Even though Rich Rodriguez employs a spread formation most often associated with passing it around the park his goal is to run the ball. In 2009, Michigan ran the ball effectively when they tallied 186.2 yards per game at 4.5 yards per carry. A total that is commensurate with a quality run game and even better when you consider that UM ran the ball exactly 60% of the time. Rodriguez runs from the spread to put pressure on opposing defenses and the Wolverines did just that in 2009 and look to equal that total if not better their performance in 2010.
As with any ground assault it starts up front with the offensive line and Michigan will have experience and depth from tackle to tackle. Greg Frey, Offensive Line Coach, can boast that he returns nine players who saw action in a minimum of two games in 2009, in addition to three redshirt Freshman who are likely to see time this season. The return of redshirt Junior David Molk from an ACL injury should settle an Offensive Line that struggled after his permanent departure from the lineup in the October contest versus Penn State. With Molk in the middle he should provide the pivot the Wolverines need in the interior to be effective on the ground.
“We think David could be one of best centers in the Big Ten, was playing as such until he got hurt last year,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said. “And he’ll be back. David’s a tremendous football player, and he’ll be the leader for our guys up front.”
When Molk returns to snapping the ball at center, he’ll be flanked by one established and one rising talent. Patrick Omameh started the final three games of 2009 as a redshirt Freshman and acquitted himself nicely and should build on that as a Sophomore in the 2010 campaign. Stephen Schilling, in his final year at UM, is a known commodity and will continue to be so barring injury with an All-Big Ten award likely within reach. He started all 12 games last year and will provide a potent interior punch for the Wolverines when teamed with Molk and Omameh. No matter what the scheme a strong combination on the innards of any offensive line will produce positive results in the running game.
The tackle positions aren’t as defined at this point, but there is experience and talent on hand. The right tackle spot will be occupied by familiar faces but only one at a time. Both Mark Huyge and Perry Dorrestein saw considerable stretches on the field in 2009 and will likely both see the field again in 2010 with performance determining who plays more. Huyge, a redshirt Junior, and Dorrestein will likely platoon at the right tackle spot until someone proves themselves worthy of full-time duty. Huyge who started in nine games last year splitting between guard and tackle is seen by many observers as the most likely candidate. But Dorrestein, who started eight games at right tackle including the finale against Ohio State, is in his final year of eligibility and may grasp his last opportunity to be a starter and plow the way for the Wolverines. Either way it seems UM will trot out a starter with experience at right tackle.
The left tackle spot is less certain based on who remains after graduation, but Taylor Lewan appears to be the consensus pick based on his performance in the Spring. He will only be a redshirt Freshman but appears to possess the athleticism and aggression for the position. Michael Schofield is also a redshirt Freshman and will provide additional depth at the tackle spots leaving Michigan in good hands moving forward. Practices leading up to the first game of the season will determine the outcome at left tackle.
“We saw the talent last year when they were on the scout team,” Offensive Coordinator Calvin Magee said. “It’s going to be fun to watch them competing in our offense. For freshmen, they’re immature, they’ve got a lot to learn, but they’re competitive.”
Senior John Ferrara saw extensive time in 2009 and will be available along with Quinton Washington who is another redshirt Freshman who looks the part at either guard spot. Elliott Mealer, Rocko Khoury and Ricky Barnum also provide additional aptitude along the offensive line and could see significant time or spot action should the situation require it. When Michigan tees it up in 2010, the offensive line should be a strength and poke holes in opposing defenses for the talent at running back to dart through. A good ground game starts up front with an offensive line that has continuity and game experience and this group has both and will do its part.
While there is talent at running back, it’s young talent without much experience. UM lost Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown to graduation and the rusher returning with the most yards on the ground is quarterback Denard Robinson. That’s not a terrible situation because it will allow for some intrigue during Summer drills while the running back situation sorts itself out. Rich Rodriguez has recruited well at this position and the depth is evident if not the game exposure.
There is uncertainty at the spot with Sophomore Vincent Smith returning from a significant knee injury and Mike Shaw addressing academic issues while he practices this Summer. Both are expected to be full time in September but questions linger over both. Smith saw time in nine games and had a strong 5.8 yards per carry average, but only got a total of 48 tries all year. Shaw also had a respectable 4.4 yard average, but he too only saw the rock 42 times. Neither player possesses much size but both are nifty in the open field. Each will get their shots in this year’s offense to prove they deserve more chances.
Another running back coming off of injury, Fitzgerald Toussaint, looked like a contributor last year before getting injured. Early indications this Spring are that he will be an effective option in 2010. He and redshirt Sophomore Michael Cox are the only UM backs that have both the bulk to run inside and the quickness to bust big gains. Freshman Stephen Hopkins, at 225-plus pounds, will provide some thunder between the tackles as well and be a go to guy on the goal line due to his agility and quick feet for his size. Austin White, a Freshman, will provide added depth and could be another contributor since Rich Rod’s offense often utilizes a running back by committee format.
Because Michigan employs a run oriented spread scheme, the quarterback must be factored in and there are threats on the ground at the position. Devin Gardner is getting acclimated to campus as a true Freshman and will likely be redshirted but could provide emergency help in the run game if necessary. Gardner is a big man who looks like he can slash through arm tackles and always fall forward. Denard Robinson obviously possesses the skill set to tear up turf in large chunks if given the daylight. He does not have Gardner’s overall size, but he’s got rare jets that move UM fans to the edge of their seats. He gives Rich Rod’s ‘Zone Read’ option plays a dimension none of the other QBs do. Tate Forcier also can gain yards with his feet as we saw in the Notre Dame game in 2009. He did take a beating though and will need to be more durable to keep defenses honest and respect his ability to get yards on the run. The QB must be mobile in Rodriguez’s offense and the Wolverines have the ability to garner yardage on the ground with this trio.
Michigan will run the ball well in 2010. What will have to improve is the team’s ground performances against the quality team’s in the Big Ten. In 2009, the Wolverines ran up 2,234 net yards on the ground but only a fraction of that in their losses. Numbers don’t lie and in their seven losses they gained a net total of 700 yards on the ground for a 2.8 yards per carry average. This total includes 215 yards in the loss to Purdue and only 113 yards versus an Illinois defense that ranked among the worst in the country and cost the Defensive Coordinator his job. To improve on their 5-7 record from their last campaign UM will have to be more efficient on the ground.
The final estimate suggests that Michigan will produce good numbers in the run game and hopefully grind out more yards in Rich Rod’s spread scheme against the tougher foes on the schedule. The aptitude and experience along the offensive line, as well as the capabilities at running back and quarterback should allow this offense to evolve in a positive way in the running game. Every quality offensive team needs balance and this year’s vintage of the Wolverines should hold their own in this regard, but will need to continue to make strides against quality opponents to make the transition from bowl outsider to insider.
About the Author
Written by Ben Corwin
Ben Corwin is a former sportswriter for The Wolverine and radio broadcaster for WTKA in Ann Arbor. A graduate of the University of Michigan provides analysis on Wolverine football from scenic and sunny Colorado. An avid sports fan that follows the major pro and college sports, especially the college teams and pro franchises based in the Detroit area. While a Detroit Pistons, Red Wings and Tigers fan, he's been a rabid Pittsburgh Steelers supporter since learning to read in the 1970s by thumbing through issues of Sports Illustrated. Please forward all questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.