The Wolverine

2014 Michigan Football Preview

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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THE WOLVERINE 2014 FOOTBALL PREVIEW ■ 99 BY CHRIS BALAS W hen Michigan running backs coach Fred Jackson arrived in 1992, he had only an inkling of what he'd inherited. The group of Tyrone Wheatley, Ricky Powers, Jesse Johnson and Eddie Davis was not only tal- ented, but would also come to be considered one of the best quartets in school history, if not the annals of the entire Big Ten. The tough part about that, Jackson once said, was figuring out who to play, and when. More than 20 years later, he again has a talented foursome in his backfield — redshirt junior Justice Hayes, sophomores De'Veon Smith and Derrick Green, and redshirt sophomore Drake Johnson — with another — USC sophomore transfer Ty Isaac — on the way in either 2014 or 2015 depending on the outcome of a hardship waiver filed with the NCAA. All of them have been highly acclaimed, and with them comes a spectrum of possibility, enough to provide fodder for both optimists and pessimists. On one hand, not one of them has proven he has every characteristic necessary to be the guy. Hayes has great "escapability" and very good speed, but he needs to be more physical. Smith is a bruiser and the best pass blocker of the bunch, though not a burner. Green has a chance to become one of the typical, well-rounded backs the Wolverines have sent to the NFL, but isn't there yet. Even Johnson, who earned his fellow backs' respect in rehabbing a torn ACL suffered in last year's opener with an at- titude that he'd try to teach them during his down time, has only two career carries to his name. On the flip side, there's plenty of poten- tial in a group that was heavily recruited with offers from some of the nation's elite. Hayes was a four-star prospect nationally and initially pledged to Notre Dame. Ohio native Smith, "only" a three- star player, earned a coveted Ohio State offer, among others. Green was a five-star recruit with offers from Alabama, USC and everyone in between. Jackson's R-rated rant about ratings aside — "Drake Johnson wasn't a five-star, but he can play," he noted in the middle of one — it's clear this is a talented group, and they proved it in one way collectively in the spring. "These guys are not blind. These guys in spring had very good vision," Jackson said. "There was nothing like, 'Why'd he do that?' There were very few of those. There were some missed reads, but not vision re- lated — maybe more so down-and-distance missed reads like third-and-two or -one type of deals where they were not looking to make that extra cut when they should have. They might have had a huge play, but were just getting the down-and-distance needed for the first down as opposed to see- ing what's there." That, Jackson noted, is the difference between being an average back and being a great back. "Say it's third-and-one. The average back will say, 'I'm going to get that one yard and bury myself in the pile,'" he said. "A great back, he's going to get the yard, but he's still looking because he knows he can pounce out of there. In third-and-one, the defense only has two levels as opposed to three. You get past that first level and you've got a chance for a big play. "I don't think we've gotten to that point yet." On a positive note — they don't have to be there just yet. All are aware of their weaknesses and know what they have to do to improve. Hayes, the "old man" of the group according to Green, will sometimes call impromptu film sessions so the group can go over the pass protections together. Johnson put himself in position to play last year after embracing that role. To Smith, it just came naturally. "I don't mind contact," he said. "I grew up in a house where contact was a normal thing with two older brothers — one is 29, the other is 27 — so it's not a problem because we were playing backyard football when I was 3 or 4 years old." And like big brothers are inclined to do, they made Smith the 'other guy' on their homemade highlight reels. A few bloody noses, bumps, bruises and several years later, a prototypical Big Ten bruiser emerged. Nobody will mistake Hayes for that. "Probably 195 pounds now," he reported. He knows he's one of the smaller guys even after having gained several pounds since his 2011 arrival. Like many of U-M's other smaller backs over the years, though — Ja- mie Morris, Mike Hart, Vincent Smith and Fitzgerald Toussaint, to name a few — he carries the chip on his shoulder that seems to automatically accompany a few smaller in stature with big hearts. "I don't want to be bullied," Hayes said. "If I hit you before you hit me, I'll probably come out the other end and win that one." His versatility is the trait that helps his case for playing time. His hands could also be a weapon. "We've got things in our offense for me, and catching balls out of the backfield is a big part," Hayes noted. "I'm pretty sure in the summer there will be more things I haven't seen yet because we just got a new offensive coordinator [Doug Nussmeier] in the spring. We just had basic things we worked on in the spring, but we will have some things where pass catching is essential. "I've had great hands since I was in high school, and I'm looking forward to using them in the summer." For Green, making weight had an en- tirely different meaning. Noticeably cut this spring and much leaner than when he first arrived, he looked even better several weeks after the April 5 spring game. His mission started in the offseason, when some criticized his first year as a disappointment, starting with his reporting at 240 pounds. He took it to heart. "It's real important to me," he said. "I've got a lot of people depending on me, and the biggest is the team. I've definitely got to have a breakout year because we've got high goals. I wanted to be under 225, 220 or around that. Last year I came in around 240, and I knew that wasn't a good weight for me at all. I just dedicated myself to be- ing really committed to losing that weight, doing what I had to do to be the best I could be at." That's between 220 and 223 pounds now, thanks in part to a diet that includes only water for the liquids. Now it's about putting that weight to use for purposes other than running through defenders. Hayes admitted he didn't realize how critical pass blocking was until recently. Green, likewise, was never asked to do much of it in high school given his im- mense talent carrying the ball. For both, it's "Everybody brings something a little different to the table. I feel like when we get out there it will be a great competition." REDSHIRT JUNIOR JUSTICE HAYES Clockwise from top left, redshirt junior Justice Hayes, sophomore Derrick Green, redshirt soph- omore Drake Johnson and sophomore De'Veon Smith have remained a tight group even though they are all competing for the lead role. PHOTOS BY LON HORWEDEL & PER KJELDSEN 98-101.Green/Hayes/Smith.indd 99 6/18/14 4:00 PM

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