At 5’8” and 175 pounds, Dennis Norfleet doesn’t embody a typical college running back.
In fact, the Michigan Wolverines junior-to-be doesn’t resemble a Big Ten runner, let alone one who his program is known for—a 200-pound bruiser with adequate speed and downhill tendencies.
Norfleet is completely the opposite, actually.
Shifty, elusive and incredibly difficult to tackle, he’s nearly impossible to spot on the field during live action. What he lacks in size is more than made up for with his 4.39-second 40-yard dash speed.
Whether through punt returns or screen passes, Norfleet’s well-rounded skill will benefit Team 135 next fall.
But he can do more than that, and offensive coordinator Al Borges would do himself a favor by further incorporating the former 247Sports 4-star prep into the game plan.
Top Gear Norfleet
If Norfleet was a video game character, he’d be Sonic the Hedgehog, Sega’s famous 16-bit blue blur. Instead of tearing up landscapes looking for gold coins, Norfleet flies down sidelines looking for touchdowns.
So far, he’s yet to return a punt for six points. But it’s going to happen. Just wait.
Prior to Michigan’s 31-14 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl loss to K-State, Borges praised Norfleet’s abilities and work ethic, telling reporters (via MLive.com’s Nick Baumgardner) that the former Detroit Martin Luther King star would quickly adapt to the role of pass-catcher instead of ball-runner:
He's a ball of energy. He's getting better all the time, he's quick as a cat. Always a full-speed effort, he blocks hard.
With Dennis, once he really gets acclimated to the position, he's going to be a really good slot (receiver).
Using Norfleet everywhere is the best course of action. Full of potential, he’s too athletic to peg into one hole. He’s a running back by trade, but he’s more than suited for the position vacated by senior Jeremy Gallon, who had a record-setting 2013.
Versatility is a plus.
Did Michigan misuse Norfleet in 2013?
Borges’ scheme would flourish with Norfleet manning two spots during any given drive. Should Borges dial up a pass on first down, Norfleet would be a phenomenal option out of the backfield; he doesn’t necessarily have to take the line of scrimmage in order to be an effective receiver.
That being said, he’d be just as effective in the slot position—that’s where his lack of size would quickly become an advantage. Crossing routes would likely be his best friend. He’s too short to be a legitimate deep threat.
However, he perfectly fits into plans as a combo-back/receiver. Call him Michigan's Swiss Army Knife of the gridiron.
By the Numbers
Note: The above video shows Norfleet during his junior year at MLK. Despite being a few years old, the video serves as a reference to Norfleet's overall skill set.
According to ESPN, Norfleet averaged 23.5 yards per kick return (long of 44), putting him within the top 50—barely, he was No. 49—in that category.
On the surface, Norfleet’s punt-return average was horrible—a mere 0.3 yards per touch. However, he only fielded three punts. A threat to take it to the house at nearly every turn, given more opportunities, Norfleet could rake in about 20 yards per attempt.
In 2013, North Carolina’s Ryan Switzer led the FBS with an average of 20.1 yards per return (25 attempts).
Further demonstrating his athleticism and ability to change games, Norfleet, when gauging total offense, was good for 13.25 yards per play, according to CFBStats.com.
Perhaps a more accurate gauge of his threatening tendencies, Norfleet’s all-purpose running average of 19.5 yards per play commands immediate attention.
|Total offense||All-purpose running||Yards from scrimmage||Kickoff returns|
|13.25 YPA||19.5 YPA||9.9 YPA||23.45 YPA|
Countdown of Michigan's Top 25 players of 2013 begins with Dennis Norfleet: http://t.co/58pWmx4KjT— Michael Spath (@Spath_Wolverine) January 6, 2014
Norfleet wasn't a major component of Team 134's overall scheme. But that should change in 2014. Replacing Gallon at the slot will be a task, but fueling a backfield that's saying goodbye to Fitz Toussaint will also be a goal for Norfleet, one of the most underutilized players in college football.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81