Finding a path for freshman backs to play

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Derrick Green is in the spot Anthony Thomas once inhabited, the role Michael Hart once played and one that has been played by many other running backs down the line.

They came to Michigan as freshmen and starred right away. The next guy potentially in line to do that is Green, the No. 5 running back in his class and the Wolverines’ highest-rated recruit this past recruiting cycle.

He has one other advantage as well -- he’s the guy chasing everyone else, from incumbent starter Fitzgerald Toussaint, who is coming off injury, to a gaggle of other running backs searching for time this fall.

“It’s always better to be the young guy,” Thomas said. “You don’t want to be the guy with the young guy behind you, always on your heels. You want to be the person who is pushing the other guy.”

So how can Green -- or fellow freshmen Deveon Smith or Wyatt Shallman -- push enough to where he wins the job? There are a few ways. It doesn’t hurt that, of all the positions on the offense, the Wolverines have the longest history of playing freshman running backs.

And it’s not like stepping in as a quarterback or a lineman.

“Running back is the easiest position to transition to in college, playing as a freshman,” said Hart, who ran for 1,455 yards his first year. “I say that because if you’re a good running back, you just run the ball. You break tackles.

“You don’t teach kids how to break tackles. Transitioning, as far as just running the ball, is not hard. But the mental aspect is what slows guys down. If they can’t come in and learn the offense, they are not going to be able to play. But from an athletic standpoint, it is the easiest position to transition to.”

Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges has a strategy to deflect any mental issues which might arise. Instead of having his young backs handle everything early, he takes a similar approach to what one might take with a quarterback.

Everything in sections. Nothing too overwhelming too fast. If anything, Borges becomes more cautious with how much he drops on his freshmen because he’d rather have them wanting more than attempting to know too much.

“Teach him the run game and then teach him the pass game in pieces so you can then be functional as you go,” Borges said. “You can play a freshman running back as long as you don’t inundate him with so much information that it becomes disinformation, you know.

“But I’ve had a bunch of tailbacks come in and play as freshmen and didn’t give them too much. But by the fifth, sixth game of the season, they could handle all of it. Very few could handle it in game one.”

One could argue that was the case even with Hart, the sole Michigan freshman to rush for more than 1,000 yards. Hart received three carries late in his debut against Miami (Ohio) in 2004. The next week, he had five carries against Notre Dame.

It wasn’t until his third game where he received 25 carries against San Diego State where he really took hold of the position. He would carry the ball less than 20 times in a game only one more time that season -- against Ohio State.

In some ways, the same thing happened to Thomas. He had only nine carries in his first game against Colorado in 1997. The next week was his breakout performance, with 122 yards on 21 carries against Baylor.

So it takes some time to adjust.

“You have to have several things,” Thomas said. “You have to have the wits to know you’re going in steady as possible. You have to be able to retain information, be strong enough and be durable.

“You have to be able to do more than one thing at this level. You have to be able to run the ball as a running back but you have to be able to block and catch the ball out of the backfield.”

And the sooner a back handles that, the sooner he will have a true shot at being a featured running back.