In this ongoing series, we take an in depth look at the starters and contributors at each position. Dave and I have already gone over the quarterbacks, both Tate and Denard. Now on to the running backs.
[ED: For some reason, the videos aren't uploading, so there are certain things in this post that appear to be referencing nothing. Apologies, especially because that Mike Cox dancing video was awesome. I'll try to re-upload later.]
RUNNING BACKS 2009
When last we left them, the Michigan running backs were a senior-laden squad of Carr recruits who managed to just stay healthy enough to provide glimpses of greatness while managing to stay injured enough to never quite achieve that greatness on a full-time basis. Brandon Minor ran much like I assume his mindset was during the coaching turnover and subsequent sub-par seasons: violently.
"I love contact. It really doesn’t hurt as much once you deliver the hit. If you sit there and take the contact it’ll hurt all day. I figure defensive players don’t like getting hit either, that’s why they not running the ball. So I might as well hit them."
It worked well while he was healthy. However, the constant strain of delivering blow after blow to linebackers and defensive tackles took its toll, and Minor's body was in various states of duress throughout most of the season. As violent as Minor ran, his counterpart Carlos Brown would catch a pass out of the backfield and glide through would be tacklers who always seemed to be one step behind him....when he was healthy. Like Minor, Brown spent most of his career with various nagging injuries that kept him on the sideline, or on the field in a low-voltage capacity. When he was healthy, he did this:
Vincent Smith: Rich Rodriguez confirmed that after a torn ACL, Vincent Smith would be "100% for the season opener." He tore the ACL against Ohio State last year, and has been patiently rehabbing since. Smith shows a great balance between speed and toughness, as well as good hands out of the backfield. You may remember his play against Ohio State last year in which he caught a pass from a scrambling Tate Forcier, and took it to the house (UPDATE: now with poor quality video!)
Michael "Mike" Shaw: Michael Shaw, to my admittedly amateur eyes, showed the most promise in injury relief for Brown and Minor over the past two seasons. A junior from Trotwood-Madison, he's fast, smooth, and a big-play threat every time he touches the ball. However, too often over the past few years, he would bounce it outside and get dropped for a minimal gain rather than just tucking in and picking up 4 yards the hard way. He wants to take it to the house every time, which is great, but needs to learn when to just pick up what the defense is giving you and live to fight on 2nd and 6 rather than 2nd and 11. Unfortunately, Shaw apparently does not have the same attitude when it comes to his academic performance, and is teetering dangerously close to not fulfilling academic obligations. From mgoblog's media day coverage:
Michael Shaw still has two more weeks of summer school left, so Rodriguez won't speculate on his eligibility for fall. [BRIAN: if that's his answer to a question about Shaw's eligibility, he's on a knife edge.]
Michael "Mike" Cox and Fitzgerald Toussaint: Workhorse Michael Cox and burner Fitzgerald Toussaint should be contending for mucho-playing time as well. Coming in at 6'0" and 210 lbs, Cox figures into the mix as a short yardage situational back. Perhaps more importantly, can he dance?
Fitzgerald Toussaint, while perhaps not showing the sick dance moves (and impeccable lifting technique) of Mike Cox, figures to play as a speedy read-option ready running back. After sitting out last year with a broken collarbone, he's more than ready to step in and make some serious contributions this year. As a recruit, he was a 4 star to Scout and a 3 star to Rivals, while coming in for praise as maybe the "national sleeper" at the position. Certainly he is someone to keep an eye on.
Rounding out the stable, and likely earning spot duty, are Stephen Hopkins and Austin White; both freshman who figure to sit and learn in the deep Michigan offensive backfield.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
Reading the tea-leaves here can be tricky. While Vincent Smith certainly was impressive last year, and figures to be the leader for most of the playing time this year, there is no doubt that the running back position will be played by committee this year. If Fitzgerald Toussaint gets a shot, I would not be surprised to see his skill set be a little closer to what Rodriguez wants out of the position. He's faster, and probably a little more suited to running in the Big Ten. However, when your offensive line is throwing out quotes like this:
"I think we have great depth at that position," offensive lineman Steve Schillingsaid. "I think there’s a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things. Shaw’s more of a speed/slasher back. You get guys like Cox and Fitzgerald Toussaint that can pound it a little bit. And we get Vincent back, who was kind of a do-all back, can catch the ball out of the backfield, too. So I’m excited to be able to block for them and I hope they make some big plays for us."
...well, it's pretty tough to glean too much information. If pressed, my guess is that Smith will be your tentative "starter" at the beginning of the year, with Shaw (if eligible), Cox, and Toussaint getting intermittent playing time. By the middle of the season, assuming health on all parties, I would not be surprised to see Toussaint usurping the "primary" role from Smith.