July 13, 2009

Position Preview: Running Backs

On paper, Michigan's running backs corps may possess its greatest depth since 1997. On the field of play, though, U-M's backfield has produced very little. The talented ball carriers, led by senior Brandon Minor, aim to change that …


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style="vertical-align: top; background-color: rgb(246, 246, 248); text-align: center;">style="font-weight: bold;">Brandon Minor

Sr. • 6-1, 216

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Jr.-R • 6-1, 228

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Sr. • 6-0, 206

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Soph. • 6-0, 177

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Overall: Minor is one of three backs capable of starting for the Maize and Blue - joining senior Carlos Brown and sophomore Michael Shaw - and one of seven ball carriers (including redshirt junior fullback Mark Moundros) that practiced, and looked good, in the spring. Under head coach Rich Rodriguez, it's expected that at least five backs will split carries throughout the season, each adding an element to the offense that will cause problems for opposing defenses.

But what should fans expect from this running back-by-committee? Minor is the clear-cut No. 1 heading into the year but he's rushed for just 1,156 yards and 12 touchdowns on 235 carries (4.9 yards per attempt) in his three-year career. In total, U-M's seven backs - Minor, Brown, Shaw, Moundros, fifth-year senior Kevin Grady, redshirt freshman Michael Cox and freshman Vincent Smith - have gained 2,633 yards and scored 26 times on 590 rushes, an average of just 878 yards, nine scores and 197 attempts per year. Those kinds of numbers would make Mike Hart laugh.

Even if the production is not there, the promise is tantalizing. Minor could be a 1,000-yard back this season. So could Brown, if he can stay healthy. So could Shaw. The two freshmen, along with a pair of arriving classmates, could each offer a change of pace. The possibilities are endless and exciting.

"I've got guys who can go the distance, guys who can be powerful enough to keep the chains moving," running backs coach Fred Jackson said. "We've got so many different types of backs. We've got big, strong guys, little guys, guys who can run. Defenses have to deal with all the different types."

A year ago, plagued by injury, inexperienced and youth, Michigan's ball carriers averaged just 147.6 yards per game and scored 17 touchdowns - the program's worst per-game total since 2001 (143.0). They can do far better than that and must for the U-M offense to fire like many believe its capable. Behind a stronger offensive line and with veteran leadership at the top of the depth chart, the running back corps seems likely to fulfill its enormous promise this fall.

The Playmaker: Brandon Minor

There has been considerable attention paid to the two seasons Minor experienced in 2008. In the first six games of his junior campaign, the Richmond, Va., native rushed for a mere 86 yards and scored twice on 13 carries while missing the Toledo game. In the final six games last fall (and really only five since he missed the Northwestern contest), the 6-1, 216-pounder totaled 447 yards and scored seven touchdowns on 90 carries, punctuated by a pair of 100-yard efforts.

So what were the conclusions? Depends who you ask. Jackson cites Minor's injuries. At different times last year, he battled through ailments in his wrist, shoulder, hamstring, ankle and ribs. A few teammates noted Minor simply let a freshman (Sam McGuffie) steal his job with a laissez faire attitude. At least one prominent coach has echoed this sentiment, simply declaring Minor didn't show the aggressiveness they sought in someone eager to seize the starting role.

Whatever the best explanation, the past is the past, and the Minor that emerged in the season's second half - a determined bully with better speed than anticipated - carried that approach into the offseason, throughout the spring and this summer. Coaches, teammates, fans … everyone expects Minor's very best this fall and that could be 1,400 yards and 20 touchdowns.

The Breakout Performer: Carlos Brown

In sports, numbers tell a story, so try these: Appearances in 2007-08: 13; Games Missed (due to injury): 12.

Brown first burst onto the scene in the spring of 2006 when he went 60 yards for a touchdown in Michigan's spring game. Compared to the grind-it-out Hart, Brown was expected to provide the quintessential change-of-pace back that season. He didn't. Not right away anyway, which can be attributed to the struggles of any freshman.

Hopes were high in 2007, though, for the Franklin, Ga., native. He did manage to play in eight games, making three starts in the absence of an injured Hart, and began showing glimpses of his capabilities, rushing for more than 100 yards in back-to-back games (113 at Illinois and 132 vs. Minnesota). Then injuries hit again.

Brown is determined - he's even guaranteeing - to play a full season this fall, in his last attempt. He's adamant he will make it through the season unscathed and that with opportunity he will live up to the tremendous expectations lauded on him four years ago. He certainly possesses the goods, blessed with elusiveness, speed, toughness to run between the tackles, vision and the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.

In other words, if Brown can stay healthy, he could be dynamic for the Wolverines this fall.

The Understudy: Michael Cox

Relatively new to football when he began playing for Avon Old Farms High School in 2007, Cox was a physical specimen. Raw, but talented. He missed most of his senior year due to injury, however, and arrived at Michigan last fall in over his head.

Overwhelmed, he could have turned and run to a smaller program, with less competition and fewer expectations. He didn't. Instead, Cox soaked up every bit of knowledge passed on to him from coaches and teammates. He wouldn't run every drill correctly and his technique is still only in the early stags of refinement, but he worked, and worked, and worked. And in the weight room, he pushed himself harder than almost every other teammate, earning recognition in the spring for his efforts.

In the pecking order, Cox currently lists fifth, behind Minor, Brown, Shaw and Smith (and maybe Grady too) but the odds haven't stopped him before, and with his work ethic and physicality he could force his way onto the field this fall for a few snaps per game, with an eye on 2010 as his breakout campaign.

"If he can just stick with it, and grow and mature in this offense, he's going to be an outstanding player one day," Jackson said.

The Impact Freshman: Vincent Smith

The fearless spring sensation packs a wallop in his 5-6, 158-pound frame. In the spring, he challenged any defender to lay the wood and usually ended up on top of the pile.

The Pahokee, Fla., native enrolled early to work his way into the four-deep at running back, and he did. At the spring game, he ran with the No. 2 offense and consistently showed the ability to run inside and out. His coaches love him and if any rookie will earn 5-8 snaps a game, it's Smith.

Brewing Battle: Carlos Brown vs. Michael Shaw

Barring an unforeseen disaster, Minor will begin and end fall camp Michigan's starter. The jockeying for the second-most carries per game, though, will pit Brown vs. Shaw, and maybe a few others. But Brown and Shaw seem the most likely because they each offer a stark contrast in running styles to Minor (while sharing a similar pedigree).

A 100-percent Brown might have the edge based on his experience and the fact that he's not coming off surgery like Shaw (hernia). However, Shaw showed oodles of potential last fall even when he wasn't at 100 percent and will demand touches.

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