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ANN ARBOR — Brady Hoke created a certain hierarchy when he announced the progress of the Michigan football team’s young running backs. He may also have shed some light on what the offensive backfield could look like when the Wolverines open the season Aug. 30 against Appalachian State.
"Right now, it would be Drake Johnson and De'Veon [Smith]," Hoke, the fourth-year coach, said Sunday at Michigan’s media day. "So, you've got a No. 1 and No. 1-A, and then you've got a No. 2 with Derrick [Green]."
UM offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier determined this much about his new scheme: he won’t allow one running back to shoulder the load.
Michigan’s three young running backs insist this much: there’s competition — but not a controversy — among them.
“We’re all working hard, trying to get that No. 1 spot and doing what we need to do to, learning what we’ve got to learn to be that No. 1 back,” said Green, a sophomore.
Green and his counterparts will be part of an offense that Smith says is easier to grasp from the standpoint of reads and protection, but one that his teammates say emphasizes accountability for the players.
"We're not going to just be a one-back system,” Nussmeier said. “That position, there's a lot of variables that play in. A certain type of runs, each back has different types of runs they excel at.”
Yet, Nussmeier, added. “We’re looking for someone to separate from the group.”
The Wolverines haven’t had a marquee back since 2011, when Fitzgerald Toussaint ran for 1,041 yards and nine touchdowns. Toussaint is now in the Baltimore Ravens’ training camp and was Michigan’s leading rusher last season but only accrued 648 yards and 13 touchdowns on 185 carries. At one point Green and Smith replaced Toussaint in the backfield. Smith had 83 carries for 270 yards and two touchdowns, while Green had 26 carries for 117 yards.
Johnson, meanwhile, is the unproven entity. The redshirt sophomore missed last season after tearing his ACL in the 2013 season opener against Central Michigan, and he didn’t resume practicing until this summer.
“The first rep back, it was fun,” said Johnson, one of six UM players who has sustained a torn ACL since the start of last season. “It was almost like going back to a childhood moment. Just getting back into the swing of things, and understanding the feeling of what it was like to move at high speeds again, with other people coming at you.”
While Johnson needed to recover from a catastrophic injury and surgery, Green worked to get into playing shape.
“I feel faster and more explosive,” said Green, who began last season at 248 pounds and currently weighs 235. “I feel like I can get quicker to the holes and I just feel all-around like a new back. My mind was right, but I don’t think I was doing what I needed to do, physically, to be ready for the season.”
Smith, a sophomore, had to cultivate a new frame of mind for his second season in college football. His first season came with its lumps; Hoke took Smith off Michigan’s travel team for the Michigan State game, which became a turning point for him.
“I’ve been trying to grow up, and that was probably the biggest step for me,” Smith said. “I talked to my older brothers, asked them what I should do and what I should stop doing. My brothers would tell me, you need to focus on this and that , and not focus on messing up on a bad play. Worry about the next play and not the last play.”
Until starters are determined, Michigan’s top three candidates at running back look to avoid any sort of position controversy.
“Every day, we’re working to become a starter,” Johnson said. “None of us really are focused on that. We’re focused on improving every single day, strengthening the parts where we already are strong. All of us know that we’re going to work hard this year and in camp, we’re trying focus and learn all this new stuff, stuff that we didn’t necessarily learn in the spring. ”