B1G 40: How will Wolverines' young backfield fare?

B1G 40: How will Wolverines' young backfield fare?
July 12, 2014, 11:30 am
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Vinnie Duber

B1G 40

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As the dog days of summer arrive, the longing for football becomes all the more intense. Well, we here at CSNChicago.com are here to provide you with a summertime football fix. Over 40 days, CSN's Vinnie Duber will have 40 posts pondering the biggest questions heading into the 2014 Big Ten football season — the B1G 40 questions. Be sure to check out the entire B1G 40 series at csnchicago.com/big-ten.

How will the Wolverines’ young backfield fare this season?

There’s no getting around it: Michigan’s run game was not great last year. Despite having the fourth-best set of passing numbers in the Big Ten, the Wolverines ranked second from the bottom in rush offense, picking up an average of only 125.7 yards on the ground per game. That was better only than Purdue.

There were a few factors that caused that. One was the subpar play of an offensive line that not only couldn’t keep quarterback Devin Gardner up off the turf but also couldn’t create enough protection for running backs, either. But the Michigan backs didn’t do much of their part, either. The team’s leading rusher was Fitzgerald Toussaint, who ran for only 648 yards on the season. Gardner was next with 483 yards on the ground. The next two backs on the list — Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith — combined for 387 yards.

[B1G 40: Can Gophers D overcome loss of Hageman, Vereen?]

The Wolverines’ rush game was so ineffective that it meant the end of offensive coordinator Al Borges. The one aspect of the team wasn’t the only reason Michigan was a disappointing 7-6 last year and just 3-5 in the Big Ten, nor was it the only reason Borges lost his job. But it was a glaring weakness for a program that’s had a pretty strong rushing tradition.

To remedy the situation, head coach Brady Hoke brought in a new offensive coordinator in Doug Nussmeier, formerly of Alabama and the championship factory in Tuscaloosa. Nussmeier helmed successful Crimson Tide offenses the past two seasons, not only allowing quarterback A.J. McCarron to flourish but producing back-to-back great rushing seasons with backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon. It’s that kind of success he’ll be looking for in Ann Arbor.

But Nussmeier can’t put on a set of pads and take handoffs. So that becomes the question: Who will emerge as the successful ball-carriers for this team? Whoever it is, they’ll be young. The most-likely successors following Toussaint’s departure are Green and Smith, two sophomores who were big-time recruits just a year ago. They came out of the same Class of 2013, where Green was the No. 1-ranked running back in the country and Smith was the 37th-ranked back. But, as those numbers above — coupled with Green’s weight issues — indicated, they didn't live up to those expectations in their first year on campus.

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Nussmeier, though, thinks those days of “disappointment” from Green are gone.

“Sometimes when you talk about freshmen you set an expectation for them, and really it’s an unfair expectation because you really don’t know where they’re at until you get them,” Nussmeier told Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman in a recent podcast. “And you do the best job you can to evaluate, and obviously Derrick was overweight last year. He’s lost weight, he looks really good. He had a really good spring, I thought, and has really stepped his game up going into the summer. Just looks great, has been running very well. Really excited to see him take the next step in his development.”

Improvement from those two should come, and it should make things easier for the Wolverines to have a run game that’s a little more dangerous. The wild card, however, comes in Ty Isaac, the Joliet Catholic product who transferred from USC to Michigan this offseason. He’ll also be heading into his sophomore season. And while it’s still unknown whether he’ll be able to play this year — the NCAA has yet to decide whether Isaac will receive a hardship waiver — his presence could suddenly transform the Michigan backfield into one of the best in the country. Or at least one with some of the highest expectations. Isaac was the the No. 4-ranked running back in that same Class of 2013.

[B1G 40: Can Badgers' Melvin Gordon do it all, all year long?]

But there is a downside. While the Michigan backfield might be stocked with talent, it’s short on experience. Even if Isaac does play, the top three backs on the team will all be sophomores who totaled 149 carries in 2013. The only upperclassman among the eight running backs on the Wolverines’ roster is redshirt junior Justice Hayes. Nussmeier knows it will be a challenge.

“We’re young,” he told Feldman. “I believe 76 of our players are freshmen or sophomores on our roster. We’re a young football team, so it’s important that we make things simple enough for those guys that they can play at a high level. And getting the running game going is a point of emphasis. It’s one of the reasons coach Hoke brought me here. So we’re going to focus on allowing our guys to understand why we’re doing what we’re doing and play fast. And the simpler we are, the better we’ll be at that.”