With four experienced running backs who have started games on its roster and far less experience in the passing game, the Michigan football team was expected to lean heavily on its rushing attack this season.
For much of the season, that strategy has worked. After struggling against Utah to begin the season, the Wolverines’ rushing outputs have been as consistent as they have been helpful: 225 yards against Oregon State, 254 yards against UNLV, 254 yards against Brigham Young, 198 against Maryland and 201 against Northwestern. Michigan averaged a cool 5.05 yards per carry in that stretch.
But against Michigan State and Minnesota, the Wolverines showed flashes of the ineptitude they had displayed in previous seasons, missing holes, failing to break runs into the secondary and, most importantly, combining for just 189 yards in the two games and just 3.5 yards per carry.
“When we do our stuff right, it works,” said redshirt junior running back Drake Johnson. “When we do things that we’re not coached to do, we don’t block who we’re supposed to block, we taper off.”
The tapering off is a problem, but suddenly, depth has become a larger one for the backs. Junior Ty Isaac is no longer on the depth chart due to what Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh called an “internal matter,” and junior De’Veon Smith is still getting evaluated after leaving the game against Minnesota on Saturday.
With freshman Karan Higdon receiving single-digit carries and Derrick Green struggling to the tune of just 3.4 yards per rushing attempt, that leaves only Johnson to carry the load.
Yes, Johnson, the same player who has torn his anterior cruciate ligament twice and has yet to carry a heavy load since.
Despite limited action against Nortwhestern and missing the Michigan State game due to an unspecified injury, Johnson showed capabilities of leading the backs at Minneapolis, gaining 55 yards on 10 carries.
“Sometimes, I would say the carry fairy allows people to run well, and it just happened to sprinkle a little dust on me that day,” Johnson said.
Due to a successful back-by-committee start, Johnson has yet to carry the ball more than 13 times in a game but said Tuesday that he’s recovered and ready if the team needs him.
“That’s not for me to determine, that’s up to the coaches, and they’ve been doing well so far,” Johnson said. “They’ve been game-planning incredibly well, and however I fit into the gameplan, wherever they say I should be is what I’m going to do.
“If that’s five carries, if that’s 35 carries and I’m decrepit the next day, that’s what needs to be done that game to win the game.”
With a thin backfield, odds are high that the carry fairy will sprinkle dust on Johnson against Rutgers, but Michigan continues to push for a back-by-committee.
In practice, Johnson said carries are split relatively evenly, with no one receiving preferential treatment. Even if he had become the feature back, Johnson wouldn’t know.
“Do I have an issue with it? No. Are there challenges to it? No. Does everyone want to be the feature back? Of course,” he said. “Idealistically, everyone wants to be the person who gets 30 carries a game but in a real situation that’s not probably what’s going to happen.
“It’s not the University of Drake Johnson or the University of De’Veon or Ty. The University of Michigan is the entire team, so it’s doing what helps the team.”