Last year Michigan was ranked 25th nationally in rushing yards per game, a clear improvement upon the feckless 2008 addition and comparable to the 2006 and 2003 seasons. But Michigan still had an agonizing tendency to be stifled by good rush defenses. Penn State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin, against whom Michigan averaged just 87 yards, were all ranked in the top 10.
In other words, Michigan could summon nothing better than the average rushing performance allowed by these teams over the course of a season. The low point in 2009 came against Michigan State, who was ranked 24th in rush defense and conspired to hold Michigan to just 28 total yards. By this point Tate Forcier's maiden voyage had already crashed upon the rocks.
Rich Rodriguez was hired in part by Michigan for his pyrotechnics. His teams were practically the apotheosis of zone read efficacy. In his three most successful years West Virginia never finished below fourth in the nation. The team accumulated 3,939 yards on the ground in 2006 alone.
Success in the zone read is obviously defined by the quarterback's ability to run the ball, and at the height of his power Pat White acquired about half of his total yards on the ground. By contrast, the combination of Forcier and Robinson only achieved about 37.5 percent. In 2007 White received nearly as many carries as Steve Slaton, although his average had come off slightly from its magnificent height of 7.4 yards a carry.
In reflection Rich Rodriguez had assembled one of the most impressive running attacks in recent college football memory. Steve Slaton ascended the ranks to become the third highest rusher in 2006 with 1,744 total yards, and Pat White finished 22nd in the NCAA. Such a combination is rare.
Michigan obviously has a different kind of class of talent, which sacrifices sheer quality for quantity: there are about five or six worthwhile running backs on this team, in addition to the two main quarterbacks.
Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown, both of whom accounted for 44 percent of Michigan’s rush yards, are now gone. Sophomore Vincent Smith, the heir apparent to the starting job, only received 48 attempts during the entire 2009 season, which was fifth most on the team. He finished well behind both Robinson and Forcier. Despite this, the team will be even more dangerous in 2010.
As a gesture to his superior running ability and potential as a receiving threat, Vincent Smith will probably be the starter, but once the game gets underway, Michigan will employ a platoon to share the load, and each back is dynamic enough that their assent to the position will be situational. Michigan will need a triage just to sort out and demarcate responsibilities.
Vincent Smith may lack some of the top end athleticism of other backs, but his shiftiness and dynamic abilities in space should serve him well in the spread offense, provided that he is fully recovered from the ACL injury he suffered in the first half against Ohio State last year.
Elsewhere down the depth chart, junior Michael Shaw provides the speed and lateral quickness to the outside. Redshirt sophomore Michael Cox is also physically talented but makes poor decisions on the field. If he continues on this trajectory, then his role could be marginalized.
Freshman Stephen Hopkins is big enough to be brought in for short yardage plays so that he can break tackles and power through defenders. Redshirt freshman Fitzgerald Toussaint, whom ESPN called a possible national sleeper, is a speedy back who stretches the field. Currently he is out of the UConn game with an ankle injury.
The ascendance of the running game should have profound consequences for the rest of the team. If Michigan's running ability controls games and resists being stymied, two criteria that were absent for stretches of the previous season, then it should provide some leverage for the defense and sufficient cover for the receivers.
Despite West Virginia's low passing numbers—the team finished near the bottom of Division 1-A college football year after year—it is perhaps accurate to say that this pittance was one of choice. Pat White's passing numbers can at least attest to the potential he had, so West Virginia's reliance upon the the rushing attack was simply the desire to play to the team's strength. Football isn't exactly a zero sum game. There is no universal balance at work. West Virginia succeeded because of, and rarely in spite of, such a dramatic tilt toward the rush.
Michigan, at least, acquired half of its yard through the air last year. It will probably be another year of increments in which we fail to see the zone read offense in full, placing slightly more emphasis upon Michigan's stable of receivers, who are certainly not as great as the players in the Lloyd Carr days but have more talent than those on the West Virginia teams.
We are likely to witness more dynamic play-calling out of the zone read in 2010 than we witnessed for most of last year. Multiple running back sets should allow the team to mix and match the variable strengths of the rushers that Michigan has, and waiting in the wings is Devin Gardner, who is perhaps more of the Pat White archetype, the kind of athlete who can convert the apostates with a missionary-like zeal and impart upon the fans something a little more than a blind sense of panic and doom that has recently pervaded the program. But the future has yet to arrive, and this is hopefully just the third year in a transformation that will require many more to come.