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Maize n Preview: Previewing Michigan Football's 2011 Running Backs

The 2011 Michigan Football season is less than three weeks away, so it's time for our Maize n Preview series to start getting serious. So far, the 2011 Maize n Preview series has a detailed preview of the Michigan Defensive Line, a detailed preview of Michigan's Linebackers, a detailed preview of the Michigan Secondary, and a detailed preview of Michigan's Quarterbacks. In terms of what we're doing, we're looking at what happened, who's back, who's new, and what to expect from each of Michigan Football's offensive position groups going in to the 2011 Football Season. Today it's the Running Back's turn under the microscope.

About Last Year

2010 was another injury plagued, sub-par year for Michigan's tailbacks. For the third consecutive year Michigan was without a feature back, suffered all kinds of injuries, and coughed the ball up with regularity in its running game. On top of that, Michigan failed to produce a 1,000 running back and didn't have a single back above 150 carries. Granted, when you've got a runner like Denard Robinson in the backfield, carries are going to be hard to come by. That said Denard wasn't the main reason Michigan's tailbacks didn't get the ball. The main reason was lack of production. Vincent Smith led the way in 2010 with 601 yards on 136 carries for a 4.4 ypc average. Michael Shaw had a 5.4 ypc average, but injuries limited him to just 75 carries and 402 yards. Freshman bulldozer Stephen Hopkins chipped in 4 touchdowns and 157 yards on 37 carries, but fumbles and inexperience kept him on the sidelines for good portions of the season.

It's really, really hard to fairly evaluate this group looking back at last season. Michigan's tailbacks were basically lead blockers for Denard Robinson all season long. And if judged on that basis, they did pretty well. But when Michigan needed its tailbacks to gain critical yards... well... they couldn't. There's no sugar coating it. When Michigan needed yards, the ball was in Robinson's hands and not the running backs'. Let's also be clear, none of Michigan's top options at tailback were healthy. Shaw and Smith were either injured or getting over injuries. Fitzgerald Toussaint was coming off an injury and clearly wasn't at full speed in 2010. Michael Cox was simply the odd man out in Rodriguez's offense. And Hopkins was really just a freshman, no matter how strong and big he was.

This was and is a group full of talent, but given their inability to stay healthy (Shaw, Smith, Toussaint), their inexperience, and their lack of production you have to grade last season out as a disappointment for Michigan's running backs.


For the first time in a long time, nobody.

Returning Options

Normally I'd say something like "Returning Starters" and then break down the backups, but going into this season there's no clear cut favorite or starter who will take the bulk of Michigan's carries. So, instead, I'll list them in the order I think they'll probably be on the depth chart.

First on that list is Michael Shaw. The Senior speedster is still looking for that first, full, healthy year. Ever since showing up on campus four years ago as a high school track star shoehorned into a bulldozer's body he's had Michigan fans all atwitter about his potential. And he's flashed big runs to get us all excited about it too. Sadly, Shaw hasn't done much more than whet our appetite. Injury after injury after injury has kept him off the field for prolonged stretches of his first three seasons and limited his ability to deliver on all that talent. But as a senior leader, a guy who's played in every system and has the size and speed to be a difference maker, he's the odds on favorite to be Michigan's starting and premier tailback when the season starts in September. Shaw led the backs in touchdowns last season with (9) and was one of the few running backs who's yards per carry stayed above 4.3 when faced with above .500 BCS competition. If there's a reason to be skeptical about Shaw's production last season, it's that 3 of his 9 TDs and 126 of his 402 yards came against UMass. In terms of strengths, Shaw is a straight ahead, power runner. He really struggled in Rodriguez's spread/pick your gap offense and was incredibly tentative. When his lane is picked out for him, well, then he's dangerous. His raw speedy and power (re: ability to break tackles) make him incredibly dangerous out of the backfield and he's also proven he can catch the ball in space. If Shaw is healthy, he's the fastest and most dangerous back in Michigan's backfield. And that's a big IF.

Now if I'm describing Shaw as a bulldozer, then sophomore Stephen Hopkins must be described as a M1 Abrams Tank. At almost 230 pounds Hopkins is Michigan's most powerful option at running back, and likely the one that most fits the system that Hoke and Al Borges want to run. Hopkins is a big kid with surprisingly good wheels for someone his size. In a way, he reminds me of a smaller version of Anthony Thomas. At least that's what I want him to remind me of. I'm a big fan of Hopkins game and potential, but he suffered from a bout of the fumbles last season that makes me a bit nervous. Hopkins doesn't have the wheels that Shaw possesses (and if either are healthy, he doesn't run as fast as Smith or Toussaint), but he seems to have intangibles that make you want to see him out there. Maybe he just reminds us a bit of how Michigan's tailbacks used to be, and that's why we favor him. I think there might be some of that, but I also think he's a hell of a football player and could be one of those diamonds in the rough that Rodriguez was so well known for unearthing. I think he'll be the lead blocking back on a number of the two back sets, but I also think he could very well earn the starting job by mid season if Shaw doesn't produce.


Going on down the list, we get to Junior Vincent Smith. Smith was an electric little jitterbug coming out of high school with a camp highlight reel that made you drop your jaw and go "Wuhwuhwuwhwuh?" Sadly, Smith's freshman year ended ignobly against Ohio State when the talented kid tore his ACL, effectively setting him back a full year. In 2010, fresh off ACL surgery, Smith was back in the lineup and basically Rodriguez's favorite back. Smith has surprisingly good hands out of the backfield and one on one against a linebacker he's going to make them miss. The issue in 2010 was Smith wasn't anywhere near 100% recovered from his injury. An ACL (or other surgical repair) takes a year to recover. This is one of the reasons I actually believe Troy Woolfolk will be ok this year, he's had a full year to recover. Smith didn't. He had six months. In 2010, Smith looked slow. He was getting caught from behind, his cuts weren't crisp, he had no power. But he was small, would hide behind the linemen, and occasionally would produce a nice gain on the ground. The real reason I think Smith played so much is that he was easily Michigan's best blocking back and had the best understanding of the offense's pass protections. While Smith was statistically Michigan's most productive back, there's a reason for this. One third of his production came against sub-.500 FBS schools. Smith went for 241 yards on 39 carries against Michigan's three sub-.500 opponents (3 games). He only got 318 yards out of 86 carries against .500 or better teams (11 games). That's not good. Smith may have been Michigan's "featured" back based on carries and yards in 2010, but barring injuries to Shaw, Hopkins and the next guy on the list I'd be shocked if he came anywhere near last year's numbers

This brings us to the wildcard in the Tailback rotation, Michael Cox. Cox has spent the last three years being a practice squad and FCS  game hero. Each of his three years he's done something in one of those games to make Michigan fans believe he could be the next Tyrone Wheatley. He's got the size. He's got the speed. He's got the quickness. Touch the Banner has him inked in as Michigan's starting running back. But I just don't know. When he's been on the field the kid gets it done. But he's never on the field which leads to all kinds of other questions. Cox was one of the last of Carr's recruits. They offered him at camp when no one else was after him. They clearly liked him. Cox has the physical tools to be a good back (but just how good, we have no idea). All of us want him to be as good as we've seen in limited situations, but something's held him back. If he sees the field, well, then we'll get our answers. Sadly, I think there's a very good chance that Cox may end up very similar to our old favorite Carlos Brown, a guy who (for some reason or another) could never make good on the expectations we placed on him. This is more commentary than analysis, so take it FWIW. I think Cox has all the measurables to excel in Borges' offense and be Michigan's No. 1 guy. I just won't believe it until I see it.

Then there's the last of Rodriguez's micro backs, Fitzgerald Toussaint. Toussaint is another of the diminutive scat backs Rodriguez seemed to love to recruit. Shifty and quick, Toussaint is also another inductee into Michigan recent practice squad hall of fame. He does everything right in practice. He gets into a game and does everything right then too. Then, he gets hurt. Toussaint has torn up his knee and shoulder in consecutive seasons and clearly seems to be cut from the same injury plagued mold of any of Rodriguez' tailbacks. Toussaint has the vision to be a good back and the quick feet, but, like Smith, I think the injuries to his knee(s) have slowed him down considerably. Unlike Smith, I think Toussaint is actually more of a tailback that a slot receiver, so he can actually excel if healthy. The big issue (to me) is size. I think he's a little to small to be an every down back in the Big Ten. That said, I'm more than happy to be proven wrong about that.

Finally, there's fullback John McColgan. McColgan isn't going to win any footraces. He's not a feature back. He's a Fullback. And a nasty one at that. Word out of camp is McColgan is planting fools that get in his way. But other than that, I've got nothing. (Neither does TTB, FWIW).


Michigan landed two highly rated recruits at tailback for the 2011 season. The first of which, and highest rated, was Justice Hayes. Hayes is a speed back who was also being recruited by BCS schools as a slot receiver. Looking at his film, his quickness and speed stand out. What also stands out is good lord does this kid need a season to redshirt and put on some weight. Hayes may be supremely confident, quick and fast, but he simply doesn't look ready to take the pounding of a full season right out of high school. Fortunately, for the first time in a LONG TIME, Michigan has the ability to red-shirt him and God willing that's what they'll be able to do. I'm really excited about Haye's future in the Winged Helmet, I just don't want it getting speed bumped with early injuries like Smith, Shaw and Toussaint's have been.

On the other hand, incoming freshman Thomas Rawls looks ready to step onto the field right now and play. Rawlsis a bruising back out of Mark Ingram's hometown of Flint. As a result, Running Back's Coach Fred Jackson is already comparing him to Ingram. Fred Jackson will also at some point compare FB John McColgan to Barry Sanders. That's just how Fred rolls. Rawls is one of those backs who seems to love contact and has limited to no fear. He rushed for obscene numbers in high school and certainly has the physicality to take the day to day pounding of the league. I'm honestly not too sure he's got the wheels at this point to be a difference maker in the backfield, but then again, neither did Mike Hart (damn you Fred, you're rubbing off). Of the two I'd bet on Rawls getting playing time, but hopefully both will be able to redshirt.

The 2011 Season

At this point we know two things for certain. One, Michigan is looking for a feature back to carry the ball 20-25 times a game. Two, Vincent Smith will be Michigan's 3rd down back. Everything else is up in the air.

If you're looking for prognostications as to who's going to start, you're going to have just as much luck throwing darts at a pile of pictures blind folded. If Michael Shaw is healthy, he's easily Michigan most experienced and explosive back, and should start. But anticipating that he'll be healthy is contrary to his entire time at Michigan. Like I said above, the wildcard in the tailback derby is Michael Cox. Cox has shown the burst necessary to be a feature back in the Big Ten. But, again, his being on the field is contrary to his entire time at Michigan. Hopkins could be the feature back, but he's a little too slow and fumbles. Smith and Toussaint can fit in your pocket, not exactly the best recipe for an every down back in the Big Ten.

Still, I have hope for this group in 2011. First, there's just too much talent in the backfield for them not to improve. I know that's a dangerous thing to write, but I can't help it. Shaw and Cox are legitimate homerun threats with every touch of the ball. Hopkins and Rawls are roadgraders that can pick up those extra yards. Smith, Toussaint and Hayes are shifty, fast little buggers whose change of pace and quickness will pay dividends as the season. Finally, I think the addition of a true fullback in power run situations will be a difference maker in short yardage situations (don't you feel better about McColgan taking on a linebacker rather than Smith? I thought so).

If healthy, and that's a big leap of faith here, I think Michael Shaw can hit about 900 yards on the ground and 12 touchdowns. That's if healthy. If not, look for an exact replica of 2010 except with fewer touchdowns. I'd expect similar things from Michael Cox if he ever sees the field consistently. I'm a big fan of his potential, but since that's all I've got to go on, predicting anything above 800 yards and 10 touchdowns seems downright nuts. If either win the job straight out, Hopkins souldroll up about 400 or so yards and 8 or 9 touchdowns. He's built for between the tackles running and with him and McColgan in the backfield that's a lot of beef for any defensive line to have to stop.

Moving to the scatbacks, I think Vincent Smith should have a pretty good year in this system. The reason being is that I think he's finally, finally recovered from his ACL surgery. He started to show a little burst lt season and I think he'll have it back to about 90% of his former speed this season, and that ain't too bad. I also think that his pass catching ability on screens and into the flats will be deadly this year. Running between the tackles isn't his strong suit, but he's a tough little bugger and I wouldn't be surprised to see him crack 500 yards this season and 700 total yards with receptions included. As for Toussaint, I don't know. If he's healthy (again, if) he could be a second wildcard in the backfield. He won't be wearing a brace. He'll be healthy (hopefully). He'll get his chance. I'm predicting maybe 300 yards (if he plays) and a handful of touchdowns.

Overall, I think you're going to see vastly improved numbers from Michigan's tailbacks, if for no other reason than they're going to get the ball A LOT more this season than last. I think there's the possibility of seeing a pair of backs over 800 yards this season (in adition to what Robinson does), but that's something I can only speculate at. The pro-style fits Michigan's bigger backs much better than the prior system and I expect that they'll suceed in it.

That is, if they can stay healthy.

(Previously: a detailed preview of the Michigan Defensive Line, a detailed preview of Michigan's Linebackers, a detailed preview of Michigan's Secondary, a detailed preview of Michigan's Quarterbacks.)