Thanks to two talented veterans and a crop of emerging underclassmen, running back has been one of the Michigan football team’s deepest positions.
And during yesterday’s practice, four days after seniors Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor combined for a miserable 17 yards on 10 carries against Michigan State, the position got a little more interesting.
Brown, who has been forced to step up this season with Minor limited by injuries, was wearing a red jersey (signifying an injury) and sweatpants at yesterday’s practice. He watched his fellow running backs from the sidelines as they stretched and broke off into position groups.
In a rotation that was repeated about four times, a quarterback and running back lined up to practice a simple outside pitch play. Though the play was basic, the pairings were different than usual.
Freshman quarterback Denard Robinson was paired with first-string running back Brandon Minor, and redshirt junior backup quarterback Nick Sheridan next ran the play with sophomore running back Mike Shaw.
On the third team was freshman quarterback Tate Forcier, who has started all five games this season, running the drill with fifth-year senior running back Kevin Grady. Forcier originally came out on the field Wednesday wearing a green jersey, signifying limited action, but changed into a regular jersey before walkthroughs.
In the last rotation, Forcier ran the play at quarterback again, but with Robinson at running back. Though it wasn’t practiced during the first part of practice, the play could potentially give the opportunity for Robinson to pass the ball to a receiver off the pitch.
Robinson’s speed — coupled with Forcier’s quick success and the fact that the country’s No. 1 quarterback recruit, Devin Gardner, is poised to join the Wolverines next season — has constantly raised questions of if Robinson may eventually move to slot receiver or running back. But this season, both he and Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez have continued to maintain that Robinson is solely a quarterback.
“I’m a quarterback. I’m not just a running back. That’s the only position I play,” Robinson said after the team’s win over Eastern Michigan.
With Brown potentially limited on Saturday, it looks like both Robinson and the running backs will need to get creative against Iowa’s ferocious defensive line. The Hawkeyes have not allowed a rushing touchdown in over eight games, which means the Wolverine running backs will need to be at the top of their game to break through.
And that starts with Minor. The idea of the senior taking reps with the first team, as he did Wednesday, was taken for granted before the beginning of the season. But his limited play this season in both practices and games due to a nagging ankle injury has spoken for itself. He is known for consistently underplaying the severity of his injuries in order to get in the game and grind out plays, but his senior year has been a disappointment thus far.
Minor sat out the team’s opening game against Western Michigan. Against Eastern Michigan two weeks later, the senior had three carries for 21 yards before his ankle pain again forced him out of the game.
“He tried to go a little bit, then after a few series he said, ‘Coach, it’s really sore,’ ” Rodriguez said after the Eastern Michigan game. “So we said we’d hold him out of there.”
But against Indiana the next week, in a must-win situation, Minor ignored the injury and ran in the fourth quarter to help set up Michigan’s winning touchdown. After Rodriguez told Minor that the team needed him to get a first down to help Michigan run out the clock in the 36-33 win, the senior followed through.
“I told him, they may have a guy in the hole, a safety, and you’re going to have to run over him. And he said, ‘That’s okay, Coach, we’ll do that,’ so he ran hard,” Rodriguez said after the win. “There’s no question that Carlos and Brandon, our two veterans, are the two guys we want in there at crunch time as much as possible.”
This weekend, six games into a year that was supposed to be his breakout season, Minor may finally have the chance to show his true potential. Rodriguez said yesterday that this week’s practices have probably been Minor’s best since fall camp.
“Tuesday practice is our most physical practice, and yesterday, he went through the whole practice,” Rodriguez said. “Probably, talking to him, it’s the best he’s felt in several weeks.”