Brady Hoke still believes that a running back will separate himself from the pack and seize the top position on the depth chart.
"Things will shake out a bit, and then we'll have a No. 1 and some other guys we're still excited about,” said Hoke earlier this week.
But with less than two weeks before the season opener, sophomores Derrick Green, De’Veon Smith and Drake Johnson are in a logjam, poised to be running back by committee in Michigan’s new offense.
Last week, Hoke announced that Smith was the top back by a narrow margin, but during Saturday’s night scrimmage Green was on top.
For some teams, the tight competition might indicate a lack of talent, but for Michigan it’s the exact opposite—Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith were both 4-star recruits, and last season Johnson had beaten both out to backup senior Fitzgerald Toussaint before being sidelined by an ACL injury during the first game of the season.
While Hoke may prefer that one back assert himself, offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier is more pragmatic on the subject.
“We’re gonna play a number of guys—and what you look at who is going to shoulder the load,“ said Nussmeier last week during the team’s media day. “There are a lot of variables…we’re not gonna be a one-back team.”
Also in the mix is transfer Ty Isaac and veteran Justice Hayes. Isaac, a 4-star transfer, is awaiting a decision on his eligibility, and Hayes made an impression during spring practice with his blocking ability.
“We’d love to get to one guy for sure, but right now we’re just not there yet,” said Hoke. “All four, five if you want to count Ty [Isaac], have done some really good things and they’ve all made some bonehead mistakes.”
After watching Michigan’s offensive line struggle to open up running lanes during the team’s public night practice on Saturday, the running backs look to be in for a beating this season.
Michigan’s eventual top back may very well be determined by whoever can avoid injury while finding the microscopic openings created by an offensive line still looking for its groove.
The backs will also be judged on their ability to pass protect and navigate the inside and outside zone running plays that Nussmeier’s offense depends on. With a number of backs getting reps, Hoke may just find the right combination to make Nussmeier’s offense go.
That Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith are battling is not surprising considering how they performed at the end of last season, but Drake Johnson’s strong return is a bonus. Johnson, a lightly regarded 3-star recruit who played his high school football across the street from the Big House at Ann Arbor Pioneer, has forced himself into the conversation at running back.
Hoke may be frustrated by the tight competition to run the ball, but after seeing the current state of the team’s offensive line, he might need his entire running back committee by the end of the season.
Phil Callihan is a featured writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this article were obtained via press conferences or in person.