August 10, 2014 at 1:47 pm

Drake Johnson, De'Veon Smith leading competitive RB pack at Michigan

Ann Arbor – Quarterback controversy at Michigan?

Not this year.

But the running back competition is heating up as the Wolverines head into the second week of preseason camp.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke on Sunday during media day said Drake Johnson, who had emerged as a top back last season but then suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener, and sophomore De’Veon Smith have, so far, slightly set themselves apart.

“So you’ve got a 1 and a 1-A,” Hoke said.

And then?

And then there’s sophomore Derrick Green just behind those two.

“We’re really looking for someone to separate from the group,” offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said Sunday.

Nussmeier described Smith as a “tough, tough guy,” a blue-collar worker in practice, and said Johnson has been “explosive” coming off the injury. Nussmeier said Green, the highly recruited back who has shaved the 20 pounds with which he arrived for last season’s camp and looks leaner and strong, “has done some really good things.”

In the spring, Nussmeier talked about playing multiple backs. Last season, Michigan, for the majority of the season, relied on then-senior Fitz Toussaint. Toward the end of the season, Green and Smith got more carries.

While Nussmeier would like to see a back separate from the group, he knows the offense needs multiple backs with different strengths.

“We’re going to play a number of guys,” Nussmeier said. “What you look at is, ‘OK, who is going to really shoulder the load and how many carries does each guy get and what does each do what well?

“We’re not going to be just a one-back system. That position, there’s a lot of variables that play in. Each back has different types of runs they excel at. We talk a lot about protection, where and who excels at protection-type things. And where do we want to implement that in the game plan? How many touches do you want to get a certain player that maybe isn’t ready to shoulder the whole load but has a specific skill set?”

Running back Drake Johnson listens to a reporter's question during media day Sunday at Michigan. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News