Former Buffalo Bills running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley reportedly signed a contract on Friday to become Michigan’s running backs coach, replacing Fred Jackson.
Wheatley is a Michigan legend, both in high school and college. He grew up in Inkster, attended Dearborn Heights (MI) Robichaud, and was a nine-time state champion in high school (1 football state championship, 7 individual championships in track, and 1 track-and-field team state championship). He graduated in 1991 and moved on to the Michigan Wolverines.
In Ann Arbor under Gary Moeller, Wheatley wore #6 and convinced me that all good college running backs should wear that number. Michigan was the Alabama of the 1980’s and early 1990’s with running backs galore, so Wheatley (86 carries, 548 yards, 6.4 yards/carry, 9 touchdowns) backed up Ricky Powers as a freshman. Things got stirred up in 1992 when Wheatley won the starting job and got an increasing number of carries for the next three years, finishing with a career total of 688 carries, 4178 yards, and 47 rushing touchdowns on 6.1 yards/carry. He also caught 51 passes for 510 yards and 6 touchdowns, plus he averaged 21.7 yards/kickoff return with a 99-yard touchdown return against Houston in 1992. He ranks fifth in Michigan history in rushing yardage, second in touchdowns, and fourth in yards per carry (of players with over 100 career carries). He was all-conference his final three years and named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in 1992.
Wheatley was also a Big Ten champion in track and field and an All-American in the 110m hurdles while running track for three years in college. Despite being listed at 6’1″ and robust at 215-226 lbs. throughout college, he was a speed demon.
Hit the jump for lots more on Wheatley’s playing and coaching career.
The New York Giants picked Wheatley in the 1st round (#17 overall) in the 1995 NFL Draft, looking at him as an eventual replacement for Rodney Hampton. It’s safe to say that Wheatley lost a little bit of his drive once he hit the NFL, and he was never the same kind of workhorse and outstanding athlete in the NFL. He gained a bit of weight, and his career long run in four years with the Giants was 38 yards. He then moved on to the Oakland Raiders, where had some more success and was their lead back in 1999 and 2000, which included an 80-yard touchdown run. He reached a Super Bowl there and finished out his career in 2004. His final pro stat line was 1,270 carries for 4,962 yards, a 3.9 yards/carry average, and 40 touchdowns. He also caught 125 passes for 900 yards, a 7.2 yards/reception average, and 7 touchdowns.
Wheatley returned to Robichaud to coach football in 2007 (he also coached track) and moved on to Ohio Northern, a D-III school, in 2008. He has been a running backs coach ever since. He jumped to Eastern Michigan in 2009, moved to Syracuse for 2010-2012, and then followed Orangemen head coach Doug Marrone to the Buffalo Bills for 2013-2014. When Marrone chose to leave the Bills after the 2014 season, Wheatley was out of a job and here we are.
I think it’s difficult to judge running backs coaches by raw numbers, because so much depends on raw talent, the offensive line, the play calling, etc. But here we go anyway:
- Eastern Michigan’s Dwayne Priest had 633 yards, 3.6 yards/carry, and 7 touchdowns in 2009. As a backup the previous year, he had 474 yards, 4.8 yards/carry, and 5 touchdowns. EMU fell from #57 to #88 in the country in rushing yards/game.
- Syracuse’s Delone Carter had 1,233 yards, 5.3 yards/carry, and 9 touchdowns in 2010. As the starter the previous year, he had 1,021 yards, a 4.3 yards/carry average, and 11 touchdowns. Backup Antwon Bailey had 554 yards and averaged 4.9 yards/carry in 2010. Syracuse jumped from #87 to #76.
- Bailey took over the starting job in 2011 and had 1,051 yards, 4.4 yards/carry, and 6 touchdowns. Backup Jerome Smith averaged 3.6 yards/carry on 37 attempts. Syracuse fell from #76 to #95.
- Smith took over the starting job in 2012 and had 1,176 yards, 5.2 yards/carry, and 3 touchdowns. Backup Prince Tyson-Gulley had 825 yards, 5.3 yards/carry, and 9 touchdowns. Syracuse jumped from #95 to #40.
- The Buffalo Bills’ Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller split carries almost exactly evenly in 2013. Jackson ran for 890 yards and Spiller had 933 with averages of 4.3 and 4.6, respectively, plus 9 and 2 touchdowns. Buffalo jumped from #6 to #2 in rushing.
- Jackson, the starter, had 525 yards, 3.7 yards/carry, and 2 touchdowns. Spiller had 300 yards, 3.8 yards/carry, and 0 scores in an injury-plagued season. Backup Anthony Dixon had 432 yards, 4.1 yards/carry, and 2 touchdowns. Buffalo fell from #2 to #25 in rushing.
What does it all mean? It means jack squat. Some players got better under his tutelage. Some players got worse. Some teams got better at running the ball. Some teams got worse. There are too many factors involved to make any conclusions.
The running back position comes down to talent. There are guys who have it right off the bat (Wheatley himself, Mike Hart, etc.) and there are guys who don’t and never will. Rarely do you see running backs whose “light comes on” in terms of running the ball. This is not a position – like quarterback, offensive line, defensive line, linebacker, safety, etc. – where experience means a great deal. The only real aspect of the game where experience matters is in pass protection, which is difficult to make guesses on based on statistics alone. We know Mike Hart and Vincent Smith were good pass protectors because we watched them do it, and we know that Derrick Green was not a great pass protector as a freshman. Time will tell if he can improve, though he did get better as a sophomore.
Fred Jackson was a great, great running backs coach. We know this because he coached Tyrone Wheatley, Tshimanga Biakabutuka, Anthony Thomas, Chris Perry, and Mike Hart. The first four of those guys were 1st or 2nd round NFL draft picks, and the last guy is Michigan’s all-time leading rusher.
Fred Jackson was a terrible, terrible running backs coach. We know this because he coached the 2013 football team, where Fitzgerald Toussaint averaged 3.5 yards/carry and Derrick Green averaged 3.3.
The biggest difference between Great Fred Jackson and Terrible Fred Jackson is that the offensive lines under Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr were awesome, and the offensive line under Brady Hoke was mostly bad. The quarterback play under Moeller and Carr was mostly very good, and the quarterback play under Hoke was mostly bad.
Recruiting talent probably has something to do with Wheatley, since it will be his position. Jim Harbaugh has previously had his coaches recruit their positions, so Wheatley will likely be the point man on guys like Kareem Walker, Kentrail Moran, etc. But overall, scholarship offers are generally sent out after the majority of the staff – including the head coach – evaluates a player’s film or camp performance. Here’s what I would like to see out of Wheatley:
- Teach players how to identify blitzers, pass protections, etc. This should not be a problem with Wheatley’s extensive experience playing and coaching the position at all levels.
- Be a good leader. Wheatley has not always been a consummate teammate. He held out for 17 days as a rookie. He was known at different times for getting a little out of shape, falling asleep in meetings, and being surly with coaches. He also struck a photographer and was tangentially involved in the BALCO doping scandal.
- Recruit well. Regardless of how Michigan splits up recruiting duties or sends out offers, Wheatley needs to use his college and NFL pedigree to convince high school players to come to Michigan.
As for that last point, Wheatley was in charge of recruiting running backs and the midwest during his time at Syracuse. Players he reeled in while coaching for the Orangemen (according to Rivals):
- Colorado 3-star RB Adonis Ameen-Moore
- Michigan 2-star DT Eric Crume
- Michigan 2-star WR Eric Foster
- Georgia 3-star RB George Morris
- Michigan 3-star TE Ron Thompson
It’s important to remember that Syracuse’s average star rating was 2.62 in 2012 and 2.46 in 2011, so that’s right on par with where Syracuse is at as a program. Still, it looks like Wheatley did a solid job in the state of Michigan. Ameen-Moore averaged 5.4 yards/carry this season; Crume made 38 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, and 2 sacks; Foster left the team; Morris averaged 2.9 yards/carry; Thompson is a defensive end now and made 11 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and 2 sacks in 2013. None of his recruits is spectacular, but some have done fairly well there.
Wheatley’s first recruiting job at Michigan will be convincing his son, Tyrone Jr., to play at Michigan. Tyrone the Younger is a 4-star tight end/defensive end finishing out his senior year in New York; he has had an offer from Michigan for a while and has also fielded offers from Alabama, USC, and numerous others. Another son, Terius, is a junior at Orchard Park (NY) Orchard Park; Terius had 5 touchdowns in a game this fall (runs of 83, 72, 52, 48, and 30 yards). I have yet to find highlights of Terius, but he may be joining an Ann Arbor-area team this coming fall after his family moves to Michigan. So far Terius has yet to engender a ton of recruiting hype, from what I can tell.