Changes to expect in 2014: Running backs

The Wolverines are two practices into their spring season and already the coaches have announced some major changes that fans will see in the spring game in a month. This week, with the players on spring break, we’ll examine some of the changes to expect in 2014.

For the past three seasons the Wolverines were constantly in search of the elusive featured back, which never really materialized. But with a new offensive coordinator comes offensive change and one of the most notable might be getting rid of that featured back notion.

“You’d like to use multiple backs,” offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said. “You look at the pounding the running backs take these days and how physical the game is. One back carrying the load all the time makes it awful difficult to stay healthy and sustain success over a season where I think you can accomplish the same things as an offense and get more guys touches.”

In Nussmeier’s two seasons at Alabama his offense featured two main rushers in both seasons, none of whom were quarterbacks. In 2013, T.J. Yeldon led the Crimson Tide rushers with 1,235 yards (6 yards per carry) while Kenyan Drake added 694 rushing yards (7.5 yards per carry). The previous season Alabama had two 1,000-yard rushers in Eddie Lacy (1,322 yards, 6.5 yards per carry) and Yeldon (1,108 yards, 6.3 yards per carry).

Though those numbers are impressive, and Nussmeier has proved it can be done, that doesn’t mean it will be done at Michigan, especially not next season. But the shift in ideologies isn’t a bad idea considering how poorly the primary back plan has gone the past few seasons. In fact, with each year at Michigan, the “featured back” position did worse and worse.

In Year 1 of the Brady Hoke era, that concept remained a bit hazy, as the team’s leading rusher was also its leading passer, Denard Robinson. The coaches spoke of the featured back but most times it was Robinson taking off down the field rather than handing it off. The team’s second-leading rusher was then-sophomore Fitzgerald Toussaint, who through 12 games averaged 87 yards per game (just four yards less than Robinson).

During the 2012-13 season, again, Robinson was the leading rusher. But this time it wasn’t just a few yards difference between his and Toussaint’s numbers. Robinson averaged 115 yards per game while Toussaint averaged less than half of that at just 51 yards per game.

This past season, in Year 3 of Hoke’s tenure, it seemed as though the Wolverines might finally have found that elusive featured back that Al Borges always wanted. With Devin Gardner in the pocket, a dual-threat QB but not in the way Robinson was, there was room was the Wolverines to really work a running back into its game plan. And, in some senses, there finally was a featured back. The team’s leading rusher was, for the first time in the Hoke era, a running back. But the problem was that Toussaint averaged just 54 yards per game -- a far cry from what would be expected from a power-running team. During those three seasons Toussaint’s average per rush dropped by more than two yards per carry (5.6 in 2011, 4.0 in 2012, 3.5 in 2013).

In most instances when a three-year starter left there would be panic. However, with the running backs and the shift into an offense that uses more than one back, there actually seems to be a lot of depth at the position, though not necessarily much experience.

“When you look at the group as a whole, I don’t think we’ve established a runner,” Nussmeier said. “There’s a group of running backs and that’ll be an interesting competition to watch develop. I think those guys have worked extremely hard, they’re learning the system.”

Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith, who both had experience last season, will be in the thick of the competition for quality running back snaps. Hoke also said that he was impressed with Justice Hayes near the end of last season and the recovery of Drake Johnson, as well. And to build even more depth, they’ve moved some guys around -- Ross Douglas, who early enrolled as a defensive back last year, will be taking RB snaps this season as will Wyatt Shallman, a fullback.

“I think I feel more comfortable about the depth we have there,” Hoke said.

Depth is one thing, and it will certainly create competition, but the question of whether this shift in how the Michigan offense uses running backs will be effective remains to be seen. It will be a big change when Michigan takes the field in the spring game and next fall, but it could be one that could finally show off the running back talent the Wolverines have in their arsenal.