Editor’s Note: With the Michigan football team’s 2015 regular season in the books, the Daily looks back at the performance of each unit this year and looks ahead to the future in 2016. In this edition: running backs.
Heading into the season, Michigan returned a trio of experienced running backs in redshirt junior Drake Johnson and juniors De’Veon Smith and Derrick Green. With the addition of redshirt sophomore Ty Isaac, the group was expected to progress and perhaps be a strong point of the Wolverines’ offense with question marks at quarterback and wide receiver.
After an underwhelming start to the season against Utah, the running backs came into their own during the next stretch of the season. Michigan surpassed 200 rushing yards in four of its next five games, failing to reach the mark only against Maryland, when the Wolverines ran for 198 yards.
Smith put together two games of at least 125 yards in that stretch, and Isaac rushed for 115 in another. However, things were never quite the same after Michigan rushed for 201 yards in a 38-0 win against Northwestern.
Isaac and Green appeared to fall out of favor as the season progressed. Green received just five carries in the second half of the season, while Isaac received none after the seventh game.
Smith and Johnson picked up some of the slack, but neither surpassed 75 yards on the ground in a single game during the second half of the season. Redshirt freshman safety Jabrill Peppers found some success running the ball late in the year and served as a decoy out of the backfield on other occasions.
HIGH POINT: Michigan’s five-game stretch from Sept. 12 against Oregon State to Oct. 10 against Northwestern was unmatched this season in terms of production in the running game.
The Wolverines rushed for 1,132 yards in those games on 224 carries, good for an average of 5.05 yards per carry. Michigan, excluding a shootout against Indiana in which it averaged five yards per carry, never averaged more than 3.7 yards per carry in the second half of the season.
LOW POINT: The Wolverines’ running game struggled immensely against some of its toughest Big Ten opponents: Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State. Michigan failed to surpass 100 rushing yards in any of those contests. Against the Buckeyes, it ran for a season-low 57 yards on the ground.
Making matters worse for the running backs against Ohio State was that Peppers, who ran the ball just 18 times this season, was the team’s leading rusher with 29 yards on seven carries.
Of course, some of the blame for the low statistics in the run game as the season progressed falls on the development of the passing game, which became a focal point of Michigan’s offense as fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Rudock improved drastically. However, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh frequently speaks about striking a balance between the running game and passing attack, and the Wolverines were unable to do that in the latter half of the season.
THE FUTURE: All of Michigan’s running backs should be back next season, and most of the Wolverines’ offensive line should return as well. The running game will have the opportunity to make major strides in the offseason because of the continuity. Freshman Karan Higdon, who carried the ball 11 times in three games, could also factor more heavily into the equation.
One option that could spice up the rushing attack would be if Peppers moved to the position on a full-time basis. Harbaugh mentioned this possibility late in the season but was far from committal. Peppers was an offensive star in high school but spent much of this season, his first full one at the collegiate level, focusing on the defensive side of the ball. If he were to move to running back permanently, it could give Michigan’s offense quite the spark.