A year ago, Michigan running backs coach Fred Jackson boasted about how he couldn’t tell his backs apart.
They were interchangeable in the offense and that’s the way he liked it — for Rich Rodriguez’s offense it didn’t matter, the running back wasn’t in the spotlight.
Now that Rodriguez is gone, that’s a big problem — new Michigan football coach Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges are searching for a horse to which they can hitch their wagon. And since Hoke’s hiring, Jackson has repeatedly mentioned how excited he is that the running back would be a factor in the offense once again.
The physicality Hoke wants isn’t lost on the running backs. It’s the position that might epitomize the transition from Rodriguez to Hoke this fall.
During practice on April 5, coaches yelled at each runner during the individual drills to finish his run even after he was down on the play. Each one had to continue on a sprint up the field after the play had ended.
Their job description has been defined and expanded. But who will get the carries?
“At one time or another, every back (has shown flashes),” Borges said of the downhill running style his offense covets last Tuesday. “As you ask that question, I’m trying to put some of our better runs in my mind together. Cox has done it. Shaw came back the other day, he did it. Stephen Hopkins is just that kind of runner, period.”
Then there’s Fitz Toussaint, who was rarely healthy enough to see the field last season, but whom Jackson has also compared to former Michigan running back Mike Hart. And don’t forget Vincent Smith — a 5-foot-6, 180-pound tailback with quickness tailor-made for a spread offense.
The same guys were in the mix last year. No one overwhelmed Rodriguez, though Smith and Shaw were almost exclusively Denard Robinson’s wingmen in the backfield in 2010. In the new offense, it’s anyone’s job to win once again.
“To say we have a frontline back, a guy we’re saying, ‘This guy’s the guy’ — we’ve had flashes of excellence from all of them and that’s not a decision we have to make today,” Borges said. “But I like those kids.”
Smith led all of the backs with 601 rushing yards last season, but his numbers were dwarfed by Robinson’s 1,700 yards on the ground. Borges’ goal is to keep Robinson in games though and avoid injury by reducing the 256 times the quarterback carried the ball last season. That was 120 more carries than Smith, who was the second-most used runner, got in the ground game.
Of the running backs Borges mentioned, Smith was the only one who really inspired more than a few words. Borges called Smith a “true football player,” adding that, despite his size, Smith could be an effective runner in the power offense, and that Smith is highly coachable. Hoke called him a “tough little guy,” during the Michigan coach’s radio show on Monday.
Last year, there were times Smith had to lead block for Robinson on running plays. And Borges has noted the Pahokee, Fla. native’s willingness to do the dirty work.
“Vince is going to be involved in any way you ask him to be involved,” Borges said. “If you want him to run, he’s broken a long run in scrimmage before. He has that to him. He has some speed. He has some quickness.
“But what Vince (has) — he has good football awareness. I don’t know how to explain it sometimes — we coaches call it football IQ. Vince has a good football IQ. You tell him something and he understands what you’re talking about and he can do it.”
Though Borges spoke highly of Smith, the offensive coordinator said he won’t name a starter this spring.
Borges almost took offense to the question of who would start, saying it was too early, just eight practices in, to declare a leader. After all 15 practices are completed with the Spring Game on April 16, he will sit down each back and go through their individual evaluations.
They’ve all had their own flashes. And the competition is simple, really.
Impress Borges enough, and the job is yours.
“He has to do more flashes,” Borges said of what someone must do to earn the starting gig. “And be complete — block in protection, run the football (and) be consistent. I think that’s the deal, the guy who demonstrates the most consistency is going to play the most.”
Added Hoke: “At the end of the day, we’d like to settle on who that lead back will be. And we’re not at that point yet.”