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:
Trivia nugget: Over the last twelve NFL drafts, #Michigan has had more punters picked than running backs.— Touch the Banner (@TouchTheBanner) September 1, 2020
Punter Zoltan Mesko (5th round, #150 overall) was taken in 2010.
The last RB taken was Mike Hart (6th rd., #202) in 2008, a few months before Barack Obama was elected.
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.
- 69 points – Wisconsin
- 43 points – Ohio State
- 36 points – Penn State
- 18 points – Nebraska*
- 17 points – Michigan State
- 16 points – Indiana
- 15 points – Iowa
- 15 points – Northwestern
- 14 points – Minnesota
- 11 points – Illinois
- 9 points – Michigan
- 4 points – Purdue
- 3 points – Maryland**
- 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):
- 24 points – Ohio State
- 23 points – Wisconsin
- 20 points – Penn State
- 13 points – Northwestern
- 10 points – Indiana
- 9 points – Michigan
- 6 points – Minnesota
- 5 points – Illinois
- 5 points – Iowa
- 3 points – Maryland
- 2 points – Michigan State
- 0 points – Nebraska
- 0 points – Purdue
- 0 points – Rutgers
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