Week 1 Game Day Intel: Fred Jackson

This week we sit down for a one-on-one session with Michigan running backs coach Fred Jackson. The Wolverine assistant assesses his unit's improvement during the offseason, discusses Derrick Green's emergence as the #1 RB, the impact of the changes to the blocking scheme, and more.

Sam Webb:  Coach I ask you this every year, but it is a new season.  You’re an old pro at this now, how does it feel this time?

Fred Jackson:  “It feels great.  Basically because I’m playing with guys who haven’t played a lot of football yet.  They’ve worked really hard and I’m very excited for them more so than I am for it just being the first game of the season.”

Sam Webb:  This is one of those years where there isn’t a clear guy returning from the past year, that left a lot of uncertainty, but like you said there is room for excitement.  Brady said that Derrick Green emerged as the #1 guy.  What was it that Derrick did that kind of put him a cut above?

Fred Jackson:  “First of all coming in in better condition than he has ever been in, better shape.  He was probably a heck of a lot quicker.  He spent a lot of time in pass protection, so he got better there.  Once he put it all together, (you) put together a pretty good running back.”

Sam Webb:  The key and I remember you saying something quite plainly about blocking.  You said, hey there is a difference between blocking because you have to and blocking because you want to.   Did you see more of Derrick Green wanting to block people this time around?

Fred Jackson:  “He knew he had to block people this time around because he wasn’t going to play unless he blocked.  The problem was that he was a freshman who had no technique and it takes a big transform from getting him from high school to college to learn how to block.  Now he knows, he understands the protection, he’s willing to block, and he understands that it is something that he must do in order to play.”

Sam Webb:  It seemed like it was a very physical camp because Brady talked about different guys being out at different times or different guys having different injuries but playing through them like De’Veon Smith.  He said he got dinged up a little bit, but he was still out there showing his toughness.

Fred Jackson:  “Yeah he showed his toughness early in camp, when a lot of other guys were banged up, he stayed through it and now he went through a couple of these things himself, but he was able to stay in it.  He is a very tough kid and I’m very excited for him.  I expect a lot of good things out of him also.”

Sam Webb:  A lot of people were surprised when camp first got under way and you guys got in full pads that Drake Johnson was named at the top of the depth chart.  I know you’ve known him your whole life.  You weren’t surprised by that, but I wonder if you were surprised by how quickly he came back from his injury and really didn’t have that in the back of his mind.

Fred Jackson:  “Well from the first day he could rehab, 174 days from the date of rehab, we took an account of everything that he did every day.  He was in here going through a diary with me every day.  I knew that he would be ready based on those facts.  Because of his work ethic, he put himself in a position to be a running back to help us this year.”

Sam Webb:  Brady mentioned the breakdown, Derrick and De’Veon kind of 1 and 1a and then Justice Hayes and Drake kind of battling it out for that third down back role.  What are the unique attributes of the third down guy.  Obviously, he has got to catch the football, what I kind of see, those guys seem to me on paper to be maybe your best blockers at that position.

Fred Jackson:  “First of all, when you talk about guys like both of those guys, Justice and Drake, they understand the protections and also if you’re in a run/pass check situation, they can also run the football as well as protect.  You don’t want a guy in third down situation who can’t catch passes, protect and be able to run.  They’re good at all of them.  They’re not necessarily an every down back, but you can put them in a situation where they can be very successful because of their ability to read defenses.”

Sam Webb:  One of the things that is always interesting is to see how guys respond to adversity.  You’re saying one guy is at the top of the depth chart one day, another guy the next day; how did your guys react to that as that was going on, how did Derrick in particular respond to that?

Fred Jackson:  “They don’t know what I’m thinking, so I play them in situations where they never know if they are one, two or three and I think that is very healthy in that situation.  The other thing is, they all know that they’ve got different strengths and so therefore, I’m going to make sure that I put them in position to show their strengths.  So throughout that process, one day, one guy is better at what he does than another, so I’ll put him in the #1 group.  One day, the next guy is better, so I switch it.  So they’ll never know who the top guy is, so that makes them practice as they all are the top guys.”

Sam Webb:  I remember talking to you in past years that you kind of identified the strengths that each guy has.  One guy might run one play well, and another guy runs another game well.  You guys are a zone team now and Brady said after that first scrimmage that he let the media in on.  He said there are some holes there that guys just missed.  I don’t think that was surprising because you guys are a zone team.  Talk about the differences, the nuisances of kind of feeling a hole when you’re a zone running team.

Fred Jackson:  “When you’re a zone running back, first thing you’ve got to do is be able to place your offensive lineman on the defensive defenders.  My guys early on was probably making cuts too soon, as opposed to pressing the line of scrimmage and allowing the blocks to take place before they made a drastic cut.  As we went on, they understood that and as you understand, following what you’re doing as a running back has much to do with how you set the lineman on their blocks.  It got to the point after maybe a week or two that they understood that very well.”

Sam Webb:  It is something that comes naturally to some guys like a Mike Hart, it is a work in process for a lot of other guys that are used to maybe, see hole, get to the hole.  Where in the process….are all the guys at the same stage in development with that process or are some guys a little further along?

Fred Jackson:  “Some guys are further along because they may have ran a little bit of zone in high school.  When you mention a guy like Michael Hart, he was a hider, he would get in behind the lineman and let them form self and you wouldn’t see him and he would just pop out of nowhere.  These guys are a little bit bigger, a little taller, so they’ve got to really press the line of scrimmage more.  Mike didn’t necessarily press the line, he followed guys behind blocks a lot longer, and he was so quick that he could just jump out and get into a crease.  These guys got to really put the lineman on the defenders before they make their cuts.”

Sam Webb:  Another reference point or benchmark that we use Mike for, is as a blocker.  I remember you said that you guys were able to throw a lot at him as a freshman.  You threw even more at him as a sophomore.  Now with this group, you’re kind of scaling back a little bit and you transfer some of the responsibilities.  Take us through how that works and how the blocking dynamic works for the backs now.

Fred Jackson:  “Michael Hart was very, very smart.  Not to say that these guys are not, but he was a guy who you would give him a protection and he would go on and tell you things that he could do in the protection that is not even in it.  So he was that far advanced and teaching him things was easy because he had a great knowledge of it.  These guys are smart also, but they haven’t been in some of the situations as much as Mike, so therefore, it has taken them a little bit more time to recognize when you should scan and when you shouldn’t scan and that’s been a major factor with some of them.  A couple of guys are ahead of others because of the fact that they do have more knowledge of how to scan and how not to scan.”

Sam Webb:  I remember you saying that a lot of the responsibility now in identifying where guys are coming from falls on Devin Gardner and maybe he can take some of that pressure off the back.  So is that kind of how it has played out on the practice field so far?

Fred Jackson:  “Yeah.  The quarterback in this system helps the running back tremendously, when he can give an idea where there first reads are, that helps them.  I think right now because of that we’ve moved along faster and that’s allowed us to play a little bit smarter, a little bit faster.  I’m very excited because of it.”

Sam Webb:  You’re job is always a challenging one, but sometimes it is more challenging than others.  Again, you have this running back situation, a lot of guys are going to play.  Do you go in with a preconceived notion of hey, I’m going to give this guy this many series or this many carries.  How do you figure out how long to leave a guy in, does he run one play and then come out or do you leave him in long enough to get a rhythm.  How do you figure that part out?

Fred Jackson:  “I think it has a lot…leaving them in for a rhythm, but also you can tell as they play who’s hot and who’s not.  If a guy is hot, you leave him in.  If the guy is playing just like everything is status quo then you switch to another guy.  You’ll find out that some guys are going to be just a little bit more into than other guys.  That’s  how you determine how many you plays you’ll give one guy as opposed to the other.”

Sam Webb:  You’ve been in this situation before.  I remember the days of Tyrone Wheatley and Rickey Powers, Ed Davis, you had all those guys at one time; Train and Clarence and Chris Howard.  You were able to mix those guys in. 

Fred Jackson:  “You’ve got to keep those guys happy and it is hard to do because they all think they are #1, which is fine.  I would much rather have it this way than not have any to make those decisions.  I feel confident that the guys that we have complement each other and will do a good job.”

Sam Webb:  What have you seen from Appalachian State on film?  What kind of challenges does their defense present for us?

Fred Jackson:  “They’re in an odd defense that we call an odd defense that plays a lot of different techniques.  You’ve got to be very, very smart in your game and to understand where they’re moving the defensive lineman, as opposed to how they moving the outside backers.  They’re a very fast team, excellent on the outside, excellent on the back end, 300 pounder on the nose.  So they’ve got all the components in the right positions.  What we have to do is play football that we practice and do the things that we’ve been coached to and we should be fine.”

Sam Webb:  You’re the only guys here who was here in 2007.  Do you even talk to the guys about that or do you not bring that up at all?

Fred Jackson:  “You talk about history and learning from history, so you’ve got to bring things up.  You try not to do overdo it, but yet it still has to be in the back of their mind that hey, every opponent you play there should be a certain amount of respect and because of that you can refer back to 2007 and they understand.”