Last season, then-junior running back Brandon Minor led the Michigan football team with just 533 total rushing yards. It had been 45 years since a Wolverine led the team with fewer.
But now, with a solid offensive core around him and the other running backs, the ground game could become one of the team’s biggest strengths.
The Wolverines return four running backs who started at least one game last season. Veterans like Minor, senior Carlos Brown and fifth-year senior Kevin Grady have shined in spring practice.
“I believe you’ve got to have a number of tailbacks – more than two, more than three,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said. “You’ve got to have at least four ready to win with. … The more competition you have, it raises everybody’s level. We have some backs that their role may be different than others.”
Rodriguez said he wanted to give his younger players more playing time Saturday and avoid injuring his top players. Minor was limited to just a few carries in Saturday’s spring game, but he will likely be the Wolverines’ top back in the fall.
Brown has had his brilliant moments, like last season against Northwestern when he rushed for 115 yards on 23 carries, or during a three-game stretch in 2007 when he averaged over 103 yards per game. But injuries have plagued his career and prevented him from establishing much of a rhythm in the backfield.
Now at full strength, Brown showcased his speed and strength all spring. In Saturday’s spring game, he broke free for an 82-yard run.
Grady looked good Saturday, too. After promising freshman and sophomore seasons, an anterior cruciate ligament injury in 2007 and a DUI charge last August marred Grady’s career. But coaches have been impressed with his recent spring performance.
“Part of what we’ve talked about is that everybody is going to have a role,” Rodriguez said. “If they embrace that role as well as they can, we’re going to be a better football team. Carlos is one that does that and understands that. Kevin is the same way. They’ve both had outstanding springs.”
Early-enrollee Vincent Smith showed off his speed towards the end of the spring game with a 25-yard burst in the “overtime” session. Despite his 5-foot-6, 158-pound frame, Smith has shown his toughness.
“He’s probably one of the most gifted guys we’ve got back there, as far as being able to jump cut, press a block and get north and south,” Rodriguez said of Smith. “From what we’ve seen this spring, he’s got a chance to be in the mix. Again, there is a lot of things that freshman backs have to learn, but he’s on his way.”
Add sophomore running back Michael Shaw, who missed the spring to have surgery on a sports hernia, and redshirt freshman Michael Cox to the mix, and carries this fall will be tightly contested.
Alums weigh in: Several former players were on hand Saturday to watch or play in the alumni flag football game. Alums like former quarterback Rick Leach (1975-78), linebacker Larry Foote (1999-2002) and receiver Desmond Howard (1989-91) were on hand.
All three were optimistic about next season. Despite the Wolverines’ youth, Leach said he thought the team would show visible growth in Rodriguez’s second year.
“I’m anxious to see what happens,” Leach said. “I knew (freshman quarterback) Tate (Forcier) when he was being recruited. I’ve stayed in touch. I know his family. …There’s going to be ups and downs, but he’s tremendously accurate as a passer, he’s got great mobility and he loves football. So I’m really excited for him.”
Howard pointed to Rodriguez’s improvement in his previous stops — West Virginia went 3-8 in Rodriguez’s first season and 9-4 the next year — as evidence that Michigan will be better. And though the Wolverine defense still needs to adjust to first-year defensive coordinator Greg Robinson’s system, the growing pains from last year will be less noticeable.
“(Robinson) told me he’s going to have … a defense that is going to keep pressure on quarterbacks so they can never get comfortable,” Howard said. “He said it’s like a school of 11 piranhas. It’s like 11 piranhas in that little fish bowl your teacher used to keep on her desk with the little goldfish in it. Imagine 11 piranhas in that thing. It’s like a frenzy.”
Defensive downsides: Howard might see defensive piranhas in Michigan’s future, but few were around Saturday. Robinson didn’t want to show too many of his schemes too early, and the defense looked less than spectacular.
Senior defensive end Brandon Graham saw limited action for the same reasons as Minor, and sophomore defensive tackle Mike Martin did not play due to injury. Redshirt sophomore defensive end Ryan Van Bergen was taken off the field midway through the scrimmage with what Rodriguez called “not a major knee thing.”
“Obviously, we have a lot less experience up front and at the safety positions,” Rodriguez said. “The moves aren’t finished yet. … I like our guys’ attention to learning new terminology defensively, but we’ve got a lot of work to do there because of inexperience.”
The defense has focused on open-field tackling during Robinson’s first few weeks as coach.
“We do everything … making sure we’re throwing our arms, getting our hips and really getting our whole body into the tackling motion,” redshirt freshman cornerback J.T. Floyd said.