When Toussaint gets back on the field, he could be one of the best running backs in the country. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
2012 Michigan Season Preview* Linebackers
* WRs and TEs
* Defensive Line
* Offensive Line
For the first time since Mike Hart wore the winged helmet, Michigan finally seems to have a solid group of running backs. After Hart's departure as Michigan's all-time leading rusher in 2007, there's been a lack of reliable options at running back. In 2008, Sam McGuffie and Brandon Minor were the team's leading rushers despite battling injuries, and in 2009, Minor and Carlos Brown were the featured backs. In both years however, Michigan didn't have anyone finish with 600 yards or more on the season, a disappointing mark considering Rich Rodriguez's run-heavy offense. Two years ago, Denard Robinson stepped up as the team's leading rusher (1,702 yards and 14 touchdowns), but the running back position once again underachieved as Vincent Smith, the leading running back, finished with just 601 yards.
With the arrival of a new coaching staff in 2011, there was a renewed emphasis on the running back position. Al Borges declared the need for a feature back; under Rodriguez, several running backs played small roles, but Borges prefers having one running back take most of the carries. The added benefit of having a workhorse running back would be that Denard, who frequently exited games due to injury in 2010, wouldn't have to carry the ball as often, limiting his chances to get injured. Fitzgerald Toussaint--the redshirt sophomore out of Youngstown, Ohio--won the job and carried the ball 11 times for 81 yards and two touchdowns in the rain-shortened opener against Western Michigan. Toussiant missed the Notre Dame game due to injury and only had two carries against Michigan State (for whatever reason), but carried the ball at least ten times in every other game. He finished with 1,041 yards and nine touchdowns on 187 carries and was the feature back that Michigan sorely needed to keep the focus off of Denard. Vincent Smith--the nominal starter in Rodriguez's last season--carved out a niche as a third-down back and rushed for almost 300 yards, but Toussaint was impressive in seizing the job and excelling in his role as the starter. With his off-the-field concerns, Toussaint's availability is in question, but when he gets back, he'll be one of the best running backs in the conference, a far cry from the group of underwhelming backs in the Rodriguez era.*
*I guess Brandon Minor could have been really good, he just got hurt a lot. We'll never know how good he could have been, I suppose.
Starter: Fitzgerald Toussaint (Jr.) 5'10, 202 lbs
Toussaint's emergence was surprising. Winning the job wasn't exactly a shock -- Toussaint beat out Smith (who was too small), Mike Shaw (who had an aversion to running between the tackles), and Stephen Hopkins (who is now a fullback), as well as freshmen Justice Hayes and Thomas Rawls for the job. How impressive Fitz was over the course of the season was the surprise; he shed the "always hurt" label that he'd been given after two injury-riddled seasons and played better as the season progressed. The Purdue game--Toussaint rushed for 170 yards on 20 carries and scored twice--was the first indication that this guy could be really good, and after the loss to Iowa, he finished the regular season with 207 yards against Illinois, 149 against Nebraska and 122 against Ohio State. An unspectacular showing in the Sugar Bowl didn't tarnish Toussaint's impressive season: he still averaged 5.6 yards per carry, showed that he was able to handle 20 carries a game, and played his best games against some solid defenses. He's a guy who runs with great vision and agility -- he can make people miss with his cuts between the tackles -- and runs with enough power to get by. Toussaint probably isn't the fastest back on the roster, but he can pull away from defenses once he gets to the second level. Really, there aren't any glaring weaknesses in Toussaint's game; he's a solid back with a versatile skill-set and has the durability to handle a lot of carries.
The only question for Toussaint is when he'll be able to play. He's been suspended indefinitely after an offseason arrest for DUI, so his availability is in question for the Alabama game and beyond. There's been endless speculation as to when he'll play, and it's really a crapshoot; my guess is that he'll probably miss a few games and then be back in time for the Big Ten season. In the meantime, it looks like Thomas Rawls will be the starter. The sophomore had a few rushes last year against less-than-stellar opposition and played well in the spring game, but other than that, he's pretty much an unknown. Rawls is a big, punishing runner whose size and strength are his biggest assets; he's more of a "three yards and a cloud of dust" kind of player. He's probably not going to get too many carries against Alabama--facing one of college football's most intimidating defenses in a running back's first serious playing time doesn't bode well for the Michigan offense--but he'll probably be counted on as Fitz's primary backup in I-Form running formations instead of Smith.
Grade: B+ (Starter A, Backup B-)
"Starter:" Vincent Smith (Sr.) 5'6, 175 lbs
Backups: Justice Hayes (Fr.) 5'10, 183 lbs, Dennis Norfleet (Fr.) 5'7, 167 lbs
This really isn't a position as much as it is a specialized role, but it's still an integral part of Michigan's offense. Vincent Smith carved out a nice niche in Al Borges's offense: despite being more well-suited for Rich Rodriguez's spread, he managed to become Michigan's third-down back, essentially the running back in shotgun formations for second- or third-and-long situations. Even though he's undersized, Smith is a tenacious and able pass-blocker, probably the best back on the team in terms of pass protection. He's also a very good receiver--Smith has shown in the past that he can catch plenty of passes out of the backfield (memorably, the screen pass he caught and scored on against Notre Dame was an incredible play by Smith), he's even played in the slot a bit--and his shiftiness makes him a dangerous runner. Smith will probably have fewer carries this year with Rawls in the picture, but his unique skill-set -- he's fast, runs hard and with surprising power, and is excellent at making guys miss -- makes him pretty valuable in specific situations. There aren't really any other dedicated third-down backs on the roster at this point (Justice Hayes is a redshirt freshman who plays both running back and receiver, and Dennis Norfleet is primarily a kick returner), so Smith is the only one to fill this role. Thankfully, he's more than capable of blocking well, catching the ball out of the backfield, and making guys miss.
Grade (for Smith, basically): B+
Starter: Stephen Hopkins (Jr.) 6'0, 240 lbs
Fullback is another more specialized role in Michigan's offense, but it's one that will be used more often in the future. Rodriguez didn't recruit any fullbacks to Michigan during his tenure, so this staff (who prefers to actually use fullbacks) decided to move Stephen Hopkins--Rodriguez's "power" back-- to fullback. For the most part, it's worked out pretty well; Hopkins has had some fumble issues, but he's been a decent enough blocker in the running game. The offense generally moved away from the I-Formation as the season went on -- it was much more effective to have Denard and Fitz in the shotgun most of the time -- so Hopkins might not see that much action this year. He could be sort of a goal-line back, too, I guess. Walk-on Joe Kerridge redshirted last year and is the backup, while true freshman (and the first fullback to be recruited to Michigan in the past few years) Sione Houma is probably too small at 227 lbs to afford not to take a redshirt this year. Houma is promising, he was recruited to be the "B-Back" in Georgia Tech's triple option and is a surprisingly good runner, but he probably won't play this year. Hopkins will be the fullback when Michigan needs one, which probably won't--or shouldn't--be that often.
Grade: B- for Hopkins
Overall, Michigan should be just fine at the running back position. Despite Denard Robinson's struggles in 2011, Michigan's offense actually improved and was incredibly effective against some good defenses (and shockingly ineffective against others, but hey, whatever, we're trying to be positive here). That's due, almost entirely, to the standout play of Fitzgerald Toussaint. Even if Fitz isn't available at first--he probably won't be and he shouldn't be--between Smith and Rawls, Michigan should put together some decent production while he's gone. When he's back, he'll be one of the best backs in the league.
Grade: A- (Starter A, Backups B)