Justice Hayes wasn’t supposed to get lost in the shuffle.
But for one reason or another, the redshirt junior has yet to make a true impact for Michigan, much less earn a prominent role on the field.
Credit him, though. His somewhat slow start with the Wolverines hasn’t been due to a lack of effort. As a whole, the program has been in a slump. Personnel use has been a team-wide issue, not a Hayes-specific problem.
Regardless of his team’s disposition, the 5’10,” 190-pound former Grand Blanc star running back earns constant praise for his work ethic, attitude and performance during practice.
But that’s practice, not the game.
If those weekday and spring snaps fail to yield wins and production on Saturday, all of the “practice praise” in the world means nothing. Hayes is far too athletic to be handcuffed and limited to cameos. He’s so much more than a No. 3 or 4 back on the depth chart, far more valuable than a part-time shift worker.
That’s the common perception.
But the reality is this: He is a No. 3 or 4 backfield option—and he’s behind a pair of sophomores, at that. He is a part-timer, to no fault of his own.
In all likelihood, he’s waiting to show off the speed and agility that earned 4-star status from Rivals in 2010 (No. 3 RB). That same bejeweled skill set attracted attention from Notre Dame, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Tennessee and Iowa, among others.
And that same tell-your-neighbor playmaking ability continues to rule discussion when breaking down the potential of Hayes, who originally pledged to the Irish before opting for Ann Arbor.
The following is Rivals analyst Barry Every’s scouting report on Hayes:
On the Hoof: Hayes is built like a big cornerback. He has wide shoulders and is very well proportioned. I also think he has the ability to gain another 15 pounds. His body structure is reminiscent of Notre Dame running back Theo Riddick.
Needs Improvement: He will need to add some more strength and size in order to make yards after contact at the next level. He could work on his balance. He needs to keep his feet moving, making it harder to bring him down.
Most Impressive: Very, very quick back with good speed and ball skills. Hayes is very versatile and could player defensive back, wide receiver or running back at the next level. He is a high-character kid that possesses serious leadership skills.
Conclusion: This kid will work hard and learn the playbook before most other incoming freshmen in his class. He has the ability to be a punt returner and a gunner on all kicks. He adds instant speed and will be hard to keep off the field.
In hindsight, Every's analysis holds true today...all except the "will be hard to keep him off the field" part. That's been easy for Brady Hoke. Keeping Hayes on the field is the challenge.
Absence of Reps
Recruiting cycles have put Hayes further behind schedule. At one time, he was viewed as a potential No. 1 back. Then Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith arrived. Drake Johnson came to town. The field got blurry.
And in some cases, the same happened to judgment. Instead of using Hayes, Michigan continued to rely upon flawed logic and stale legs.
Through it all, Hayes has remained on the quest for a major role. Once again raved about during the offseason, this year could be his year. The Wolverines just granted release to Thomas Rawls, lightening the huddle by one, and Johnson is coming off an ACL injury.
And honestly, Green and Smith have done just enough to earn favorite status.
Doug Nussmeier is the new sheriff in town, taking over for Al Borges, who didn't quite have a grasp on Hayes 101. Nussmeier runs a true pro-set, but it's doubtful that he'll deny capable bodies. Hayes can run with anyone on his team.
Nussmeier could be on the hunt for fresh faces.
Reps are seemingly ripe for the picking.
Unless Green and Smith fail miserably, there is little chance of Hayes overtaking one or both of them in the backfield. The sophomores showed the downhill style that'll lead the Wolverines to the promised land.
Hayes simply isn't physical enough to be an every-down back in a traditional setup.
That's why he'll be moved around on a constant basis. One play at the slot, and the next in some weird flex thing. Hayes is in line to gain yards in just about every way possible—except that of a prototype Michigan runner.
Hayes can catch. Tally a few there. He has experience doing so; he played the X-factor while tearing up high school fields in Michigan. He'd run for a few touchdowns, catch a couple, possibly return a kick and call it a night.
He truly dominated Flint-area prep competition for a solid two years. It's a wonder that he hasn't done the same thus far in college.
Nussmeier is a run-it-down-your-throat kind of guy. Of course, that was much easier to do with NFL, Jr. O-liners blocking for Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon. Michigan's offensive front is in the midst of change, looking to replace two bookend tackles and plug in a center.
Porous lines don't promote running the ball up the middle, at least not at Nussmeiers' former rate in Tuscaloosa. That being said, Hayes could come in handy as a trick-back, finding a niche as a bubble-screen option or toss candidate.
Hayes runs a 4.4-second 40-yard dash. The wings on the line just have to learn to hold blocks for more than a second or two. Michigan needs a sustained push in the trenches. The toss play fits the bill either way.
Here's why: The toss/sweep caters to Hayes' quickness. It can be used as a safety net for lines struggling to hold their own. Conversely, the play produces much better results when given time to develop.
Six one way, half of a dozen the other. Give the ball to Hayes on a 3rd-and-short. Trick the defense by showing a short-run look with Green or Smith before dumping off the ball to him.
He's fast. Pick up on that yet?
He's a bigger Dennis Norfleet with better hands.
Norfleet may have a slight edge in the wheels department, but Hayes flies. Norfleet was criticized for bobbling punts in 2013. Hayes has always been a slot option. Michigan should use his hands in some capacity instead of designating him for a position he rarely mans.
Sounds good, right?
It's a little different on Saturdays, though.
Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81.