6-foot, 195).

At fullback, a pair of redshirt juniors and former tight ends — Khalid Hill (6-foot-2, 263) and Henry Poggi (6-foot-4, 257), as well as fifth-year senior Bobby Henderson (6-foot, 242), junior Joe Beneducci (5-foot-9, 212) and redshirt sophomore Nick Volk (5-foot-11, 250).

Who’s not: Highly recruited running back Derrick Green, who was lost in the shuffle in his third season last year and posted just 157 yards and two touchdowns, left for TCU as a graduate transfer in July. Ross Taylor-Douglas, a redshirt sophomore last season who had 10 carries for 18 yards in mop-up duty, left for Rutgers as a rare two-year graduate transfer, and now plays cornerback.

At fullback, both Joe Kerridge and Sione Houma (who combined for 356 all-purpose yards and six touchdowns in 2015) have graduated and are in NFL training camps. Redshirt junior Wyatt Shallman, a seldom-used backup, is still on the team but recently moved to linebacker.

Who’s new: Freshmen running backs Kareem Walker (6-foot-1, 207), Chris Evans (5-foot-11, 200) and Kingston Davis (6-foot-1, 245), as well as Harvard graduate and two-year transfer fullback Michael Hirsch (6-foot-1, 245).

Stats in 2015: Smith: 180 carries, 753 yards, six touchdowns; 159 receiving yards, one touchdown.

Johnson: 54 carries, 271 yards, four touchdowns; 96 receiving yards, two touchdowns.

Isaac: 30 carries, 205 yards, one touchdown; 12 receiving yards.

Higdon: 11 carries, 24 yards; 3 receiving yards.

Hill: four catches, 71 yards.

Poggi: one catch, two yards.

Contenders: Smith has been saying since the spring that the starting running back job is his to lose, and it’s hard to argue with him based on the results of last season. A bruising back with a penchant for breaking tackles — just look at his 60-yard touchdown run against BYU last season where he almost appeared to teleport through a crowded line of scrimmage — Smith has a strong case to get the bulk of the carries again in 2016.

After a promising start last season, Isaac’s playing time took a sharp drop after he fumbled twice against Maryland, but a strong spring has boosted both his confidence and his chances to contribute this year. Johnson has looked like the Wolverines’ best back at times in each of the last two seasons, but he has torn his anterior cruciate ligament twice and suffered a freak injury in the spring after a forklift ran him over in the indoor track building. A Harbaugh favorite, Johnson figures to be a key part of Michigan’s offense, but he’ll have to kick the injury bug first. Meanwhile, another coaching favorite may get immediate playing time as a change of pace — freshman Chris Evans has received rave reviews in fall camp for his speed and elusiveness.

Converted tight ends Hill and Poggi are the most likely candidates to fill the hole left by Kerridge and Houma, but Harbaugh has said Henderson and Hirsch are in the running as well. Like the quarterback position, the fullback competition should go right down to the wire.

Prediction/Edge: Barring an incredibly poor performance in fall camp, Smith should retain his job as the Wolverines’ lead back. Expect Johnson and Isaac to share the load as complimentary backs, with Harbaugh not being afraid to ride the hot hand, as he did last year when Isaac struggled. And the early hype from the coaching staff regarding Chris Evans has been too strong to imagine that he won’t see immediate playing time — he could take snaps as a pure speed back or even a slot receiver.

At fullback, Hill and Poggi’s in-game experience should give them a leg up on the competition, even if fullback isn’t their natural position. Unlike the quarterback position, though, there’s no indication that Harbaugh will remain committed to any particular starter, so don’t be surprised if Henderson or Hirsch impress enough in practice to find themselves in the mix too.