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Michigan needs group effort to replace Derrick Green

One of Michigan’s few bright spots on offense dimmed Saturday when sophomore running back Derrick Green suffered a season-ending injury.

Green accounted for 43 percent of the Wolverines’ run game (471 yards) through the first six games of the season. He had 74 yards on 12 carries against Rutgers Saturday before landing hard on his shoulder in the fourth quarter and breaking his collarbone. Steady improvement during September allowed Green to break away from a trio of backs competing for playing time in training camp. The rest of that group now must circle the wagons and keep the rushing attack moving forward.

"I’m very confident in the three guys that will be doing most of the work at running back," head coach Brady Hoke said after announcing Green’s injury Monday. "I’m highly confident in what they bring and what they can do."

Fellow sophomore De'Veon Smith is most similar to Green in his ability to run between the tackles. He is averaging six yards per carry and leads the team with four touchdowns but hasn’t yet shouldered a heavy workload on the college level. He had a career-high 10 carries against Rutgers. Smith will be joined by speed-centric backs Justice Hayes and Drake Johnson in the new rotation.

Without Green, a former five-star prospect who was starting to rise toward his potential, Michigan will have to adjust its play calling in the run game. Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier didn’t want to give away the game plan for Saturday’s meeting with Penn State but said the offense would likely look different against the Nittany Lions.

“We want to put our players in the best possible position to make plays and do the things that they do best,” Nussmeier said. “Those guys all have a unique style. Some of them like different runs better than others.”

Smith has gashed defenses in short spurts already this fall by finding holes in the middle of the line of scrimmage. Hayes carved out a niche for himself as a third-down all-purpose back during the first half of the season. He caught five passes for 47 yards in the team’s first six games and added another capable blocker to the backfield on other passing routes.

“Justice has been great for us, especially in pass protection and those types of things,” center Jack Miller said.

Michigan can also turn to quarterback Devin Gardner to provide another boost in the ground game. Gardner has showcased his mobility while scrambling at certain points this season, but Michigan’s offense rarely has taken advantage of his speed with designed runs. That might change without Green on the field.

Gardner ran the ball seven times for 58 yards in a losing effort to the Scarlet Knights last weekend. Michigan has tried to avoid putting him in situations where he’ll take unnecessary hits. When searching for a balance between keeping Gardner out of harm’s way and taking full advantage of his athletic ability, Michigan has erred on the side of caution.

“We tried to, from an offensive standpoint, let the system work for him and then when things aren’t there make plays with his feet,” Nussmeier said. “Any time you can use the quarterback as an effective running weapon it increases what the defense has to defend.”

Green’s injury is another big blow to a team that has absorbed many of them through half the season. The running game has been one area to show marked improvement after reaching historic lows a season ago. It will take a group effort to make sure it keeps moving in the right direction.