2013 Season Preview: The Backfield

USA TODAY Sports

The Wolverines enter 2013 with a pair of talented players leading the way on offense, but both enter the season with a couplquestions to answer.

Previously on: The Secondary, The Linebackers, The Defensive Line, The Defensive Outlook, Special Teams, The Offensive Line, Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

Michigan's continued shift in offensive identity has been well covered thus far in the preview series. Tiny slot receivers line up next to lanky tight ends, the offensive line depth chart is made almost entirely of underclassmen, and oh yeah, Denard Robinson has been the main offensive engine for two years.

Watching Michigan's offense much of the last two years was frustrating at times because of the issues that confronted Al Borges. He didn't quite have the personnel to run the types of passing schemes that he was accustomed to, and his quarterback was his best rushing weapon.

At the same time, he couldn't fully commit to the spread offense because his quarterback couldn't make the reads in the run game (pulling any "option" angle off the table), and he had to introduce enough of the offense he wanted to run so that the team didn't need to make two offensive transitions.

Midway through last year we saw things lurch forward as Denard Robinson's injury proved to be too much and Devin Gardner was given the keys to the offense. The offensive explosion over those last five games was as notable for what it included (a heavy dose of down field passing) as what was missing (a consistent between the tackles run game).

This year Michigan brings back the force behind the uptick in Michigan's passing offense, as well as Michigan's last thousand-yard running back. Make no mistake about it, these two will be the driving force behind Michigan's offense, and their play will set the ceiling on just how good this group can be.

Of course, they could have a little help.

Running Back

Tailback Fullback
Starter RS-Sr. Fitzgerald Toussaint RS-So. Joe Kerridge
RS-Fr. Drake Johnson So. Sione Houma
RS-So. Justice Hayes Fr. Wyatt Shallman
Jr. Thomas Rawls
Fr. Derrick Green/Deveon Smith

This is straight from the depth chart released yesterday in advance of the Central Michigan game. The tailback options break down into three groups.

In the first group, all by himself is Fitzgerald Toussaint. He is the unquestioned leader in Michigan's backfield, and will be the feature back from day one. Toussaint has had a long road to this point in his career. He joined Michigan in the 2009 class and was a 3/4-star tweener out of Ohio. He looked like a promising pickup and made the requisite level of noise on the scout team in his redshirt year, but nagging injuries kept him from being able to contribute early. They would keep him off the field for the most part in his RS-Fr year as well.

With Borges taking over the offense in 2011, Michigan started looking more heavily for a feature back, and by mid-season Toussaint had established himself as that, becoming the first Michigan running back to reach 1000 yards in a season since Mike Hart.

His strong finish to the regular season was halted in the bowl game, which would be a sign of the bad things to come. In that game David Molk injured himself and played through it, the blocking broke down, and Toussaint had little room to maneuver. An off season arrest would set him back going into the 2012 season, and his late leg injury against Iowa would be a quick end to a disappointing year in which he gained just half of the yards he was able to in 2011.

Still, a lot of that blame fell on the interior offensive line that struggled with its blocking assignments. Toussaint and the rest of the running backs rarely had ideal holes to run through, and the rush offense only consistently found traction behind Robinson.

This year it will once again be on Fitz's shoulders to carry the load. He returns as Michigan's most experienced option, and he has had a full recovery from his injury late last season. The praise he has gotten so far this fall has all been just short of glowing, and he is reportedly fully recovered from last fall's injury, and playing with no hesitancy.

Toussaint will be MIchigan's primary ball carrier this season, and he should do well. The line will be young, but probably more adept at blocking the types of plays he will be running most often now. If the interior can cut down on missed assignments, Toussaint has enough ability to make guys miss and pick up four yards where there are only two to be had. While the rushing offense won't be dominant, it will be a solid component of Michigan's offense as a whole.

Of course, there will be carries for other backs. Right now the second player on the depth chart is Drake Johnson, which one would imagine won't last too long. Johnson was a sleeper recruit out of Ann Arbor Pioneer, and he had offers from no major schools. He reportedly lacks a developed ability to make cuts, and while he is fast, he runs upright. If he wants to play he will most likely have to fight for the third-down back role.

That will probably go to Justice Hayes, who is currently third on the depth chart. He was a spread back brought in during that 2011 class, and he has the wide skill set that should set him up well to contribute on passing downs as long as he can pass block. With Michigan losing Vincent Smith, this role is wide open.

While Thomas Rawls is sitting fourth, he is another player that will most likely be passed over. Last year he was Michigan's short yardage back that wasn't any good at short yardage running. With Michigan having just added three guys that seem better suited for third-and-two runs than Rawls, the curtain may be closing on Rawls' time in the lineup.

So with the above three established players all looking varying degrees of unlikely to contribute in the actual run game on a regular basis, who is left?

An impressive duo of freshmen. Derrick Green is the highlight here, even if he has shown up to camp at 240 lbs. which may or may not be horribly overweight (and is probably just a little big). Green was a five-star and top running back to half the services, and he brings the kind of between the tackles power/speed combo that Michigan coaches are looking to develop in years to come. Green is a bowlling ball that relies on just enough shimmy and shake to keep defenders off balance and make it easier to run through their arm tackles.

Of course, he is still a freshman, and having missed some time in fall camp with a minor injury has pushed back his development. Odds are good that Michigan can work him into the lineup as the season progresses and he gets more comfortable in the offense. Given his talent and the state of the roster, he is almost a holy-lock to play.

The only way that might change is is another freshman beats him to the second-string job. Deveon Smith was the other running back in the 2013 class, and while he wasn't as big a name as Green, Smith had an Ohio State offer and was pretty highly regarded himself. He isn't as big as Green, but Smith possesses a nice combination of power and cutting ability that is pretty widely compared to Mike Hart. Smith also has what looks like the extra gear that Hart never did.

So far in fall practice Smith has shown flashes of his talent, and if he can get a leg up on the more experience options, he could tighten his grip on the backup job before Green ever gets comfortable. Both backs are more talented than what is ahead of them on the depth chart currently, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see both play.

Of course, those guys need lead blockers, and Michigan looks to have a solid fullback in Joe Kerridge. The third-year player held down the job most of the year and showed a knack for standing up linebackers. He wasn't perfect, but he was a redshirt freshman, so those mistakes should start to diminish this year.

He could also compete for playing time with either Sione Houma, a sophomore fullback with more of a tailback/u-back range of skills, and Wyatt Shallman, a true freshman that has a lot of size, but will most likely redshirt because of a nagging hamstring injury. Rawls is also a possibility if he gets locked out at tailback.

Quarterback

Quarterback
Starter RS-Jr. Devin Gardner
Backup Fr. Shane Morris

This is the quarterback we've been waiting for. After two years of watching Denard do Denard things, Michigan is now Devin Gardner's team and Devin Gardner has thus far proven to be Al Borges's kind of guy.

Gardner's road to this spot was a long and eventful one. His true freshman year in 2010 saw him take over backup duties early in the year to further facilitate the dog housing of Tate Forcier. Gardner would go down with some dubious and well timed injury, sit out the rest of the season, and the whole thing would eventually qualify as a medical redshirt year.

He went on to disappoint in the spring game in 2011, and then again in 2012. He would play mostly mop up duty in 2011 before switching to wide receiver in the off season. His athleticism and size was too much to keep on the bench with Michigan so shorthanded on the outside. Gardner never proved to be a great fit at receiver, but he was athletic enough to be effective, pulling in 16 catches for 266 yards and four touchdowns in the first eight games of the 2012 season. It was immediately clear in the Nebraska game after Robinson's injury that Gardner would be needed back at quarterback, and he was starting in that position the next week against Minnesota.

This would kick off a five game stretch that was dripping with potential as Gardner passed for 1219 yards and 11 touchdowns while running for 101 yards and 7 touchdowns. His issues were apparent, his footwork would betray him and he wouldn't handle his reads fast enough to keep with the timing of the play, but there were also signs of improvement. Gardner had a knack for finding big plays in the passing game, and for taking off and picking up yards on the ground when things broke down around him.

His physical potential is vast. He is 6'4, 210lbs. and has enough straight line speed to outrun most linebackers. His arm has been described as being a buggywhip because someone wasn't happy with how complacent the ridiculousness of football commentary had become. Gardner spent the summer doing just about every high profile camp you could find, and nearly everyone who walked away from one toward a microphone or keyboard raved about his performance. All the while he was throwing pass after pass to Jeremy Gallon and his receivers whenever he could.

Devin Gardner will still make some mistakes, but given his physical potential, his past production, and the vast amount of time he has put in this summer, it is hard not to get really excited at what he can do if everything is clicking around him.

The bad news, if anything happens to Gardner, Michigan is in rough shape. The backup battle seems to have been won by the quarterback of the future, fresh faced Shane Morris. He is a big time recruit that has a lot of physical potential, but he has a ways to go before he is comfortable in the pocket and going through the reads this offense is going to require.

If Morris plays for an extend amount of time, he will need a lot of help from a run game that could still struggle behind a young interior line.

* * *

The pieces are in place for Michigan to be very good on offense, and while the development of the interior offensive line and some of Michigan's younger receivers and tight ends is going to have a big effect on what Gardner and Toussaint are able to accomplish this year, the inverse is true: these two players are good enough to bail these younger players out.

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