RB Coach Fred Jackson talks the RBs

Coach J talks to Sam Webb Friday about Fitz, Rawls Vinny, and Norfleet.

Sam Webb: First of all, Coach J, how have things been going for you so far this season?

Fred Jackson: Well, it's been going pretty good, you know? We haven't been as productive as we'd like so far, but long season, I feel very confident that we're going to get it going. Some things have been taken away from us, but we're going to get there, and I feel pretty good about it.

Sam Webb: Now, all the conversations these days are about your number one guy – about Fitz. Clearly, you know, he suffered a little adversity to start the season, got back into the equation, and he said initially it was about getting timing back, and getting the feel for the position back. Just talk to me about his process of getting back into the flow like he was last year.

Fred Jackson: I really believe that he's really a smarter football player. He's strong; he's probably a little bit faster. Things haven't worked out for a lot of reasons. Sometimes it may have been missing a couple cuts here or there, but overall he's going where he should be. People are doing things that sort of take him away because of last year, but he's coming along, and I think as soon as we get him in a situation where they have more balance, he's going to get a lot of yards.

Sam Webb: He talked about understanding that he misses a cut here or misses a cut there. Is that something that – you know, you'd think that, hey, you just jump right back into the mix and you got it like you had before. It really takes time to get that back.

Fred Jackson: It takes time, the timing of it all does, because generally, he knows the blocking schemes, he's going to know where the cut back lanes are, or where the bounce lanes are, but until you actually do it a few times, it's not common knowledge until you actually experience it. That's been his problem.

Sam Webb: So when we look back at the Purdue game last week, Brady, Al Borges, they both came and said ‘Hey, look, Purdue, they were committed to stopping him, and that opened up some things for Denard'. Is that kind of how it went down?

Fred Jackson: Yeah, they dropped the safety down toward him and had the end play wide to that side so he couldn't go outside, and had to stay inside, and usually when that happens, a kid's going to have a hard time getting yards, because there's going to be somebody to block at the point of attack, but overall, he ran hard, he ran where he should have been. Now he had the timing of getting in the right spots. He didn't miss any cuts. Just the fact that he was taken away, but there are going to be times when he's not, and he's going to be able to show you that he has the same stuff he had.

Sam Webb: So tell me this, from a coaching standpoint. Kind of talk us through, is there a difference in how you block a quarterback run as opposed to how you guys block the running back runs? Or a lot of times is it as simple as you have an extra blocker in there when the quarterback's running the football?

Fred Jackson: You have an extra blocker, but yet still your quarterback's Denard Robinson, he's going to get some overplay to him, but in that game last week, they said ‘ok, we're not going to let this kid run for 180 yards again. We have to stop their team.' So they balanced Denard, took the extra guy, put him on Fitz' side, so therefore now, the quarterback runs were a lot better than the running back runs, because the cutback lanes were filled for the running back, but they weren't filled for the quarterback, so you can't do them both. Now, when somebody decides to play as both, then they have a double trouble kind of deal, but right now, I feel that that's been the thing that's happened to Fitz, but sooner or later somebody's going to play different, and he's going to break out.

Sam Webb: Let's talk about a guy that I know you've been excited about throughout his tenure – his short tenure here – and the fans, obviously, you know, they only see what happens on the football field during the game, so you see Fitz not have a lot of yards, you see Thomas Rawls come in and have an impressive run at the end of the game. Before we talk about competition in practice and that kind of thing, just talk to me about Thomas in the game and what you saw from him.

Fred Jackson: In the game I saw just what I always knew he could do. He's powerful, he's strong, he's fast, he has good vision. He was able to go in while they still had the first team in and get great yards. What I see from him in practice, now he's getting back to where he was a year ago. He was slowed up a little bit this year because of some hip injuries and different things like that, but right now he's back healthy, and now as he played more, you'll see more out of him. You'll see more of those things I talked about in the past, about the power and the strength he has as a running back.

Sam Webb: Yeah, he ran through an arm tackle attempt by a safety, nose for the end zone. He showed you some vision on that play. That's one of the thing's you've been talking about is vision, right?

Fred Jackson: Right, he has great vision, and he has great power, and he's not a guy who you're going to hit and bring down with an arm or part of your body. You're going to have to – he's going to take you on. You have to have everything you have to tackle him, and then you still may not tackle him.

Sam Webb: So tell me this from a coaching perspective. Can you establish – because you guys are working hard to get Fitz in the groove, get him established – can you do that and then still find snaps for other guys, or do you have to be committed to one first? You have to be committed to getting Fitz out before you can think about getting other guys in the game?

Fred Jackson: I look at is as Fitz can play x amount of snaps, and a guy like Thomas has to play on some of the snaps. Now that Thomas is healthy and showing that he can get back to where he was last year, then you're going to have to see more of the two of them, and I think it helps both of them to see more of the two of them, so I'm going to work toward that goal more than just seeing all of one, but it's time for Thomas to show you who Thomas is and I think as we go I can get them both in.

Sam Webb: Clearly, I know you still have Vincent Smith in there. We know what he can do. A guy who has been compared to Vincent Smith, a bigger version, Justice Hayes. We get a lot of questions about how Justice is progressing. He's one of the guys that Brady talked about early in camp. How has Justice been coming along?

Fred Jackson: He's coming now. You know, you can see a week in practice when a guy is on the move. This week in practice you can see Justice Hayes the way you expect him to be. He's on the move right now, and I wish I could get the time where I could get all three of them x amount of snaps, with Fitz getting the most of the snaps. Justice Hayes is just Justice Hayes. He was making cuts yesterday they were wicked, and with explosion, and he can go after – so I have three different kinds of guys I'd like to get out there, but it's difficult with the number of snaps, but he's ready to go now.

Sam Webb: You're smiling; you see the possibilities, man. You know, the fans are saying they're struggling, they're panicking, like what's going on with the running backs. They shouldn't panic though, it sounds like you're saying.

Fred Jackson: There's no way you should panic. If you know football, and you see a situation where you understand what the defenses are doing, there's going to be a place where all three of those guys will be special on offense, and were going to gradually get there. It's a process, and we're getting there. It's going to take us a little time to get it all squared away, but we're going to get there.

Sam Webb: Now, we see glimpses of another kid, Dennis Norfleet, who I know you know very well. You recruit the state of Michigan. Electric guy in the return game. We saw him in a limited fashion a couple games ago coming in the back field. What about him, and his opportunity, possibility maybe down the line of touching the football.

Fred Jackson: Here's the problem about four guys touching the ball. When you do a practice of say, 70 snaps in practice, half of those snaps being passes, and then you have three back you have to get within those snaps, and then you say you're going to give four guys snaps, and Fitz to get ten snaps in a practice, and that's not enough, so you have to be able to groove a kid and show him different looks, so you can't really get to four guys in a practice and give the one or the two guys enough reps to see all the looks they need to see for them to be successful on Saturday, so you can't really manufacture four guys right now. So something's going to have to happen down the line; we're going to have to get out on somebody before I can get that four into it, but I feel very confident with the guys that I have, because they all play different roles, but this young man is very very talented. He shows a lot of burst. He can see the field; he's quick as a cat. But right now he has to learn the system enough to be comfortable within it, and then I have to have the time to prepare it, and that's difficult right now.

Sam Webb: Last but not least, I know he's not in line to be in the playing rotation, but another young man that you recruited from right here in town, Drake Johnson. What have you seen from Drake?

Fred Jackson: We just talked about him today as a staff. He's going to be a very very good football player. This kid is fast, powerful, and every time you hit him, he goes forward. He has a great future ahead of him, and we all saw it as a staff, offensively and defensively, we talked about him today, and he's going to be an excellent football player. You're going to say ‘Fred, how are you going to play them all?' Some kind of way, it'll work out. That's all I can tell you. That's the same thing, the kids look me in the eye and I have to tell them the same, ‘just keep working. You're time's going to come.' I had to do it when I was a player, and everybody else will have to do it, so you have to hang in there.

Sam Webb: Last year, the running game, and again, Fitz got off against the fighting Illini. Now they have a different staff over there now, but what have you kind of seen from the Illini? What do you kind of expect from them come Saturday?

Fred Jackson: Well, the thing you have – you don't really know how they're going to go into the game, or who they're going to try to take away. If you see them gang up on Denard, Fitz is going to have a good day. If you see them gang up on Fitz, Denard will have a good day. And the good news about it, if they gang up on Denard, and I can play more than one style back, that will help us tremendously, because Rawls and Fitz are night and day different. They're totally different backs. One's a scat back, and the other one's a power back, and that allows us to be flexible with a lot of things we do, and hopefully we'll get an opportunity to show you both of them.

Sam Webb: So in your mind's eye, just say it was the optimal scenario and it worked out just how you want it to, what would kind if the breakdown be? Would you want to go 80% Fitz, 20% Rawls? How would you do it?

Fred Jackson: It wouldn't be that high with Fitz. It would be, you know 65% probably, to get Thomas in, and play Vince on third down, and see what I can do, but this is what I have to go with right now. Those kids are busting their butts in practice, and I see so many good things that are ahead of us with those guys, so I can make sure I can get Thomas enough so that he feels comfortable if something would happen with Fitz, and that's when Justice would come into the fact if that were to happen.

Sam Webb: But you do see the Thomas Rawls that when he got to Ann Arbor, you're seeing that guy come back to practice?

Fred Jackson: Right, it's been about two weeks now.

Sam Webb: Did it kind of start with that shoulder that he delivered in the U-Mass game?

Fred Jackson: No, he was just – he was still banged up then. He wasn't 100% then. He's 100% now. He was 100% like Thursday of last week, so I always ask him how he feels, and he was ready to go last Thursday, and because of how the game went I probably should have gotten him I sooner, and I didn't, but he's going to be a guy who's going to, you know, defensive backs want nothing to do with Rawls, and that's going to be something that's going to help us tremendously as the season goes.

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