CHICAGO — Former Ohio State running back Robert Smith knows a little something about what it takes to be an elite tailback.
Having played for two seasons for the Buckeyes — in 1990 and 1992 — the former first-round NFL Draft pick carried the ball 324 times for 1,945 yards and 18 touchdowns in 22 games total — averaging an exact 6 yards-per-carry.
Stellar numbers which caught the eye of the Minnesota Vikings, who drafted him with the 21st overall pick in 1993.
And, having played ball down in Columbus, while being a longstanding college football analyst — first for ESPN, before making the switch to Fox Sports just a few years ago — Smith pays special close attention to what’s going on in Ann Arbor — especially at the running back position. And while he sees the same shortcomings we’ve mentioned here on these pages in big games, he thinks that the tandem of Karan Higdon and Chris Evans are special.
In a WolverinesWire exclusive, Smith shared why Michigan has faltered at running the ball in big games, and while he does see some fault up front on the offensive line, the problem is bigger than that, he explains.
Lucky for those cheering on the maize and blue, Smith sees a likely end to those big game maladies plaguing the Wolverines ability to run the football.
“Well, I think the running game over the last few years, you look at the Michigan running game against the more top tier defenses – Penn State, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin – averaging less than three yards a carry against those teams,” Smith said. “But it’s not just an offensive line issue or a run scheme issue. I think they’ve suffered to a degree at the quarterback position the last couple of years with execution issues. And if you’re not backing safeties out of the box, it’s easier to get an eighth or a ninth man inserted into the box and make it more difficult to run the football. So, I think that’s been more of the problem.
“I like Higdon and Evans. I think they’re good runners. But I think they’re going to be better with Shea Patterson at quarterback.”
As we’ve reported, both Higdon and Evans have put on several pounds of muscle this offseason, under the tutelage and guidance of new strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert. Per our sources, Higdon is up to 203 from 190, while Evans is up to 217 from 210.
Smith says that will give Michigan’s two-headed monster that much more ammo on the field, but really, the biggest factor for the Wolverines to run the football comes from the will of head coach Jim Harbaugh.
“One thing you know that you’re going to get with Jim Harbaugh is a mentality that we want to run the football,” Smith said. “And I think that both of these guys obviously fit that mold. Putting on the weight makes them more dangerous.
“One of my favorite lines of all time from any coach anywhere was Jim Harbaugh talking about the way he wanted to win at Stanford. And he said, ‘We want to win with character and cruelty.’ And I think that when you have backs that can pound it – these guys do a great job of breaking tackles – you’re going to set yourself up for having a solid run game.
“Once again, add Shea Patterson to the mix, back the safeties up a little bit – it’ll get that much better.”