When Brady Hoke arrived in Ann Arbor he brought a power football attitude with him: take away the opponent's running game while running power up the heart of their defense. This sounds simple enough, but a scheme is only as effective as its players, and Michigan has lacked the players to run a legitimate power scheme in the past two seasons.
This season might be different. The offense line returns two bookend tackles who flank young, powerful offensive guards, and the backfield is beginning to look like a group of Bo's men. Senior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint will return to a backfield that might not be so welcoming, as youngsters like Justice Hayes, Derrick Green and Deveon Smith all look to steal carries in a system that is slowly becoming more and more slanted toward power running.
Fitzgerald Toussaint (RS senior; 5'10", 202)
Fitz comes off of a season that was a disappointment for reasons both within and outside of his control. He sat out of the Alabama game due to a DUI charge, then failed to perform up to standards before breaking his leg in terrifying fashion against Iowa. Some of his struggles throughout the season were due to the offensive line's inability to block, but he still didn't cut through lanes and break tackles with the same authority as the previous year.
Will he be ready for 2013? I'm not sure. A broken leg is something a running back can overcome, although I don't see him coming back in nearly as good of shape as he was in during the 2011 season in which he performed so well. He's also going to have more competition than ever, so if he doesn't come roaring back with his old slashing ability he could watch as he loses the majority of his touches.
Thomas Rawls (Junior; 5'10", 218)
A product of Flint, Michigan, Rawls was often compared to former Alabama running back Mark Ingram, who ran with similar authority. Ingram was a bit more athletically gifted and possessed the ability to shake defenders in space, but Rawls might be even more powerful. Thomas hasn't quite reached Ingram's level, only rushing for 242 yards and failing to take many carries away from a struggling Fitzgerald Toussaint. The move to the power system should help Rawls, who is much more suited to play behind a fullback than beside a quarterback. Whether or not he'll be able to keep Smith and Green at bay is still to be decided.
Justice Hayes (RS sophomore; 5'10", 183)
Hayes is the only true speed back remaining on the roster, and he could benefit greatly from the staff's decision to move Dennis Norfleet to cornerback. Every offense, Michigan's power offense included, needs a change-of-pace back that can be used on reverses, sweeps and third down situations, and Hayes is now the only remaining back who fits the mold. He needs to work on his blocking, blitz pickup and ball security before the coaches trust him enough to be on the field on critical downs.
Drake Johnson (RS freshman; 6'0", 209)
A reach offer in the 2012 class, Johnson is now at Michigan because he was noticeable in his Pioneer film and put up blazing fast hurdle times in track. Johnson isn't as powerful as Green or Smith, or as quick as Hayes or Toussaint, but he has the overall athleticism to be a contributor. If he doesn't find a way to contribute this upcoming year he'll be a career backup.
Derrick Green (Freshman; 5'11", 220)
Who? Derrick Green was put directly under the spotlight when it became clear that Laquon Treadwell was headed elsewhere. His commitment created more buzz and enthusiasm than any commitment in recent history, as he's the first elite offensive skill player that Michigan has picked up in quite some time. Most see Green as a bruiser, but when I first watched his tape the first thing I noticed was his burst to the hole. His power is undoubtedly elite, and his foot quickness is definitely elite for someone his size as well. Green is commonly referred to as the next Marshawn Lynch, and for good reason.
Deveon Smith (Freshman; 5'11", 210)
I've said it at least five times in previous posts, and I'll say it again: don't forget about Deveon Smith. Michigan landed Smith long before it was even in the conversation for Derrick Green, and anyone who has watched Smith's film must realize that he's going to compete with Green from day one. He's not quite as big and not quite as explosive, but he's still one of the most powerful backs in this class. He also happens to be blessed with better vision and balance than Green, and ran over everyone in the state of Ohio. Oh, and the Buckeyes wanted him too.
Joe Kerridge (RS sophomore; 6'0", 244)
Kerridge saw action in eleven games last year, blocking in the I-formation and even catching a twelve-yard pass against Notre Dame. I'd be lying if I told you that I have extensive knowledge on the Joe Kerridges of the world, but I can say that the coaching staff liked his efforts in practice and in games enough to award him with a scholarship. He should get playing time alongside Houma and Shallman until they learn the system.
Sione Houma (Sophomore; 6'0", 227)
Houma could add another dimension to the Michigan offense. He needs to put a few more pounds on before he's ready to attempt any crushing blocks on linebackers, but I expect his weight to be in the 235-240 range by the time the season starts. Houma's rushing highlights in high school were impressive for a future Michigan fullback, and he's going to be a much better receiver than Joe Kerridge. It might not seem like a huge upgrade, but teams that have athletic fullbacks can open up the playbook just a little bit more.
Wyatt Shallman (Freshman; 6'3", 245)
Shallman is an interesting athlete. Big enough to play defensive end and athletic enough to play halfback, Michigan offered him and would like him to become a blocking fullback who's also capable of taking snaps from the I-formation. Shallman is definitely capable of doing that, and if Borges can find a way to incorporate him and Houma it will help the offense a lot. He's also a capable receiver out of the backfield, at least more so than Kerridge (not to bust on the former walk-on, but he's not going to shake anyone after a catch any time soon).
This group has the potential to be solid, if not better. Their success depends on three things: the healthy return of Fitzgerald Toussaint, the development of the freshman backs and the offensive line's improvement in the ground game.
Who knows if Toussaint will return with a vengeance? I personally doubt it, as he's gone through so much and might not have enough gas left in the tank to fend off a talented stable of young backs. He looked like he lost a step this past season, and that was before any major injuries. I'm pulling for him yet at the same time expecting him to lose some of his carries.
Who steals his carries? The obvious answer is Derrick Green, but don't be too quick to assume that his five-star rating automatically gives him rights to touches. I think Smith will know the system better than Green does initially, and although Thomas Rawls hasn't busted through there's still a chance that he does. I don't see Johnson becoming a threat, and Hayes is far from being an every down back. There's a good chance that this becomes a running back by committee situation until one of Green or Smith steps up, and if the offensive line is suddenly capable of running power it could turn into the Derrick Green show.
My way too early expectation: Toussaint receives around ten touches a game while Green, Smith and Rawls battle it out with a few touches each. Whoever shows well in those few touches and in practice will gradually receive as many carries as Toussaint, and by the end of the year someone not named Fitzgerald Toussaint is the main running back in a somewhat improved running game.