Derrick Green neck-and-neck with De'Veon Smith for start. (Steve Perez / Detroit News)
Ann Arbor — The takeaway from Michigan’s open scrimmage Saturday at Michigan Stadium went something like this — the offensive line and running game look like they still need plenty of work.
But junior Justice Hayes cautioned that the level of concern regarding the Wolverines’ run game shouldn’t be at DEFCON 1. Hayes said the backs have made enormous improvements in practice since that scrimmage.
As the Wolverines go through their final days of preseason camp before becoming immersed next week in game-week preparations for the season opener against Appalachian State, the running back situation is sorting itself out.
Sophomores Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith are neck-and-neck for the starting job, while Drake Johnson and Justice Hayes are competing as the third-down back.
“When you look at our backs, all of them have done a nice job,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said Wednesday. “I think they’re improving, they’re getting better.”
Hayes said the scrimmage, open to the public, was, admittedly, lackluster for the running backs, not to mention the line. Hoke, however, said Wednesday that there were holes the backs missed.
“I feel like it was kind of mellow,” Hayes said. “We weren’t doing a lot. It was basic stuff. We’ve been hitting each other for 2˝ weeks, (and) we know each other’s stuff. When we get into our first game, we’re going to be doing things Appalachian State isn’t used to, and you’re going to see those explosive plays.”
But when Michigan gets to Appalachian State, who will be the starting running back?
They all seem to shrug that off. New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has said he would like a lead back to shoulder the workload, but he also has discussed the pluses of having a by-committee situation.
Clearly there will be someone who starts the game, but with Smith and Green so even, and Johnson and Hayes with their skill-set that makes them more useful in hard-nosed third-down situations, all should be expected to get playing time.
This is a big departure from last season when Fitz Toussaint was the main option until later in the season when Green, who had arrived to camp 20 pounds overweight and with an ankle issue, and Smith had become more seasoned and got into the game.
“It’s very different,” Hayes said. “Last year, we only played one or two guys, which was kind of difficult and frustrating with the guys who weren’t playing. But this year, Coach Nuss plays four to five running backs and that brings a little difference. That’s hard for defenses to get a scheme for us. I feel like that’s going to be an advantage for us.”
Green and Smith are very good friends who compete, they said, in everything. Of course they want the start, but if one or the other isn’t chosen, that will be fine, too.
“Whatever happens, happens,” Green said. “Coaches are going to pick the best man on the field, and if it’s not me, it’s not me. If it is me, that’s great,”
Johnson said it’s a tight-knit group, and they encourage one another.
“All of us are just trying to improve every single day,” Johnson said. “We’re all trying to help each other and teach each other.
“Whoever comes out in Appalachian State as the starter, I think we’re all going to be happy for him, and we’re all going to be helping each other. That person is just going to be the person who gets the first rep, that’s the big thing.”
During the spring, Green and Smith talked about being a one-two punch, and that’s exactly how it appears to be shaping up as the season nears. The roster lists Green and Smith at 5-foot-11, 220 pounds.
“We’re pretty much even,” Smith said, although he was talking about their performances in practice, not their height and weight.
The bottom line is, though, the backs want to restore Michigan’s running game. Last season was marred by sacks allowed and tackles-for-loss. The Wolverines had back-to-back negative-yardage rushing performances — minus-48 at Michigan State and minus-21 at home against Nebraska. During their late-season slide, Michigan had four games, including the MSU and Nebraska games, in their final six of 65 yards or less rushing.
“I believe we will be able to run the ball downhill as a running back stable,” Smith said confidently, adding that playing against the Michigan defense, one he considers among the best in the Big Ten, during camp has made the backs better.