Sunday, August 7, 2011

2011 Countdown: #24 Michael Cox

Michael Cox
Name: Michael Cox
Height: 6'0"
Weight: 211 lbs.
High school: Avon Old Farms High School in Dorchester, MA
Position: Running back
Class: Redshirt junior
Jersey number: #15
Last year: I ranked Cox #17 and said he would be the starting running back with 700 yards.  He played in two games and had 6 carries for 56 yards.

Just like yesterday's Devin Gardner discussion, my placement of Michael Cox this high on the list (the highest of the running backs) stirs up old arguments and will surely anger some people.  Cox has been the subject of frequent rumors about brain farts, cockiness, fumbles, etc.  All of those weaknesses have commiserated and  allowed him to touch the ball only 19 times in 6 regular season appearances.  Those 19 carries, though, have turned into 169 yards (8.9 yards per carry) and two touchdowns.

Proponents of Cox will argue that he makes big plays.  In limited opportunities Cox has a 57-yard touchdown run, a 35-yard run, and a 24-yard jaunt.  That means nearly 16% of his carries have gone for 24 yards or more.  Cox also had the best run of the 2010 spring game (a 22-yard TD) and the 2011 spring game (a 68-yard TD).  In literally every competitive situation Michigan fans have witnessed him carry the ball, he's produced a play of 22 yards or more.

Opponents of playing Cox more frequently will argue that the coaches know more than fans, which is certainly true.  They will also argue that Cox's only career carries have come against MAC and FCS opponents, which is also true.  Their numbers (plus Stephen Hopkins') against common opponents:

Cox: 19 carries, 169 yards, 8.9 yards per carry, 2 touchdowns
Shaw: 30 carries, 185 yards, 6.2 yards per carry, 3 touchdowns
Smith: 31 carries, 238 yards, 7.7 yards per carry, 3 touchdowns
Hopkins: 6 carries, 32 yards, 5.3 yards per carry, 0 touchdowns

All of the above statements are factual.  Each side has solid arguments.  But when I watch these potential starters play, I just don't see big plays in the arsenal of Smith and Hopkins.  Shaw has more potential as a difference maker, but his problem has been injuries more than anything else.  There's nothing anyone can do about that except maybe a witch doctor.  Two-year starter Vincent Smith has two career plays of 22 yards or more and Michael Shaw has five in 21 and 30 career games, respectively.

As for the coming season, it's really a toss-up when it comes to naming a starter.  Brady Hoke has stated that he wants one guy to take the majority of the snaps and get 20-25 touches a game.  I don't know who that guy will be.  A lot of people like Hopkins, but he's not particularly outstanding.  Shaw is perpetually injured and didn't get much run in the spring.  Smith will probably be a third down back.  Freshman Thomas Rawls reminds me of former Wolverine Kevin Grady, which isn't necessarily a great thing, and classmate Justice Hayes probably needs a redshirt year to get himself physically ready.

Of course, Cox isn't without question marks.  He's not perfect, but he looks to me like the running back with the fewest warts.

Prediction: Starting running back; 175 carries, 875 yards, 10 touchdowns


  1. "Magnus, you're crazy. Get over your man-love for Cox."

    Love the Countdown.

    The Cox thing sure is a mystery. Cox trucking "X" and taking it all the way in the Spring Game certainly buttresses the argument for him being the feature back, warts and all.

    Yet, Shaw runs hard and effectively when he's able to go, although I agree that Shaw is frequently injured. But, it seems like the right choice is to make Shaw the feature back as long as he's healthy. I mean, you can't anticipate injuries can you--even for someone who's oft-injured? It seems like we went through this with Minor, and Minor's Sr. year (when able to go) was really fun to watch him run.


  2. @ TriFloyd 9:17 a.m.

    I'm glad you like the countdown.

    I agree that Shaw is effective when healthy, and like I said in his Countdown post, I think he'll be better out of the "I" than he was in the spread. Cox and Shaw are both pretty close on the depth chart, in my opinion (though they have different skill sets), and both are better options than Smith and Hopkins.

  3. I don't think that a lot of people like Hopkins as much as they just think that Hoke will like Hopkins because Hopkins is big.

    I think that Cox might be the guy this year too. The last coaching staff may know more than us, but that staff was disastrously wrong about a lot of things.

  4. I like this pick. Yes, Cox has had more than his share of problems, so going with him here also means that you have to believe the kid sees this as his opportunity. I have to believe he does see it, based on his comments. Cox believed, correctly so, that he was not RR's kind of back. RR preferred small backs, though in the case of Vincent Smith, he seemed to prefer small backs who are not all that fast.

    I believe the two game changers we have at RB of the returning group are Cox and Toussaint, who also gets hurt all the time.

    But if Cox doesn't grab the job this year, he never will, because he brings a lot to the table that Hoke likes. I see him splitting time early with Hopkins and Toussaint, and I see Rawls playing as a freshman. We may see Hopkins at FB some. Justice Hayes, we shall see, but I sure would like to see how he looks at WR. Could be a dangerous player if we get him the ball in space.

    Let's hope Cox brings it. He can make a difference on our team.

  5. Cox is a redshirt junior.

    If Cox hasn't had significant playing time by now, I don't think he's going to be having 875 yards next year. Running back is one of the deepest, and least exciting positions on our roster. 7 deep with nobody emerging as a clear #1. If we had Rawls'+Hopkin's size, Shaw's speed, Hayes' shiftiness, Smith's blocking, Cox's ypc, all rolled into Toussaint, we might have a pretty good running back.

    I'm hoping Rawls comes in and makes a splash, because with our talented line, we should've done better than what we did last year.

  6. @ anon 1:02

    I always find the "if he hasn't, then he won't" argument to be such a cop out.

    1.Completely different coaching staff

    2.Completely different offense.

    3.College football and the NFL draft are filled with guys that didn't do anything their entire career and then had massive senior or junior years.

    Now, Cox might not be the starter. Hell, he might be 6th on the depth chart. But the argument that he hasn't yet so he won't is just silly.

  7. Not that it matters, but Avon Old Farms is a prep school in Avon, CT. Cox is from Dorchester, MA but boarded at AOF. Hockey fans will know this, because it's best known for that. FB recruits are few and far between. The school also graduates a lot of spoiled WASPs who couldn't get into Hotchkiss or Exeter.

  8. @Anonoymous at 12:06 PM,

    RR does not prefer smaller back. He has played and recruited big back. Justin Gwaltney, Quincy Wilson, Kay-Jay Harris and to name a few are all big backs at WVU.

    That is a common misconception about RR liking smaller back but he'll go with the back who can run. Obviously, he prefers a back with a home run potential, but there isn't any on the roster.

  9. I applaud the effort to argue “both sides” in the interesting and ongoing Cox debate. I think it’s a little oversimplified but nonetheless a good start.

    My first quibble is this: I don’t think “opponents of playing Cox” actually exist. I haven’t heard anyone who’s happy with how the RBs have performed over the last couple years. People generally fall into 2 camps re:tailbacks: 1)Rodriguez knew what he was doing and Hoke will find the same; or 2)Rodriguez runs a gimmicky offense so Hoke will find something different(i.e. better). People in the 1st camp think that RR correctly identified the top 3 backs (Smith, Shaw, Hopkins.) Maybe one emerges as a primary back, but those are the three best RB on the roster. People in the second camp can be further split between recruiting optimists who like Rawls or (less frequently) Hayes and people intrigued by the potential exhibited by Cox or (less frequently) Toussaint in low degree-of-difficulty situations. I don’t think anyone in either camp is actually against giving Cox a chance against opponents who are better than Deleware State, EMU, and Bowling Green and certainly not if he proves to be the best back. Even people who say ‘trust the coaches’ and think he’s probably a legitimate air-head or head-case have to acknowledge that his on-field performance warrants a look against at least the lower division of the B1G.

    My second quibble is that Cox, even with the ‘common opponent’ averages listed above, had a significant advantage – he was playing in the 4th quarter of these games, with the outcome decided, and the defense either a)beaten down already or b) composed of 2nd or 3rd teamers. Against Bowling Green, U-M had already put up 44 point when he entered the game, against EMU it was 45 (he entered for the last series of the game), and against Deleware State, it was 49. Lets put it another way -- excluding 4th quarters of blowouts, Cox averages negative 1 yards per carry. (This is in just 3 attempt but we already threw sample size considerations out the window at the start of this conversation right?).

    Look, there are plenty of subjective, circumstantial, and logical reasons to think Cox might be the best back – but the statistical case for him is so weak that it’s not even worth mentioning.

    My final quibble is with the rankings criteria. Thunder’s RB ranks for 2011 in order are: (1)Cox, (2)Shaw, (3)Hopkins, (4)Smith, (5)Toussaint, (6)Rawls,and (7) Hayes. To me, that pretty closely resembles the big-play ability (with some experience peppered in). Indeed, the bulk of the argument for Cox (and against Smith/Hopkings) is primarily made on the grounds of ‘he makes big plays’.

    The real debate here is what defines a good Running Back. Is it primarily about big plays with everything else (reliability, consistency, blocking, pass-catching, etc.) being secondary considerations, or do those ‘other’ attributes constitute the bulk of the job description?

    Thunder, clearly, values the weapon – the home run threat, the game-changer. I’ve heard other football writers I respect with the same view for NFL RBs, so maybe there’s something to it. Others (i.e. “opponents of Cox”) notice that in an offensive system with Denard Robinson at QB, on most plays the RB is going be asked to block or run pass routes, and thinks that maybe being a “difference maker” means more than ypc or number of carries over 20 yards.

    I don't know that there's a right answer. Do you define good pizza based on flavorful toppings or a solid base of bread, sauce and mozzarella? Ideally, you want all of the above, but if you have to choose...

  10. @anon 1:35

    That exceptions exist doesn't make an argument invalid. All of your point are legit, and they support not ruling out Cox or anyone else while they still have plenty of eligibility remaining. Yet it's also appropriate to think the issues that kept him off the field might continue. As the seasons go by it becomes less likely he'll break-out.

  11. @ Anonymous 5:18 p.m.

    Just because Rodriguez played bigger backs in the past doesn't mean that he lacks a preference. I think it's clear that he prefers mobile quarterbacks, but he sure didn't play Justin Feagin over Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan in 2008. That was likely because Threet/Sheridan had skills that outweighed their lack of mobility.

    It's probably more productive to look at whom he recruited. The running backs who committed to Michigan during his tenure were Justice Hayes (5'10", 175), Stephen Hopkins (6'1", 235), Austin White (6'0", 186), Teric Jones (5'9", 186), Vincent Smith (5'6", 170), Fitzgerald Toussaint (5'10", 185), Sam McGuffie (5'11", 185), and Michael Shaw (6'0", 180). That's an average size of 5'10" and 188 lbs. Only one guy was over 200 lbs. at the time of his recruitment (Hopkins), and another couple have barely hit 200 lbs. in college (McGuffie and Toussaint).

    Additionally, the guy who got the most carries in 2010 was the smallest guy of the bunch, yet had the worst rushing average.

    I think it's safe to say that Rodriguez prefers smaller backs.

  12. @ Lankownia 5:55 p.m.

    I agree that the arguments I presented were oversimplified. It's just that so many thousands of words have been typed on the subject (mostly by me, many by you, and some by others) that I couldn't possibly include all the angles.

    All that being said, I take issue with the idea that Cox only played in blowouts. While it's a factual statement, he was also playing with second- and third-string teammates at the time. I don't think the blowout factor can be completely thrown out the window (obviously, the losing team is going to be worn down both mentally and physically), but I also don't think that Cox's inexperienced offensive linemen can be disregarded, either.

    I guess we'll see what happens in less than four weeks...

  13. So you're saying you're not interested in writing up a novella for the countdown post for Cox? Unacceptable!

    I take your point. I'll just add my thought what you said is true about running with a 2nd team offense, I'd still say that's beneficial. The gap between the U-M 1st team and the EMU 1st team is probably smaller than the gap between their respective 2nd teams, where Michigan is still rolling out, in a worst-case scenario, a walk-on that would still easily start for Eastern.

    And, just for the record, I'll restate that I too like Cox and would be excited to see him as the starting RB vs WMU. It's clear he has the talent, so if the staff think everything else he's doing is adequate...we might actually have an impact RB. I'd love that, I just think it's unlikely.

  14. I think cox will be the backup to shaw. I like Hopkins at fullback (but still running the ball, 5-10 carries a game) and shaw lined up behind Hopkins. I feel Shaw brings the most to the table as far as power/speed combo. He's the fastest back we have on roster (possibly hayes, but we don't know yet) so Shaw is our home-run threat at running back. Shaw has been putting on weight to reach 200lbs, and he has the power to break tackles, agility to keep his balance after contact and speed to take it to the house. He also is a senior, and will be looking to leave Michigan on the best possible note. All the other backs (save smith) have eligible years remaining, so I think (depending on how fall camp goes) we sit hayes, toussiant, and rawls and let them learn and mature and bulk up/train while Hopkins and Shaw/Cox handle the load.