28 yards and held onto the ball? GOOD, GOOD. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Here is where we talk about what is clearly the manliest and thus most important position on a collegiate football squadron: that's right, THE FULLBACK. Deal with it. As a former player of the position back in high school, it's a noble, yeoman's position, one that allows for infrequent glory and never gets its due respect. To acquire this respect, the average fullback will typically have to headbutt everything in sight, and sometimes that could be taken very, very literally. Remember that time that he bloodied himself up before a Seahawks game via slamming his own helmet against his forehead? Good times in fullback history. Sometimes fullbacks are outwardly crazy (e.g. Owen Schmitt), sometimes they're quiet automatons that crush you with brutal efficiency (e.g. Kevin Dudley).
I'm not sure what to think about Michigan's current fullbacks, but one thing is for sure: they do in fact exist, and they will be used more than 0% of the time. These are fixed points beyond debate. After we unwisely spent time during the RR era tricking ourselves into believing that the offense would eventually incorporate the tight ends (like Mizzou's spread did back when Chase Daniels was completing passes to Chase Coffman and Martin Rucker) and that RR would attempt to find somebody to reprise the role of Owen Schmitt as the runaway beer truck, neither of these thing actually happened. Unfortunately, these two dreams were mirages in the desert; once you got closer and closer to that sun-stricken image in the distance, it became clear that the offense was going to consist of a running QB and bubble screens, and that was pretty much all it was going to be. None of those ancillary frills ever came to fruition, whether out of a lack of suitable personnel or an increasing addiction to calling GO DENARD GO FLIP TRIPS XYZ 85 YARD TD on every single play (which, who could blame him?).
The fullback was never much of a factor under RR, but that is fixing to change under Hoke and Co. (or so it would seem).
The two main faces to know here are Stepen Hopkins and Joe Kerridge. Starting with the latter, there's not a whole lot to say about Kerridge that wouldn't end up verging on the superfluous. Kerridge, a 6'0'' 230 pound walk-on, redshirted this past season, a year after missing his entire senior season of high school ball due to an ACL injury. Touch The Banner sums up Kerridge's place on the team succinctly and accurately:
Now presumably recovered from his ACL injury, Kerridge has a chance to nab the backup fullback job behind Stephen Hopkins. He will also be battling freshman Sione Houma, but Kerridge has Houma beat in size. The redshirt freshman seemed to play pretty well in the spring and did what a fullback should do, block and catch an occasional pass. He's not the runner that Hopkins is, but Kerridge is more of a traditional I-formation fullback. Occasional snaps should be available to spell Hopkins or mop up late in games.
Not much more needs to be said. He seems like a guy who could be a viable generic Big Ten starting fullback down the road. My vague memories of him during the spring game are generally good and at worst "not bad", which is tantamount to "good" for a fullback. If his 230 pound listing is accurate, he should be a solid, no-necked fullback option in a couple of years, post-Hopkins.
Anyway, let's move on to Stephen Hopkins, the obvious starter. Hopkins came in as a generic-3-star-but-from-Texas-so-he-might-be-the-next-Earl-Campbell sort, a big back who seemed like an impoverished man's Beanie Wells (which would still be a pretty good player, for the record). If you're wondering why I made the comparison to Wells as opposed to a larger back from Michigan's long and accomplished tailback tradition, just check out his high school uni. Just turrible, Kenny.
In any other time, Michigan fans might not have had to desperately hope for a 3-star sort like Hopkins to immediately produce/be good, but this was not any other time. With Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor both departing after 2009, the ball carrying options--other than Denard, obviously--proved to be just not very good in any sort of starting capacity. Neither a junior Michael Shaw nor a sophomore Vincent Smith could get it done with any consistency, which obviously made it very easy for teams to key on Denard as the season went on and people figured out that Michigan's magic act on offense was not that diverse.
As a result, many, including myself (and MnB Dave), hoped that Stephen Hopkins would eventually take the starting role and give the offense the traditional power running oomph to complement Denard's speed. Unfortunately, Hopkins had trouble holding onto the ball, and for a 2010 team that needed to be as close to 100% efficiency on offense, turnovers were the death knell for Hopkins as a major contributor in a year where it was completely there for the taking.
In 2011, Hopkins found himself playing the fullback position that many envisioned him possibly playing when he committed, especially once it became obvious that Fitzgerald Toussaint would be "the guy" and that Smith was the established second option out of the backfield. Hopkins officially took over the starting role after a McColgan injury in October and didn't look back.
Hopkins seemed to take to the role fairly well, although the fumbleitis reared its ugly head once again in 2011, as he was the one who executed the fumble portion of the Denard scoop and score play against Notre Dame. Hopkins fumbled another time two games later against SDSU. Obviously, Hopkins has fumbled an outrageous number of times given that he only has 48 career carries to his name. That can't continue to happen if Hoke/Borges are going to trust him with the ball, especially since this is an offense that features the rushing talents of Denard Robinson and Fitzgerald Toussaint. Giving the ball to a fumble prone guy like Hopkins when Denard and Fitz are there is like giving Bill Wennington the ball at the end of the game for a Bulls team that features some guys named Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
I'm personally biased in favor of the fullback position, so I would love to see Hopkins succeed in his new role. The fumble problem is a legitimate concern, but I would imagine that he'll be on a pretty short leash going forward, as the non-Denard ground game isn't nearly as dire as it was in 2010.
He's shown the ability to be an effective runner here and there, but not nearly often enough to make him a guy that should in any way take carries away from #16 or #28 with any regularity. There were rumblings this past spring that he was overweight and being pushed by fellow mooseback Thomas Rawls. Of course, a position is never locked up, competition is good, etc. etc. Baring a complete lack of motivation throughout these summer months, Hopkins should be the starter at fullback come September 1st against Alabama (a team against which Michigan could use the tough running that Hopkins can provide).
This, Hopkins's junior year, is a big one for him. If he continues to block well when Michigan gets in the I-form, picks up first downs on short yardage situations, and, most importantly, doesn't fumble the ball, he could be setting himself up for more frequent usage by the second half of the schedule. Unfortunately for Hopkins, Michigan under Hoke likely won't resemble the Michigan of old for a couple years (i.e. until the tremendous OL hauls of 2011 and 2012 finally matriculate their way into the starting lineup).
Hopkins finished the 2011 season with a mere 11 carries for 43 yards (0 TDs) after a 2010 that saw him carry the ball 37 times for 151 yards and four TDs. On the bright side, Hopkins reeled in his first reception as a Wolverine last year against Minnesota, an impressive pitch and catch for 28 yards:
2011: Michigan 58 Minnesota 0 (via WolverineHistorian)
Is Hopkins a B.J. Askew hybrid fullback/tailback type (let alone the same caliber of player)? Probably not. However, when he's not fumbling, he's proven to have some solid potential as a power back. If he can become a viable pass catcher every once in a while, that could do wonders for Denard's confidence/general comfort as a passer. I'd look for Hopkins to put up similar rushing stats as last season; however, he will add a few more receptions to his name, in addition to solid blocking for another 2,000+ yard rushing effort from Denard and Fitz.