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Michigan RBs Derrick Green, De'Veon Smith show promise

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AP Photo/Tony Ding
Michigan running back Derrick Green rushed for 170 yards in Saturday's season-opening win.

Michigan's rushing attack was abysmal last season, with the Wolverines averaging just 125.7 rushing yards per game.

That was the Wolverines' worst mark since 1999 (121.8) and the third-worst since 1962. Despite having two offensive tackles who ended up being drafted, including Taylor Lewan, who went 11th overall to the Tennessee Titans, last season's offensive line was a mess. And the backs weren't much better, with the top two tailbacks combining to average a paltry 3.4 yards per rush. Those are numbers normally associated with Eastern Michigan, not Michigan.

That's why what happened this past Saturday has folks at Michigan excited: With a rebuilt line and two sophomore tailbacks, the Wolverines averaged a school-record 9.7 yards per carry in hammering Appalachian State 52-14.

Granted, the opposition wasn't all that tough, but any success on the ground now is a cause for celebration. Starting tailback Derrick Green (170 yards) and backup De'Veon Smith (115) were the first Wolverines duo to rush for 100 yards each in a game since 2007. And it was a long time coming for Green.

Green (5-foot-11, 220 pounds) was a consensus national top-30 player and a top-five running back nationally in the 2013 recruiting class. He was considered a big back with more than enough speed to turn the corner, and conventional wisdom was that he would challenge for a starting job during camp, then eventually become the starter during the season. That didn't happen.

Green weighed 220 pounds when he signed but showed up last summer at 240 pounds, and while he worked to get rid of the weight, he seemed sluggish all season and didn't come close to making a big impact (just 270 rushing yards, and 3.3 yards per carry). His first big impact came against Appalachian State, when he piled up his 170 yards and a TD on just 15 carries (11.3 ypc).

Smith (5-11, 220) was a national top-250 recruit and a top-25 running back, and he did even less than Green last season (117 yards). His 115 yards came on just eight carries, and he scored on runs of 12 and 13 yards against App State.

"We do things differently -- Derrick wants to run around the defensive backs, where I'm perfectly happy to run over them," Smith told reporters Monday.

Whether there still will be a buzz surrounding Michigan's rushing attack next week is a big question, though: The opposition this week is Notre Dame, a big step up from App State.

"We just started the season, so I think they are good backs -- but we have a long way to go," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said Monday at his weekly news conference.

The Irish had trouble slowing Michigan's ground game in last season's 41-30 loss to the Wolverines, and Notre Dame coaches need a rebuilt defensive front seven to show up Saturday. Sophomore outside linebacker Jaylon Smith (6-2, 235) might be the best linebacker the Wolverines will see this season, and junior defensive end Sheldon Day (6-2, 285) is a big-timer who likely will spend much of his day going against Michigan true freshman left tackle Mason Cole (6-5, 292). That's a battle that the Irish need Day to win. But the rest of the front seven is relatively inexperienced, and whether they can handle Michigan's backs are going to determine the outcome.

That Michigan's running game might actually have an advantage is big news for the Wolverines.

Mike Huguenin can be reached at mike.huguenin@nfl.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.

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