Thursday, September 2, 2010

Half Full or Half Empty? Running Backs

There is a hurricane rolling in to Virginia Beach tonight, so posts will be coming hard and fast today and most likely not at all tomorrow.  Let's move on to the biggest unknown question in the running game.

The old adage goes, "if you have two quarterbacks, you have none."  What about two running backs?  What about three?  Four?

The running back position in the spread and shred offense seems to be overlooked sometimes.  When people look back on Rodriguez's tenure at West Virginia the first name that gets mentioned is always Pat White.  But the quarterback position will only account for somewhere around 40% of the rushing attempts in a given year.  The Pat Whites of the world may run the show, but it is the guys like Steve Slaton and Noel Divine that carry the bulk of the workload.

From fumble prone to MINOR RAGE!  Can this year's
running back corp take the next step?
The past two years, the running back position in Ann Arbor has been in a state of constant flux.  Sam McGuffie was thrust into playing time early in his true freshman year of '08 (probably costing him his health and driving him back to Texas), but neither he nor Michael Shaw found much success on the ground, paving the way for Brandon Minor to take a bigger role in the offense.  After a solid end to the '08 campaign, Minor and speedster Carlos Brown looked to be the one two punch that UM's breakout offense would need in '09.  However, injuries took a toll and turned the running back position into a game of musical chairs.

Going in to this season the oft injured Minor and the sporadic play maker Brown have both graduated and taken with them the last remnants of Lloyd Carr's stable of running backs.  Stepping in to fill the void are a number of running backs who have different levels of experience.  Shaw, a junior, and Vincent Smith, a freshman, are both back in the fold having a few starts a piece, but both have been inconsistent.  Joining them are three largely unknown newcomers.  Michael Cox the alleged super athlete saw garbage time last year.  Fitzgerald Toussaint is the owner of not only a fantastic name but an equally impressive load of hype generated by highlight tapes and scout team buzz from last year.  Last but not least is Stephen Hopkins, the early-enrolling freshman who has established himself as the battering ram of the bunch.

Can we get reasonable production out of a group of unproven running backs?

The glass half full answer depends on how you answer my first question of this post.  Is having too many running backs vying for the job a hinderence or a hopeful sign.

Versatility could very well be the key to the running back position emerging as one of strength this year.  By versatility I do not mean that we have a big back, a speed back, a shifty back, etc, etc.   Those designations can only take you so far.  Good running backs must bring a lot of skills to the table, and if we have to sub Hopkins in every time we plan to run between the tackles, or Shaw in every time we run a pitch to the outside, then the offense will have a lot of problems picking up yards against an expecting defense.

Speed incarnate.
Versatility in this case means more of a wealth of options.  It might be terribly simplistic to simply say that the odds of finding one or two capable running backs out of five are better than out of three, but the fact remains.  All the running backs have shown signs of potential this off-season.  One player may establish himself as "the guy" early in the season, or we might see three or four backs shuffled in and out in all twelve games.  Whoever gets the job done best will get the opportunity to play, we just have more guys in the fold.  The higher number of candidates, the higher the odds of finding someone who can excel.

The problem is that the failure of one back to establish himself might be a harbinger of bad things to come.  The glass half empty view of this group focuses on each back's Achilles heel.

As I said before, running back is a complex position that demands a wide array of skills.  Great backs possess all the necessary skills, while good backs might lack in certain areas (think Mike Hart and his lack of elite speed).  A good running back in the zone blocking scheme that UM's offensive line runs will have to have good vision.  Running backs in this system don't run through holes in the traditional sense, such as an off-tackle run being through the 3-hole or a dive play being in the 1-hole.  Backs in this system run off defenders, as the lineman block in zones according to where the defense lines up.  The running back therefore has to see the holes before they open up.  For all the speed that a guy like Michael Shaw brings to the table, he has been continually hamstrung by his problems reading defenders and finding creases.  You can't run between the tackles in a zone blocking scheme if you don't have an excellent sense for finding running lanes.

Is Smith's ACL 100%?
This is what makes a guy like Vincent Smith valuable.  He can find the holes and get through them to the next level.  His problem is physical.  He is only 5'6 (but a surprising 180 lbs.) and lacks break away speed.  The same lack of speed may doom Stephen Hopkins from being an every down back.  Hopkins runs the 40 yard dash in over 4.6 seconds (the speed of a lot of defensive ends these days).  This could pigeon hole him as a short yardage back, and may tip Rodriguez's hand when Hopkins is in the game allowing the other team to stack the box and not fear a run outside the ends.

Injuries could play a major factor this year as well.  Vincent Smith is coming off an injured ACL from last years OSU game.  ACL injuries are notoriously hard to rehab to 100%, and usually take more than the 10 months that Smith has had.  Toussaint, for all this hype, has been plagued by the same injury bug that Brandon Minor carried with him.  Fitz broke his collar bone last year, and has been banged up in fall camp.

Absent from all this discussion of physical weakness is one Michael Cox.  Reports from spring and fall practice have fawned over his physical ability.  He has the size, speed, moves, and ability to lower his shoulder that make up a complete running back.  However, reports from spring and fall camp also state that he seems lost when it comes to the playbook.  As Yogi Berra might say, "playing running back is 90% mental. The other half is physical."

I wouldn't be surprised to see this unit improve in 2010,
would you Stephen?
Can we see one running back put all the pieces together this year.  The sheer number of candidates seems to suggest that at least one or two backs can be productive.  Whether those backs can overcome the weaknesses that they have shown so far is another story.  This team won't likely produce a 1000 yard rusher in 2010   unless it is from the quarterback position, which, more on that later   but the running backs taking the field this fall should be able to competently provide yards on the ground.  How well each does with his respective weakness will go a long way towards telling us who will produce and how much.

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