With a clean slate of offensive coaches, the Michigan football team will likely look different with the ball in its hands this fall. There’s been plenty of talk about the quarterback battle, but another position battle being worked out in Michigan’s submarine is running back.
Whereas the majority of the quarterbacks are inexperienced or young, the contenders at running back are quite the opposite. Senior Drake Johnson and juniors Derrick Green, De’Veon Smith and Ty Isaac are all entering at least their third year of collegiate play, and all four have been the go-to guy in important minutes.
So with talent and experience evident, the biggest battle within the position battle, according to Michigan running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley, is finding a back that can be that go-to guy every minute.
“You just want the same guy every day,” Wheatley said. “You want a guy who’s going to protect the football, you want a guy who’s going to gain yards — the tough yards. Every play isn’t going to be blocked well, (so) you want a guy who can gain yards no matter what and create his own space.
“There’s a lot of things that go into a running back, but I would say the key word is consistency. I want a guy who can do all of those things on a consistent basis, that’s it. It’s that simple.”
Wheatley is looking for one or two primary backs to emerge, but separating the pack may be easier said than done. Green and Smith — who are both listed at 5-foot-11 and are within six pounds of each other — have split the bulk of the carries the last two seasons, with eerily similar results.
Green: 165 carries, 741 yards, 4.49 average, five touchdowns
Smith: 134 carries, 636 yards, 4.75 average, six touchdowns
Johnson and Isaac — both taller backs with more speed in the open field — showed more success per carry, but are both wild cards entering fall camp. Johnson is coming off his second ACL tear on the same knee, while Isaac sat out last season after transferring from the Southern California.
Despite the different paths, the two share similar stats.
Johnson: 62 carries, 370 yards, 5.97 average, four touchdowns
Isaac: 40 carries, 236 yards, 5.90 average, two touchdowns
Whether it’s Johnson’s speed, Smith’s strength, Green’s motor or Isaac’s size, each back has a different component that can make them successful for the Wolverines. But Wheatley isn’t giving out style points, just the starting job.
“Each guy is different, but at the same time each guy has to give me those factors that I’m looking for,” Wheatley said. “Regardless of style, regardless of height, regardless of anything, he has to be able to hold onto the ball, he has to be able to be trusted, he has to be able to pick up a blitz.”
All four have shown the ability to provide those factors in the past, which makes for an interesting competition. Rather than a hierarchy or ranking, the backs have grown up together, and learned to lead as a group.
“It’s a very brotherhood-esque relationship,” Johnson said. “A lot of us have been here a while, we’re all around the same age and we all started young. All the older backs have kind of dissipated from the ranks, so now we don’t have that authority in the room.
“We had to come together (last season) and figure it out and recognize that it wasn’t necessarily a one-man deal, it was more so us as a unit growing together and figuring things out as a group. That’s really indicative of how our group is. We’ve all stumbled, but we all get up and move forward together in stride.”
But the fact remains: Come September 3, the Michigan football submarine will emerge, and one running back will be on top.
It’s safe to say all four backs will get carries this season, but that won’t stop them from a dogfight.
“I love all these guys, they’re like my brothers,” Smith said, “but it’s going to be fun competing against them every day.”