Green, Smith star in Nussmeier's debut

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By Max Cohen, Daily Sports Editor
Published August 30, 2014

After De’Veon Smith sprinted into the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown in the third quarter of Michigan’s trouncing of Appalachian State, he celebrated with his teammates briefly, enjoying the customary head taps and body bumps.

But then he ran along the back of the end zone toward the sideline, where Doug Nussmeier waited. The new offensive coordinator and the sophomore running back embraced.

Nussmeier’s arrival was supposed to rejuvenate Michigan’s running game, ineffective for the majority of the 2013 season, and the early returns were overwhelmingly positive in the 52-14 victory. The Wolverines rushed for 350 yards behind a more effective offensive line.

Starting sophomore running back Derrick Green and Smith each surpassed 100 yards on the ground, the first Michigan duo to accomplish the feat since 2007. Green finished with 170 yards and one touchdown on 15 carries, while Smith contributed 115 yards and two touchdowns on eight carries. Both yardage totals were career highs.

The differences between the backs contributed to their effectiveness. Even though Appalachian State’s defense was far from stout, the emergence of the sophomore duo was welcome, regardless of the opponent.

“De’Veon, he would rather run you over than play tag, or try and make you miss,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke. “And Derrick’s got a little combination of both.”

At first, improvements in Michigan’s running game were negligible. Green’s first three rushes gained a total of three yards.

It took Smith’s arrival late in the first quarter to get the ground game going. The offensive line provided a hole on his first carry, and he took advantage, gaining 15 yards. He appeared shiftier and displayed better vision than Green on his first drive, amassing 26 yards on four carries.

But Green rebounded in the second quarter, contributing runs of 19 and 59 yards.

The 59-yard scamper was one of three rushes of 55-plus yards for the Wolverines. Green broke another long one for 62 yards in the third quarter, and Smith contributed a 61-yard run in the second quarter.

Running backs coach Fred Jackson tells Green and Smith that he considers them a 1-2 punch, and the pair says they respond by receiving motivation from watching the other succeed.

“When he breaks a long one, I want to break a long one,” Green said. “That’s just how it is. But at the end of the day, we’re going to congratulate each other, and we’re happy for each other.”

Last year, neither running back looked particularly impressive behind poor offensive line performance. The highest rushing total for either in 2013 was Green’s 79 yards against Northwestern. Negative rushes for both were commonplace.

In addition to crediting improved blocking from the offensive line and wide receivers (Smith gave the offensive line an “A++” grade), Smith said Jackson was instrumental in the rushing performance by constantly reminding both running backs of their mediocre Michigan debuts throughout the offseason.

“Just being in our heads,” Smith said. “(He tells us), ‘You’ve got to be better running backs. You’ve got to be the toughest running backs in the Big Ten.’ ”

But Saturday’s game against an inferior opponent shouldn’t necessarily be projected onto the rest of the season.

The Wolverines found success on the ground early last season, rushing for 242 yards against Central Michigan in the season opener. Later in the year, Michigan netted negative yardage in consecutive weeks.

Next week’s game against Notre Dame will be more telling about the progression of Smith, Green and the offensive line. But for two young running backs lacking success at the collegiate level, Saturday was a start.

And whether Saturday’s rushing performance was a sign of things to come or a one-time occurrence, one thing is definite: The more drives Smith and Green end by hugging Nussmeier, the better off Michigan will be.