Michigan Running Backs Compared to the Rest of the Big Ten

Michigan Running Backs Compared to the Rest of the Big Ten


September 3, 2020
Karan Higdon (image via MGoBlue)

Maybe I’m biased after growing up in the heyday of the running back. When I was a kid, I remember playing video games with superstar running backs like Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, and Bo Jackson. I also grew up at a time when the Michigan running back was a stud, with guys like Tony Boles, Tyrone Wheatley, and Tim Biakabatuka.

So I can be a harsh critic of running backs, and I am. Numerous times over the years, I have criticized either Michigan’s depth chart – I wanted backups to play more – or even the overall talent at the position. That has engendered endless back-and-forth arguments in the comments, which you have probably seen if you ventured down below any post that mentions the word “running back.”

This post may inflame that discussion, but I truly believe this little study illuminates my issue with running backs. It was suggested by a poster that all-conference honors could point to a flaw in my position, which is:

Running back has been a weakness at Michigan since Hart graduated.

Hit the jump for more.

I recently posted the following tweet while doing some research:

After Mike Hart finished out his senior season in 2007, the number of running backs valued by NFL front offices has become essentially non-existent. The only draftee who has taken a snap at Michigan in the past twelve seasons is Michael Cox, an end-of-the-bench player in Ann Arbor who only got drafted because he transferred to UMass to spend a season as the team’s starter.

I went back to the 2008 season and tallied up the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd team All-Big Ten running backs. Each 1st team player earned 3 points for his team, 2nd team players earned 2, and 3rd team players earned 1. (It’s important to note that up through 2014, there was only a 1st/2nd team, at which point it expanded to 1st/2nd/3rd for 2015 and beyond.)

For example, Karan Higdon was 1st team All-Big Ten in 2018 for both the coaches and the media, so he earned 6 points for Michigan. Unfortunately, that’s nearly the only bright spot for the Wolverines.

  1. 69 points – Wisconsin
  2. 43 points – Ohio State
  3. 36 points – Penn State
  4. 18 points – Nebraska*
  5. 17 points – Michigan State
  6. 16 points – Indiana
  7. 15 points – Iowa
  8. 15 points – Northwestern
  9. 14 points – Minnesota
  10. 11 points – Illinois
  11. 9 points – Michigan
  12. 4 points – Purdue
  13. 3 points – Maryland**
  14. 0 points – Rutgers**

*Joined the conference in 2011
**Joined the conference in 2015

I should also acknowledge that I did not include players who earned “Honorable Mention” honors, because that’s a bit of an everyone-gets-a-trophy honor. For example, in addition to the eight players on the 1st/2nd/3rd teams in 2019, the Honorable Mention winners also included Javon Leake (Maryland), Hassan Haskins (Michigan), Dedrick Mills (Nebraska), and Journey Brown (Penn State) (LINK).

That’s literally 12 running backs in a league with 14 teams. At that point you’re basically just acknowledging the starters and leaving out teams with injury issues or who couldn’t figure out who their best guy was.

Michigan finished #11 out of 14 teams on the above list. The points came from Higdon (1st team to media/coaches in 2018, 3rd team to medica/coaches in 2017) and Zach Charbonnet (3rd team to media in 2019), and there were zero all-conference backs from 2008-2016.

Overall, I don’t find this information to be groundbreaking. It’s basically some objective information to back up what I’ve long believed to be true. But it does illustrate a dearth of talent and development at the position. And not one single person is to blame, since the drought goes back through several running backs coaches (Fred Jackson, Tyrone Wheatley, Jay Harbaugh) and head coaches (Rich Rodriguez, Brady Hoke, Jim Harbaugh). Maybe there’s a systemic issue within the program, but it’s probably mainly due to a string of bad luck.

UPDATE: I was asked in the comments to discuss how things stack up since Jim Harbaugh was hired, so here’s that data (2015-2019):

  1. 24 points – Ohio State
  2. 23 points – Wisconsin
  3. 20 points – Penn State
  4. 13 points – Northwestern
  5. 10 points – Indiana
  6. 9 points – Michigan
  7. 6 points – Minnesota
  8. 5 points – Illinois
  9. 5 points – Iowa
  10. 3 points – Maryland
  11. 2 points – Michigan State
  12. 0 points – Nebraska
  13. 0 points – Purdue
  14. 0 points – Rutgers

54 comments

  1. Avatar
    Comments: 1332
    Joined: 8/13/2015
    Roanman
    Sep 03, 2020 at 2:49 PM

    Bad luck maybe, but also a string of bad offensive lines along with the fact that the best running talent in the program going back to Tony Boles, Timmy B. and Tyron Wheatley happened to be a QB.

    • Lanknows
      Comments: 6182
      Joined: 8/11/2015
      Lanknows
      Sep 03, 2020 at 4:00 PM

      The OL has been up and down. 2010 and 2011 were loaded with NFL players thanks to Rich Rod’s recruiting. Hoke ended up with some solid guys but couldn’t string it together because of everything else going on. Always a weakness somewhere. Harbaugh has trudged through and got them back up to excellent in 2019. Depth concerns seem to finally have been resolved and then COVID hits and now we wait for the chaos to play out.

      But yes – the main point – RBs never play in a vacuum. Their production is a team stat, affected by blocking and attention of the other 10 positions.

  2. JC
    Comments: 303
    Joined: 8/17/2015
    JC
    Sep 03, 2020 at 3:12 PM

    Going back to the 2008 season is a good starting point for what you want to prove. Let’s examine:

    Rich Rod (08-10)
    Not a successful coach in the big period. Quarterback was typically the most successful rushing position.
    Brady Hoke. (11-14)
    Defense-oriented team. Was not an offensive minded coach/team. Did not recruit great running backs. Did not develop great running backs.
    Still surprised Fitzgerald Toussaint didn’t make a 3rd team somewhere…

    Jim Harbaugh (15-present)
    We had Deveon Smith/Ty Isaac. Neither exceptional players. I liked Smith’s balance and toughness, and he’s exactly who we needed earning each YAC. Isaac I was always excited about.
    Now Harbaugh recruits. Karan Higdon/Chris Evans. Higdon was ok. I don’t think he’d be earning 1st team all big regularly. Evans is fine.
    Now Charbonnet, Corum, and Evans. I think this will be the most talented group of backs we’ve had in a while. I think Charbonnet could work his way up to 1st team as early as this year (if we have a season).

    But overall, it’s trending in the right direction. From 2008 to 2016, we had 0 points. 9 points since then isn’t terrible. For frame of reference, Wisconsin has 5.75 points a year. That’s silly, but that’s also a product of their offense. OSU has 3.6. That’s pretty darn good. PSU has 3, and Nebraska is next with 2.

    Since 2017 we’re at 3 points a year. That’s on par with PSU, and I think we’re on the right track here. With the roster currently in place, I don’t think we’ll be having a lot of back to back years with 0 points.

  3. Lanknows
    Comments: 6182
    Joined: 8/11/2015
    Lanknows
    Sep 03, 2020 at 3:50 PM

    Thanks for taking the time to put together a post to further our debate. I appreciate it.

    I have a lot of quibbles with the above analysis but I’ll just repeat the biggest most fundamental one: A lack of strength is not the same thing as a weakness. Just because I’m not 6’6 doesn’t mean I’m short. Just because I don’t play in the NBA doesn’t mean I’m a bad basketball player.

    Here is what I said in the post about all conference honors:

    “If we are talking about which positions have had quality play at them I would stack up number of all-conference honors at each position”

    I then gave a different criteria for identifying a weakness. Getting interest from the NFL. Which, frankly, is still probably too high of a bar for a true weakness since there are still some guys who are decent players (like Ty Isaac) who don’t.

    So no – I didn’t say all conference honors are a good way to identify a weakness. I said it was a bar for quality play – one that is more relevant than draft position.

    • Avatar
      Comments: 31
      Joined: 10/6/2019
      awolverine10
      Sep 03, 2020 at 4:33 PM

      The problem with this argument is that 1) Thunder’s all-conference analysis is within the context of the B10 recruiting picture; and 2) the numbers don’t seem middle-of-the-pack, they seem very back-of-the-pack.

      There are exactly 4 teams in the B10 who consistently pull in Top 20(ish) recruiting classes or better: Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Over the time period covered here, Michigan has recruited around as many 4- and 5-star high school running backs as the other schools mentioned. Not to mention OLs of similar status (maybe a little worse in the RR years).

      With that talent base, they’ve produced 9 points’ worth of All-B10 production, versus 69, 43, and 36 for the other 3. This is capital-B Bad production from Michigan.

      It would be another thing if Michigan were just behind these 3 comparable schools, but the reality is that they’re waaaay towards the back row. Thunder’s analysis from this tweet (https://twitter.com/TouchTheBanner/status/1300890358344187905) backs this up: “Michigan’s top qualifying running back (4.0 attempts/game, played in 75% of games) finished ranked at #11.7 in yards per carry over the past 11 years in the Big Ten.” Again, with far better recruits than Nebraska, MSU, Indiana, etc.

      There’s really very little evidence that Michigan’s performance has been “not a strength but not a weakness” besides fan homerism. It’s not really akin to saying that just because you’re not 6’6 it doesn’t imply you’re not 6’5 or 6’4 or 6’3. It’s more like saying — if the best basketball player on a given H.S. team played 9 games, and over that span had 1 30-point game, 0 20-point games, 1 10-point game, and the remaining 7 were <10 points, can we deem that guy to be a non-weakness? What if you learned that in those remaining 7 games he averaged 4 or 5 PPG rather than 8 or 9? What if you learned that he was a Top 75 recruit with a scholarship to UNC, would it sound like he was meeting expectations?

      • Thunder
        Comments: 3785
        Joined: 7/13/2015
        Sep 03, 2020 at 6:39 PM

        I agree with what you’re saying. I think Lanknows’s issue has been the word “weakness” and, if I’m interpreting it right, the idea that I’m blaming Michigan’s failures on the RB position. That’s not accurate, and there’s blame to go around.

        It is true that I believe Michigan’s running backs have been *a* weakness, but where they rank on the list of weaknesses varies by year. Ultimately, as this research suggests and you noted, not having difference-makers at the position has helped to keep Michigan planted firmly behind OSU, PSU, Wisconsin, and sometimes others in the Big Ten pecking order.

        • Lanknows
          Comments: 6182
          Joined: 8/11/2015
          Lanknows
          Sep 04, 2020 at 8:17 AM

          Yeah, it may boil down to a disagreement over semantics.

          If the statement is: “Michigan hasn’t had as many outstanding RBs as most of the Big Ten.” I would be arguing less vociferously.

          With the exception of Wisconsin and OSU, I don’t think many (any?) other Big Ten programs can say “We have had an NFL-caliber RB available every single game for the last decade.”

          In my view, if you have an NFL guy at a position every year in college football that’s an advantage most teams don’t have.

          That said, I do appreciate the “RB is a position for playmakers” argument. Smith and Higdon aren’t necessarily big play guys, but they are rugged, reliable, and good at generating YAC — which is what Michigan needed until they settled the OL situation.

          I share the enthusiasm for the current group of RBs and agree it could be the best Michigan’s had in a long time, even though Haskins and Charbonnet same to be in the same mold of rugged and reliable as Smith and Higdon. Evans and Jackson bring a different flavor, spicier, and I think we could see a lot more highlight runs going ahead if the OL turnover gets sorted out.

          • Avatar
            Comments: 31
            Joined: 10/6/2019
            awolverine10
            Sep 04, 2020 at 2:34 PM

            Sounds like we all agree :). I also agree that D. Smith is a valuable and underrated player. I can see the argument for why he’s a replacement-level player but in my opinion he brought a lot more to the table than strength and lack of speed.

            • Lanknows
              Comments: 6182
              Joined: 8/11/2015
              Lanknows
              Sep 08, 2020 at 6:28 PM

              I like Smith a lot. I think he has a case for being the best Michigan back this century (along with Hart).

              He just plays a position that I think it’s hard to truly standout relative to your peers (because they’re all really great athletes). Not that they’re all the same, just that the outcomes are generally a function of team more than individual – and especially the OL. Saw it clearly with Toussaint.

  4. Lanknows
    Comments: 6182
    Joined: 8/11/2015
    Lanknows
    Sep 03, 2020 at 4:17 PM

    On all-conference honors.

    First off, it is really stupid to have 6 spots for RBs. It should be 3. No other position gets double the number that see the field. There should be 9 WRs and 3 RBs on the all conference teams, but there are 6 of each. So the good news for Thunder is he’s not the only one keeping the 90s alive in football.

    Here are the 7 guys who finished above Smith in 2016.

    Saquon Barkley, Penn State (Coaches-1; Media-1)
    Corey Clement, Wisconsin (Coaches-1; Media-2)
    Justin Jackson, Northwestern (Coaches-2; Media-1)
    Mike Weber, Ohio State (Coaches-2; Media-2)
    Akrum Wadley, Iowa (Coaches-3)
    Rodney Smith, Minnesota (Coaches-3; Media-3)
    L. J. Scott, Michigan State (Media-3)

    Now, the top 3 are legit – they’ve gone on to NFL careers. Barkley is a generational talent and needs no further discussion. Jackson went in the 7th round and has something like 600 yards in the NFL. Clement wasn’t drafted (WHAT A WEAKNESS!) but has around 900 yards in the NFL.

    Smith has more NFL yards than the rest. The majority of the guys on the list above him, they have produced zero yards in the NFL. Now Weber did get drafted in the 7th round (WHAT A STUD!), probably because some fool conflated being on a great offense with being a good RB but that does not appear to be. Smith, so far, is having a better career and is likely a better back.

    None of those guys besides Barkley is a difference maker. None of them was a weakness on their team either.

    • Thunder
      Comments: 3785
      Joined: 7/13/2015
      Sep 03, 2020 at 4:45 PM

      Lanknows! You’re changing your argument, and it’s…not going well so far.

      If all of a sudden we’re going to bring back in NFL production as a factor, then here are a few other Big Ten guys who are “better” than De’Veon Smith:

      Dare Ogunbowale (Wisconsin)
      Ty Johnson (Maryland)
      Curtis Samuel (Ohio State)
      LeShun Daniels (Iowa) has more carries (3) than Smith (0) but fewer total yards (14 to 27)
      Devine Ozigbo (Nebraska)

      I suppose I’ll allow the change of course, but this only allows us to think less of Smith’s accomplishments.

      If all-conference honors count, Smith doesn’t look too good.

      If NFL production counts, Smith doesn’t look too good.

      Take your pick.

      • Lanknows
        Comments: 6182
        Joined: 8/11/2015
        Lanknows
        Sep 04, 2020 at 8:45 AM

        I’m not going to quote myself again (too much even for me). It’s right up above. All conference honors speak to strength not weakness.

        Smith was better than some of the guys who got honors in 2016 (e.g., Weber) and he was worse than some of the guys who didn’t (e.g., Johnson). I think both points are valid.

        If you want to say some backups ultimately proved to be better players than Smith you can. If you want to say, one way or the other, he was something like the 8th best RB in the conference, you can. If I want to say Smith was one of the best starting RBs in the conference that year, I can. If I want to say a future NFL player who garners all conference honors is not remotely a weakness, no matter if he’s the 4th best back or the 12th best back in the conference, I can.

        • Thunder
          Comments: 3785
          Joined: 7/13/2015
          Sep 04, 2020 at 9:20 AM

          The media and Big Ten coaches disagree with you that Smith was better than Weber. The NFL disagrees with you about a bunch of others.

          • Lanknows
            Comments: 6182
            Joined: 8/11/2015
            Lanknows
            Sep 04, 2020 at 9:56 AM

            The NFL agrees on Weber and others. The media and Big Ten coaches agree with a bunch of others.

            This goes both ways.

            • Thunder
              Comments: 3785
              Joined: 7/13/2015
              Sep 04, 2020 at 12:06 PM

              I think where you’re whiffing is here:

              If you’re including NFL production, you’re opening up other seasons to the discussion. “All-conference” honors refer to a single season. In other words, “During the 2016 season, Smith was somewhere between the #8 and #13 back.” If we look ONLY at all-conference honors, that must be the truth because that’s how the voters voted.

              If you’re going to bring in NFL production – which obviously takes place in years outside of 2016 – then there are guys who were backups in 2016 (and therefore, rarely named all-conference) who were better than Smith but didn’t have a chance to get on the field because there were older/better guys in front of them. For example, Dare Ogunbowale was a backup throughout his career, but if NFL production matters, he was better in 2016 than Smith, too. So now if we’re looking at backs in 2016, you have to put Ogunbowale in front of Smith, too, which means Smith was maybe the 14th-best back in the conference instead of just somewhere in the 8-13 range.

              So you can say that the 2016 all-conference voters thought Smith was superior to Ogunbowale that year, but you can’t say at the same time that the NFL thought Ogunbowale was worse in 2016.

              Bottom line: Of backs playing in the Big Ten during the 2016 season, Smith was deemed by college coaches/media as no better than #8 in the conference. And of backs playing in the Big Ten during the 2016 season (if you take away Wadley/Weber/Smith/Scott but add in Ozigbo/Daniels/Ogunbowale/Johnson/Samuel), Smith has been deemed by NFL coaches/GMs as no better than #8 in the conference. Again, these are “unbiased” sources with no dog in the fight, and they think Smith was #8 or worse in the Big Ten.

              No matter how you slice it, you’re spending an awful lot of time defending the #8 running back in the conference.

              For a reference point, the Big Ten team with the 8th best overall record in 2019 was Michigan State (7-6), and they only beat out Maryland, Rutgers, Illinois, Nebraska, Purdue, and Northwestern. Would you say those teams are the strength of the Big Ten? Probably not. So I don’t know why individual players in that same category would be deemed a “strength” or even “not a weakness” for a team trying to be the best in the Big Ten.

              • Avatar
                Comments: 31
                Joined: 10/6/2019
                awolverine10
                Sep 04, 2020 at 2:46 PM

                I’d argue that NFL production doesn’t matter much for guys who only hung around the league for a year or two. It only takes one HC or GM to draft a guy in the 6th or 7th round, and one position coach or OC to put that same guy in for some carries in the preseason. It doesn’t correlate well with what “the NFL thinks” about a player.

                But I understand that you’re just including these criteria as part of your back-and-forth with Lanknows.

                • Thunder
                  Comments: 3785
                  Joined: 7/13/2015
                  Sep 04, 2020 at 3:17 PM

                  If we’re being honest, nobody really knows who’s better except “God.” I mean, it’s all subjective for us mortal humans. The truth is that I could apply your logic to college coaches, too. No FBS coach wanted Ronnie Bell except Michigan, so it only took Harbaugh to throw out that flyer or we might not have ever heard of Bell on a national stage. Maybe no other coach in the country could have turned Oklahoma’s Jason White or Baker Mayfield into a Heisman winner or even a starter (IIRC, both were walk-ons).

                  Vincent Smith was a starter at Michigan until the moment Brady Hoke arrived, and then Smith became an afterthought.

                  Being successful in the world is largely about right time and right place. Lamar Jackson wouldn’t have been a big-time QB if he played football in the 1960s. Somebody would have moved him to WR or DB. John Navarre wouldn’t have been a QB, either, if he played football back in the 1940s. He would have been too slow for teams that didn’t throw the ball and mainly ran it.

                  There’s wiggle room, but by and large, the best basketball players end up in the NBA. The same goes for football, baseball, etc. De’Veon Smith is to the NFL what a 10-day contract guy is to the NBA. Or maybe a September call-up guy to the MLB.

                  There’s no shame in being an NFL player (unless you’re an NFL player who beats women or something). Among human beings, any guy who plays in the NFL is in the 99.9th percentile of human athletes. Smith is a better athlete than anyone commenting here has ever been (unless you guys are secretly superstars). But in the context of being a Big Ten starting running back, Smith is/was just a guy.

                  In fact, it’s amazing that a running back who ran a 4.84 even got a look from the NFL. I have to think that was largely because he wore a winged helmet and played for Jim Harbaugh. I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of 40 times, but I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of a running back who ran slower than a 4.84 and got a chance to play in the NFL, where even a 4.6-ish time is meh.

                • Lanknows
                  Comments: 6182
                  Joined: 8/11/2015
                  Lanknows
                  Sep 08, 2020 at 6:32 PM

                  Yeah it’s splitting hairs. But there’s guys who the NFL deems worthy of getting a shot and guys the NFL doesn’t. This has been the crux of Thunder’s view of Michael Cox (even though he was drafted to return kicks) and is part of my case against Ty Isaac.

                • Thunder
                  Comments: 3785
                  Joined: 7/13/2015
                  Sep 09, 2020 at 9:21 PM

                  Getting drafted to return kicks is better than…not getting a sniff at all, a la Vincent Smith.

                  And the NFL either matters or it doesn’t. You keep waffling on this position.

                • Lanknows
                  Comments: 6182
                  Joined: 8/11/2015
                  Lanknows
                  Sep 08, 2020 at 6:38 PM

                  Hoke continued to feature Smith prominently. He was the #2 back in 2011 under Hoke. The only change was that Toussaint passed him and his role evolved into a more traditional 3rd-down back role.

                  Other guys who people wanted to see move ahead of Smith either stayed behind him (Shaw) or transferred to a crappy program for playing time (Cox).

                  Hoke/Borges reached the same conclusion Rodriguez did — Smith was better than most of the other options.

                • Thunder
                  Comments: 3785
                  Joined: 7/13/2015
                  Sep 09, 2020 at 9:57 PM

                  It should be noted that Hoke failed everywhere he went after Michigan, and so did Borges, who is now out of football. And the team immediately improved after Hoke was fired. Meanwhile, Michael Cox went to the NFL, Michael Shaw had better career numbers than Vincent Smith, and Thomas Rawls made a dent in the NFL back in 2015.

                  All seem to have significant accolades/successes over Smith, and yet, offensive genius Brady Hoke reached a conclusion so he must be right…

                • Lanknows
                  Comments: 6182
                  Joined: 8/11/2015
                  Lanknows
                  Sep 10, 2020 at 5:34 PM

                  Rodriguez and Hoke reached the same conclusion. Cox didn’t produce at UMass or the NFL.

                  I’m here for all the critiques of Hoke’s judgement on offense, but uhhhh…. if it’s Rodriguez and Hoke/Borges vs Thunder…

                  Well, even if we ignore your track record wrt the position (Shaw, Isaac, Cox), that’s 2 multi-millionaire coaches right there.

                • Thunder
                  Comments: 3785
                  Joined: 7/13/2015
                  Sep 11, 2020 at 11:36 AM

                  You can attack me all you want, but my guys had advantages in multiple ways – better numbers and/or more NFL success.

                  All your guys have going for them is the argument “Well, they started in college.”

            • Lanknows
              Comments: 6182
              Joined: 8/11/2015
              Lanknows
              Sep 04, 2020 at 1:20 PM

              I’m making the point here that the all conference honors don’t necessarily reflect who was the best back. Which you agree with.

              You’re making the point that if you include backups, Smith’s ranking in the conference falls, which I agree with – but only because I don’t think RBs develop much from freshman to senior year.

              In either case, Smith was at worst an average Big Ten starter. And the backups were decent players too.

              Michigan did not have a weakness at RB in the 2016 season.

              • Thunder
                Comments: 3785
                Joined: 7/13/2015
                Sep 04, 2020 at 1:52 PM

                LOL. You said your criteria was based on all-conference honors. Here, I tallied that up for you, and you say “all conference honors don’t necessarily reflect who was the best back.”

                You don’t want the NFL to factor in, you don’t think all-conference honors matter, you don’t like yards per carry, etc.

                In other words, if data doesn’t fit your narrative, you don’t want it.

                I give up.

      • Lanknows
        Comments: 6182
        Joined: 8/11/2015
        Lanknows
        Sep 04, 2020 at 8:46 AM

        I say Smith looks good on both fronts. All conference player who went on to the NFL.

        • Thunder
          Comments: 3785
          Joined: 7/13/2015
          Sep 04, 2020 at 9:21 AM

          Way to stick to your guns.

          • Lanknows
            Comments: 6182
            Joined: 8/11/2015
            Lanknows
            Sep 04, 2020 at 9:57 AM

            It’s just the facts.

            • Thunder
              Comments: 3785
              Joined: 7/13/2015
              Sep 04, 2020 at 11:58 AM

              In addition to the seven RBs voted ahead of Smith in 2016, also named as Honorable Mention: Devine Redding (Indiana), L.J. Scott (Michigan State), LeShun Daniels (Iowa), Terrell Newby (Nebraska), Curtis Samuel (Ohio State).

              So yes. It’s confirmation that De’Veon Smith was somewhere between #8 and #13 within the Big Ten conference, and if we’re being honest, I think we can probably acknowledge that almost everyone would take Curtis Samuel over De’Veon Smith, so probably more like between #9 and #13.

              Sorry, but I’m not going to celebrate the “strength” of having a starting running back who’s deemed to be in the bottom third of the league.

            • Lanknows
              Comments: 6182
              Joined: 8/11/2015
              Lanknows
              Sep 04, 2020 at 1:21 PM

              Since you are counting backups he is certainly not in the bottom third.

      • Lanknows
        Comments: 6182
        Joined: 8/11/2015
        Lanknows
        Sep 04, 2020 at 8:50 AM

        I’d invite you to identify another “weakness” who did anything like this

        https://www.espn.com/college-football/recap?gameId=400869695

        That’s against a top 25 defense and he carried the team on his back. Usually I’d give most of the credit to a good rushing day to an OL, but on this day the other backs (Evans, Higdon, Isaac, Peppers) had 20 carries for 62 yards and you can watch the highlights to see what Smith did. YAC on YAC on YAC.

        • Lanknows
          Comments: 6182
          Joined: 8/11/2015
          Lanknows
          Sep 04, 2020 at 9:06 AM

          I understand it was a career day for Smith but it was his Braylonfest. He was a star that day.

          But he also had a an excellent season and the offense proved to be a top 25 offense.

          There was a good but not great crew of talent around him – Butt, Darboh, Chesson, Magnuson, Bredeson (freshman), Cole, Kalis all went on the NFL also. But there were also guys like Perry, Bushell Beatty, Bunting, and O’Korn playing prominent roles on offense. Speight was Speight and then he was injured Speight.

          There weren’t a lot of weaknesses compared to other teams, which is part of why that offense did pretty well but not great. There also weren’t a lot of guys who were going to really scare defenses (Butt and Chesson were probably closest) to open things up for others, including Smith.

          Smith was one of the better players on that team and it showed up in the production. Good but not great. Like a lot of Michigan teams lately. Like a lot of Michigan offenses lately. Like a lot of Michigan RBs over the last few decades. Good not great.

        • Thunder
          Comments: 3785
          Joined: 7/13/2015
          Sep 04, 2020 at 11:19 AM

          People have good games sometimes. Spike Albrecht went off in the national championship game against Louisville, while Tim Hardaway, Jr. went 0/4 from three. John O’Korn played great against Purdue. Tate Forcier looked like a future superstar against Notre Dame. James Rogers made 2 interceptions in one game. Ty Isaac had 100+ yards against Florida in the 2017 season opener.

          I’ve admitted that Smith had a great day against Indiana, but if we’re being honest, Michigan has a history of setting records against Indiana. And I’m not even really talking about going back to the 1980s or whatever. Off the top of my head, Jeremy Gallon (300+ yards receiving), Roy Roundtree (200+), Devin Gardner (500+ yards passing), Jake Rudock (400+, Jehu Chesson (200+ yards receiving)… They all set records in the past decade, including two (Rudock/Chesson) just one year before Smith’s game against them.

          So congrats to Smith. He played great. No question.

          That one game doesn’t change the narrative of having 12 years of ho-hum running backs.

          • Avatar
            Comments: 77
            Joined: 10/3/2015
            UM2013
            Sep 04, 2020 at 12:47 PM

            I guess I’m confused as to your argument here, Lank. Are you trying to claim that Smith was actually a good runner of the football, or that he did so many other things well, that in totality he was a good RB?

            I appreciate the pass blocking and ball security that he provided – what it comes down to for me, is that I personally despise trotting out a guy at RB who gives you next to no big play ability. Smith averaged anywhere between 4.8 YPC and 4.2 YPC throughout his career – that’s thoroughly mediocre, in my opinion, and it’s a shame that we gave that guy 21 carries against OSU in 2016. At some point I’d like to see a real difference maker running the football – again, show me one top tier CFB program who has had less success at the position over the last 10-15 years. I think you’d be very hard pressed to do so. Meanwhile, we’ve had all conference DL, LB, CB, TE, WR – just frustrating that we place such an emphasis on running the the football and are continuously doing so with mediocre runners of the football.

            • Thunder
              Comments: 3785
              Joined: 7/13/2015
              Sep 07, 2020 at 12:08 PM

              Right. If we stacked up other positions over the same span, you would likely see an alternation between all-conference, draft pick, and just a guy. Center, for example, which is not a highly valued position, went from Rimington Award winner (Molk) to JAG (Mealer) to draft pick (Glasgow) to JAG (Kugler) to 1st round draft pick (Ruiz).

              I look back at the 1980s or 1990s or 2000s at running back, and there are standouts (Wheatley, Boles, Biakabutuka, Hart, Thomas, etc.), with an occasional dose of JAG (Clarence Williams, for example).

              For Michigan football fans in the year 2030 or 2040, nobody but the most devout fan is going to be able to name Vincent Smith, De’Veon Smith, Karan Higdon, Brandon Minor, etc. It’s going to be a giant void. And maybe that’s okay if you play a low-profile position like offensive guard or nose tackle, but it’s not okay when it’s a running back who should get 15-25 touches per game.

              • UM_1973
                Comments: 106
                Joined: 10/14/2015
                UM_1973
                Sep 07, 2020 at 12:49 PM

                Thunder, you are right. I can still remember 1990s standouts RB, WR and QB. I doubt in 20 years time, we will remember Deveon Smith, Brandon Minor etc. The only skill position from the last 10 years that I will remember is probably limited to Denard Robinson. Honestly, this is what is lacking in the Harbaugh’s offense in the past 5 yrs: the lack of a difference maker. Someone like Saquon Barkley or Jonathan Taylor.

                • Thunder
                  Comments: 3785
                  Joined: 7/13/2015
                  Sep 07, 2020 at 1:07 PM

                  I was hoping for a big year for Nico Collins to change that, but it doesn’t look like that will happen. I suppose Jake Butt might be remembered for his Mackey Award, but I don’t know that he had any real highlight-reel plays that will be celebrated for decades.

                  I wonder if Jeremy Gallon will still get some love. He had a lot of huge plays in a Michigan uniform, including big games like Ohio State and Notre Dame.

                • Lanknows
                  Comments: 6182
                  Joined: 8/11/2015
                  Lanknows
                  Sep 09, 2020 at 4:36 PM

                  I remember the 80s and 90s backs too. Jamie Morris was the first ‘star’ I remember watching.

                  But since being a kid I’ve seen again and again the Michigan RBs fail to standout in the NFL while the OL in front of them make multiple all-pros and even the HOF. And that pattern existed long before I was paying attention.

                  So who really deserves the credit when outside of Ann Arbor the same thing happens again and again?

                  The backs get the stats and the credit, but it’s the linemen who continue on to great careers and make millions in the NFL. The backs leave (or get hurt) and the production stays.

                  Michigan had more pro success in the 80s, 90s and 00s at QB, WR, and OL than RB. Maybe we can debate TE, which also has an impressive lack of standouts.

                  The most successful NFL RB in my lifetime is a guy who Thunder would have hated. Leroy Hoard, who famously said
                  “Coach, if you need one yard, I’ll get you three yards. If you need five yards, I’ll get you three yards.” Hoard was FB/RB, as was Ty Wheatley. Adding A-train to the mix — none of the 3 managed to break 4 ypc – they were pluggers. At the next level, without the benefit of a dominant OL, those guys didn’t have the skillset to stand out like they did in college.

                  So I would submit the following – Michigan hasn’t had a great back since Ron Johnson. When you think fondly of the 80s and 90s backs what you’re really fondly recalling is the excellence of the OL under Bo-Mo-Lloyd.

                  6 of the last 12 NFL all-pros from Michigan are OL. Coaching turnover and incompetence under Hoke have undone what was arguably the best college to NFL pipeline program in the world for the OL. Bo built that. Brandon and Hoke undid it. Harbaugh has worked to fix it but once you’ve fallen off the mountain it’s hard to get back to the top.

                  The RB thing – it’s a symptom, not the problem.

                • Thunder
                  Comments: 3785
                  Joined: 7/13/2015
                  Sep 09, 2020 at 9:47 PM

                  Interesting. Michigan had four guys drafted in 2020, and the other guy is leaving before the 2020-2021 season for the NFL. Yet the rushing numbers weren’t out of this world (4.9, 5.1, 5.0, 3.9 YPC for the top four guys). Why? Well, Hassan Haskins is kind of just a guy, and Zach Charbonnet was a freshman coming off knee surgery who supposedly suffered an injury partway through the season. If the offensive line were so important, I would think those five draft picks (one presumed) would do a little bit better job of paving the way.

                  Leroy Hoard played in a different era of football. That was a “pound the rock” era in the 1990s. No, I wouldn’t like him in 2020, because games are won with explosiveness. That’s why Michigan’s offensive coordinator has a “speed in space” mantra. The game isn’t about 1990s, 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust football. He was good then. I’ve never seen his high school film, but I don’t even know that Michigan would offer a player like that a scholarship now. Kurt Taylor – another short, slow running back – recently took his talents to Tennessee Tech.

                  Wheatley was a superstar who, for whatever reason, got chubby as he got older.

                  For a reference point, Hoard averaged 4.3 yards/carry in his best year (1994), which was good enough to tie for #4 in the NFL with Craig “Ironhead” Heyward. That would have ranked him tied for #28 in 2019.

                • Lanknows
                  Comments: 6182
                  Joined: 8/11/2015
                  Lanknows
                  Sep 10, 2020 at 5:27 PM

                  Haskins seems pretty good to me. I don’t normally like big backs but he’s got solid speed, good balance, and strength. I like Charbonnet and Evans too.

                  All of our backs are good! We’re loaded again.

              • Avatar
                Comments: 77
                Joined: 10/3/2015
                UM2013
                Sep 10, 2020 at 1:23 PM

                Exactly. Frankly, the lack of explosiveness at the position would be far less of an issue to me, if we were throwing the ball ~40 time per game, but that will just never be the case. Under Harbaugh we’re always going to be looking to maintain a balanced offensive approach, and one predicated on gaining consistent yards running the football. That’s fine. That should be an approach that we can sell to recruits in order to bring in real difference makers at the position, and for whatever reason, that hasn’t been the case. It’s even more frustrating because RBs can contribute from day one, so we should really have a shot at recruiting a difference maker every year.

                • Lanknows
                  Comments: 6182
                  Joined: 8/11/2015
                  Lanknows
                  Sep 10, 2020 at 5:25 PM

                  I don’t think we can recruit them every year, because I don’t think they exist every year.

          • Lanknows
            Comments: 6182
            Joined: 8/11/2015
            Lanknows
            Sep 04, 2020 at 1:22 PM

            If ho-hum is making the NFL and not doing much, it’s been 50.

      • UM_1973
        Comments: 106
        Joined: 10/14/2015
        UM_1973
        Sep 04, 2020 at 2:19 PM

        This is how I would approach the issue:
        1) Would you “trade” UM Running Back with other Big Ten Running Back?

        Would you rather have Deveon Smith or Justin Jackson/Akrum Wadley/Rodney Smith/LJ Scott?

        Personally, I think I would rather have the other RB rather than Smith although the difference is not significant. Having said that, I am not sure it will make much of a difference in Michigan’s record. But it does point out that our recruiting in this position has dropped off since the 1990s. We used to be churning out the top RB in the conference. Now we are fighting for the right to be the 3-6 best RB in the conference.

        • Thunder
          Comments: 3785
          Joined: 7/13/2015
          Sep 04, 2020 at 2:55 PM

          I like that approach, but I also see the weakness of having that argument be subjective. I’ve offered up plenty of subjective thoughts on the topic – as well as statistics such as yards, yards per carry, etc. – so I wanted to bring a more “scientific” approach based on the viewpoints of objective evaluators.

          Personally, I never thought much of Justin Jackson at Northwestern, either, but Wadley had some burst and elusiveness. I would take him 10/10 times over Smith. Smith didn’t have a ton of speed, either, but he was more elusive than Smith. Scott was pretty good, too. If I were ranking those guys, I would probably rank them based on college performance…

          1. Wadley
          2. Scott
          3. Jackson
          4. R. Smith
          5. D. smith

        • Lanknows
          Comments: 6182
          Joined: 8/11/2015
          Lanknows
          Sep 10, 2020 at 5:24 PM

          I don’t think it changes any teams record but I like the approach too.

          For me it depends on team context. If you have a bad OL you want a guy who manufactures yards like Smith. If you want a guy to run through big holes quickly I’d go elsewhere.

          For the Michigan teams 2014-2017 I’d go with the former.

          1. D.Smith
          2. Wadley
          3. Jackson
          4. R. Smith
          5. Scott

          • Thunder
            Comments: 3785
            Joined: 7/13/2015
            Sep 11, 2020 at 11:38 AM

            Those dominant offensive lines at Northwestern, Minnesota, and Michigan State made a pretty big difference.

  5. Avatar
    Comments: 127
    Joined: 9/13/2015
    AC1997
    Sep 04, 2020 at 9:29 AM

    I think this is an interesting way to look at a position group. I guess it doesn’t really tell us much that we didn’t already know and the biggest thing I took away from it was that most of this time period overlapped with the worst 8-year stretch we’ve seen in the program for a very, very long time.

    If you picked the time period since Harbaugh arrived it wouldn’t be great, but it wouldn’t be as terrible either.

    Another data point to add to the discussion might be how the overall rushing performances were for the teams during the era. For all of RichRod’s problems – his QBs got a ton of yards.

  6. Lanknows
    Comments: 6182
    Joined: 8/11/2015
    Lanknows
    Sep 04, 2020 at 9:59 AM

    Good point. We already know how things broke down under RR and Hoke.

    @Thunder – You ran through the data. What does it look like in the 5 years since Harbaugh?

    • Thunder
      Comments: 3785
      Joined: 7/13/2015
      Sep 10, 2020 at 1:53 PM

      I added that info to the bottom of the post.

      • Lanknows
        Comments: 6182
        Joined: 8/11/2015
        Lanknows
        Sep 10, 2020 at 5:19 PM

        Good stuff. 6 looks a lot better than 11. Seems more representative given the program hit it’s version of rock bottom from 2008-2014.

        • Thunder
          Comments: 3785
          Joined: 7/13/2015
          Sep 11, 2020 at 11:39 AM

          Six is significantly better than eleven, but it’s still a large step below the other “big boys” in the league.

  7. UM_1973
    Comments: 106
    Joined: 10/14/2015
    UM_1973
    Sep 11, 2020 at 12:44 PM

    I am curious as to what you guys think about Khalid Hill. The Hammering Panda. Of all the RBs Michigan had in the past 10 years, he is the one that stood out to me. His penchant for scoring TDs and getting first down is memorable to me. He is not going to star in the NFL but he is tough and can get short yardage.

    • Thunder
      Comments: 3785
      Joined: 7/13/2015
      Sep 12, 2020 at 11:39 AM

      He’s probably the best RB in Michigan history. What other RB scored a touchdown on 40% of his carries?

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