Before the 2015 season began, one of the biggest question marks surrounding the Michigan football team was in the backfield.
It wasn’t a matter of whether they could perform — redshirt junior Drake Johnson and juniors Ty Isaac, De’Veon Smith and Derrick Green had all shown flashes of being a lead back in previous seasons — but rather a question of how many of the backs would see the field, and if a multiple-back system could work.
After two dominant wins over Oregon State and UNLV in which the Wolverines totaled 479 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns, the question marks surrounding Michigan’s run game have been replaced with exclamation points.
“We’re progressing in the right direction,” said Michigan running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley. “We’re going the right direction. Each guy’s going the right direction. Each game we’re improving. Each game we’re picking up little things we’re getting better at.”
From a statistical perspective, the carries have primarily gone to Smith, but all four have performed when they needed to:
Smith: 53 carries, 206 yards, 3.9 yards per carry, 3 touchdowns
Isaac: 18 carries, 161 yards, 8.9 YPC, 1 touchdown
Green: 13 carries, 46 yards, 3.5 YPC, 1 touchdown
Johnson: 6 carries, 31 yards, 5.2 YPC, 0 touchdowns
The numbers are a little deceptive, as different backs come in at different situations. That said, every back is making forward progress, as the Wolverines are sixth in the nation with just eight tackles for loss.
With Johnson’s role increasing by the day after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament for the second time last November, the backfield might look a little hectic at times, but the Wolverines see a method to the madness.
“I wouldn’t look at it as throwing guys in there,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “We’ve got football players that are hungry, that want to be in there, that are improving and making contributions to the team, and there’s something about not just throwing a guy in but strategically putting a player in to be successful.”
Isaac was the most successful last week. In a game that was over almost as soon as it began, Isaac broke free for a 76-yard touchdown run to pave the way for his game-high 114 yards.
In the second half, Green and Johnson took most of the snaps. Green — whom Wheatley assured wasn’t in the doghouse despite lackluster numbers — was the fourth back to be used, as Johnson continues to build to a heavier load.
“I’m not a doctor and I’m not Drake’s knee, so I don’t know,” Wheatley said. “Right now, he looks good. He’s doing well. Of all the things we’ve asked him to do to this point, he’s passed with flying colors, so up until now I would say he looks good.”
As for the matchup against No. 23 BYU, the Cougars gave up 296 rushing yards against No. 9 UCLA last week, suggesting Michigan will once again rely on its run game to carry the offensive load.
Wheatley isn’t quite sure how he’ll split up the carries, but he knows the game plan will be the same for all the backs.
“Each week is pretty much the same thing for us in the backfield,” he said. “A) reduce — pretty much reduce, have no negative yards rushing. B) Try not to leave any yards out there, meaning let’s hit the right tracks, hit the right marks, right cuts. Let’s not leave any yards out there. And C) I would just say pass protection. Protect the quarterback.”
Of course, there’s one more matter of importance to the run game. The Wolverines have rushed the ball 116 times, and have yet to fumble the ball once. After coughing up the ball eight times last season, the decrease is a welcome change for Michigan.
Wheatley — who felt compelled to knock on wood after hearing the stat — feels the negative consequences afforded by the position’s depth have led to the improved effort.
“There’s two ways to really get put on the bench: A) get the quarterback hit, B) put the ball on the ground,” Wheatley said. “All the guys want to play, so you’ve just got to put one stigma in their mind about sitting on the bench, and then it kind of hits home.”