Preview 2011: Running Backs Comment Count

Brian September 1st, 2011 at 11:25 AM

Previously: The story, the secondary, the linebackers, the defensive line, the offensive line, and receivers.

Rating: 3 of 5.

RB Yr. FB Yr.
Mike Shaw Sr. John McColgan Sr.*
Fitzgerald Toussaint So.* Steve Watson Sr.*
Vincent Smith Jr. Joe Kerridge Fr.
Stephen Hopkins So. -- ----
Thomas Rawls Fr. --  
Last year the lack of a go-to tailback led to Denard Robinson running rampant over the Big Ten. That was just fine. It also led to Denard Robinson getting knocked out of virtually every game he played. That was not so good.
This year everyone's back save Teric Jones and his three carries against Bowling Green. Normally that would mean there was some sort of clarity here, what with a whole season of carries with which to distinguish the good from the bad. Unfortunately, there's none of that. Ain't nobody here but us chickens, and their mediocre YPC and tendency to fumble and get injured.
But, hey, Fred Jackson likes it:
For some reason I feel real good about this group of guys.
Is it because he's been high as a kite since 1973? Probably not! But you can't rule it out! FRED JACKSON LOVES EVERYTHING NO PERIOD ON PURPOSE LETS GO WOOOOO

The Tenuous Starter


carlos brown fast…
just runs by the SLB
make a decisive cut
burst into the open field
cuts hard backside
…but doesn't fall over if you breathe on him
runs through three tackles
spins for YAC
keeps balance on goal line
always falls funny
just UMass but still
vision can be laughable
complete stop in hole
He's the senior and the guy Brady Hoke said was in the lead little more than a day ago, so Michael Shaw is the man slotted here. His career to date hasn't been thrilling. His 400 yards last year about doubled his output from his freshman and sophomore years, and while his 5.5 YPC seems encouraging that number plummets a full yard when 12 carries for 126 yards against I-AA UMass are excised. He was almost totally removed from the offense after the nonconference season, averaging under four carries per game in the Big Ten.
While injury had a lot to do with marginalization, that would be a lot more encouraging if Shaw hadn't been injured since he showed up. As a freshman he was slowed by a sports hernia (if you don't know what that is, don't ask). His sophomore year was plagued by various minor issues. Last year he spent big chunks of the season on the sideline with a knee problem and when he came back he immediately picked up a concussion-type substance. This spring he had a broken hand.
Junior Hemingway's got him beat, but only just, and while you can believe a wide receiver who will take maybe a couple hard shots per game can suddenly get healthy it's a lot harder to envision a manball back running power 20 times a game suddenly turning into Wolverine. Shaw's position on top of the depth chart will last as long as his joints do. History says that will be about ten carries.
If Shaw does defy history he can be good. He's still got the sprinter's speed that made him a hyped recruit and while he's not Brandon Minor he's got a lot better balance than predecessor Carlos Brown. His vision occasionally fails him spectacularly:
That play is so well blocked that he could stop and still score a touchdown. This is not a diabolical plan on his part. He's always been less than decisive.
He might fit better in a power offense where he's got a predetermined gap he's going to hit, but he's not much for breaking tackles (he's more of a spin-through-it-for-two-more-yards guy) and his speed is better suited for the spread. If he establishes himself as the main guy he'll be a solid B who averages around 5 YPC and brushes up against 1,000 yards.

Co-Starter-Type Guy


After two years of injury, redshirt sophomore Fitzgerald Toussaint seemed on his way to Bolivia. Maybe that judgment was a bit hasty, but he was healthy for chunks of last year and couldn't push his way past a thoroughly mediocre group in front of him (he had eight carries), so the internet jumped to conclusions. That's what the internet does.

The internet has recently jumped to another conclusion based on rapturous scrimmage reports and Toussaint getting the Golden Carry in front of the media before they were abruptly ushered out of practice. Everyone else can go to Bolivia: we're going with Fitz.

The thing is this also happened last year. Toussaint redshirted due to a shoulder injury, then started building up the hype train. By the time last fall's preview rolled around, Fred Jackson had called him Mike Hart (except fast) and Chris Perry (except fast) and local insiders were saying he was a "clear #1" in the tailback derby.

Toussaint followed this surge in momentum up by damaging himself. An ankle injury took him down late in last year's fall camp. He was was listed as "out" on the injury report for UConn and Notre Dame and didn't play against UMass. When he got on the field against Bowling Green he ripped off a long run and a touchdown… and then immediately hurt his knee. He was then out for Iowa, MSU, Illinois, and Penn State. To date he's been china in a bull shop.

While the Jackson hype spotlight has moved on to the new freshman hotness, Hoke and Borges have focused on Toussaint. So have the papers, though when they focus on him they are lying like a boss:

"I wasn't as comfortable (last year) as I am in this offense," said Stephen Hopkins (6-0, 228).

Fitzgerald Toussaint, like Hopkins, is a bigger back — stronger and more physical, and this type of offense fits his style.

"I like this offense a little bit better," said Toussaint (5-10, 195). "It's smash-mouth football."

Guh? Toussaint is not large. He is a bigger back in the way Mike Hart is a bigger back: not at all (except fast!). All round knowledge must be reshaped to fit into the new square knowledge holes.

If Toussaint grabs the job he'll be closer to Hart than Shaw or Hopkins. I'm not sure if he is Except Fast—that long run above features BGSU players running him down from behind, but he was the 60M state champ in high school. Hopefully his injury issues were the cause.

Because of those issues, we have little more than the BGSU runs and his high school tape to go on. That tape again:

I like it. It makes me tingly. Tousssaint seems to have that jittery short-range quickness that allows little guys to survive, even thrive, as they pick their way through the chaos.

I'm hoping he emerges as the guy. If he beats out a healthy Shaw he'll be well on his way to translating that tape to college, and I could get used to a jump-cutting Houdini with sprinter's speed. Toussaint is the offense's Roh: the wildcard. Anything from Mike Hart (except crappy :( ) to Mike Hart (except fast!) is possible.

Third Down Back


gets what you give him…
power TD
backside cut
here's a free touchdown
…and sometimes more
whiffed Purdue tackle
dancing past Huskies
slips through small holes
flare screen specialist
LB + Smith = easy slant
srsly about slant
still flare specialist
cuts charging slot LB
pops S pretty good

When Al Borges said Michigan had settled on a third down back but he wouldn't tell the public who it was, the existence of the role was far more interesting than who it might be. It was bloody obvious who it was: Vincent Smith. He is 5'6" and the coaches have spent the fall gushing about his toughness. He played as a freshman because he was a better pass blocker than anyone else after Minor got too banged up to stay in if he wasn't running. If you need some one to leak out into the flat or annihilate a blitzer, he's your guy.

That's what they mean, right? They don't mean to run him on third and freaking one over and over again, do they? I'm not thinking about this possibility. Eat it, paranoid fears of irrational coaching decisions past.

Those taken care of, Smith has actually suffered a demotion by taking the new role. He was the only Michigan player to exceed 50% of Denard's carries last year. He didn't tear up the field with them, averaging a meh 4.5 YPC. The clips at right are not exactly "wow" moments. Smith seems to have a good sense for how his blocking will set up; he does not break many tackles or drag carriers for YAC, nor does he juke guys out of their jocks. He's just a guy.

The hope with Smith is that the ACL injury he sustained in the '09 Ohio State game was not entirely healed last year, or at least Smith had not recovered the jitterbug agility that caused me to attribute "top-end shiftiness" to him, channel my inner Fred Jackson by comparing Smith to Hart after he did this…

…and declare "I will not be dissuaded" that he would start next year (check) and be good (eh… not so much). This year will determine whether that was excessive enthusiams based on small sample size or the real, ACL-having Smith.

Smith's lack of rushing yards was one thing, but the weird thing was his lack of involvement in the passing game. After making ten catches in less than a game and a half at the end of his freshman year, he made only 15 during the entirety of 2010. That's quite a bit what less than the "30, 40, even 50" I predicted before the season. This year he'll probably get towards the 30 range; his rushing attempts will dip but not that much unless you believe the two guys in front of him are going to be super mega healthy, which would be a silly thing to believe. Like his Pahokee teammate Odoms, Smith is a useful piece opponents won't lose sleep over.



massive short yardage overreaction
straight upfield
four-yard slam
not Vincent Smith
can move laterally
classic stretch
good agility for beef machine
thump thump
lead block for Denard
kicking out for Denard
great vision here
clubs PSU LB

Now we descend into the woolly depths. Sophomore Stephen Hopkins is a surprise find down here. A big mooseback with no competition on the roster when it comes to being 230 pounds and capable of carrying a football, Hopkins was hailed as the obvious solution to the tailback issue once Hoke installed MANBALL. Hell, I was arguing that even sans manball Hopkins and his blocking heft were the best fit in a Denard-heavy running offense.

So of course Hopkins has been a virtual non-entity this fall. He did show up in a Media Day interview seeming chipper and vowing he hadn't played a snap at fullback; other than that he's been invisible save a couple of "oh and that guy" references from the coaches.

The insider chatter keeps mentioning the doghouse, and eagle-eyed observers of the season preview of Inside Michigan Football caught him doing something called "log rolling," which I thought was when you tried not to fall off a log into a lake. It turns out to also refer to a punitive activity people inflict on football players. Hopkins is doing it. So… yeah, he's in the doghouse. Since that doesn't seem to be a weight problem it's an off-field issue.

Whatever it is it will have to be serious if it's going to knock Hopkins off the field long term. He's the only guy on the roster with a plausible claim to being a short-yardage mauler, and we're all sick of watching Vincent Smith on third and one. He fills a role and fills it well; unless the Rawls hype is something other than the usual Fred Jackson stuff Hopkins will be the guy they call on when they want to MAN some BALLS in a VAN down by the FIRST DOWN MARKER.

I think he'll have a role elsewhere as well. That thump-thump section at right makes a good case that if you're trying to maximize Denard's effectiveness Hopkins is your guy. While Smith is the best pass blocker available, when he impacts a linebacker he's just trying to stall him. He does not do this:

Hopkins creates windows other backs don't. When three yards and a cloud of dust is a win, he'll be in there.

After Hopkins it's freshmen and obscurity. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the Jackson family the least obscure kid down here is Thomas Rawls. He's Mark Ingram except faster… or Kevin Grady not asked to run stretch plays. Even before he was laid up with a shoulder issue in fall camp he'd fallen behind the veterans. Catching up now is going to be difficult. If he's as difficult to tackle as the Jacksons say he could wrest the short yardage job from Hopkins while he's in the doghouse; more realistically he'll get a few carries here and there in preparation for more serious efforts in 2012 and beyond. Fellow freshman Justice Hayes [recruiting profile] looks like he'll redshirt. A move to receiver is a possibility.

Finally, redshirt junior Mike Cox finds himself buried on the depth chart even after the coaching change he celebrated with some unwise tweets. He can be the most physically talented running back on the roster all he wants. He's just about out of chances, and he's nowhere near the field. We'll always have long runs in garbage time, Mike.


Rating: 2?

We've seen very little from Michigan fullbacks since the advent of the Rodriguez era. When it came time to bulk up Rodriguez would just run Robinson at the line, bring in Webb and Koger at the same time, or use one of the tailbacks as a lead blocker.

Appearances by John McColgan were infrequent, too infrequent to draw conclusions. He did catch one of those two-yard touchdown passes fullbacks are always reeling in and whack Clayborn with help from Huyge on a third and short against Iowa.

He's a senior and should be all right. Moving Steve Watson to an H-back type spot suggests he won't be anything more than a specialist. I'm betting fullbacks are only more prevalent when Michigan is "imposing its will" on an opponent, and by "imposing its will" I mean "boring the hell out of everyone in the third quarter against a MAC opponent." Here is the mandatory fluff article about his increased role in MANBALL anyway.



September 1st, 2011 at 11:55 AM ^

I think Shaw can be a very productive back in this offense. However, I really dont like his running style... Hes kind of bouncing all over the place and it seems like every time he gets hit, he gets absolutely BLASTED.. I mean, he's been the recipient of more than a couple of VERY big hits... does anyone else get that same impression?


September 1st, 2011 at 12:05 PM ^

are kinda pitiful. He almost falls down in both.

On another note, can we put a moratorium on Michigna RBs and comparison's to Mike Hart?  I know he's THE running back of the recent past, but he's historically one of a kind.  Like NFL people comparing RBs to Barry Sanders for a decade, it's just not going to happen.  If we must compare to U-M backs, use Chris Perry, Ty Wheatley, and ...if it's a little guy... Jaimie Morris, because they're all more likely to be replicated than Hart.  There won't be another RB that small and that slow that will be that productive.  Hart's ability to break, dodge, squirt-around and run-through tackles was uncanny and won't be replicated for a long time, if ever.

J. Lichty

September 1st, 2011 at 1:21 PM ^

Shaw is kind of a poor man's Wheatly in style -- very much one cut (if that) and gone.  Wheatly was better at moving a pile or running tight quarters than Shaw, but not by much.  Go and watch some old film of Wheatly, there was a lot of running into the line for two downs and then hitting a seam for 12.

Would be very intersted to see the median for Wheatly's rushes versus his average, which was quite high due the homeruns and long runs he would rip off behind that great O-line.


September 1st, 2011 at 3:56 PM ^

As Hart was to Barry Sanders.  If Shaw is half as good as Wheatley, our RB issues are set. I've been waiting 20 years for a RB as good as T-Wheat to suit up for us again. Still waiting.

Though I've been waiting 15 years for a RB to remind us that you don't have to be small/quick/spread or big/slow/manball, and that before 1996-7ish, we used to pretty frequently have bigger backs who had some wheels too.


September 1st, 2011 at 1:02 PM ^


I don't really care who emerges as The Man this season provided he holds onto the damn ball.  We got murdered by fumbles last year and almost nothing is more dispiriting.
Brian's tables make great 3 x 5 cards when you print and cut them out.  Not sure what I'll do with mine though.

Greg McMurtry

September 1st, 2011 at 1:10 PM ^

I be like dang, but injuries have kept him off the field.  If he can do what he did back in HS, then I think he could be the next great Michigan RB, but that remains to be seen.  Here's to hoping...

Blue in Yarmouth

September 1st, 2011 at 1:12 PM ^

Shaw was one of the guy I was most excited about in his class. I really think that if he can stay healthy he will surprise a lot of people (not because he stayed healthy, but because of his production). I really want him to have a great senior year and think he can do it in this offense. 

Mr. Yost

September 1st, 2011 at 1:22 PM ^

I don't know if I should be posting this only because I did hear it directly and it does have to do with gameplanning, but what the hell.


Don't look at Steve Watson's move to FB as the lack of depth or inability of McColgan, it's because McColgan doesn't have the best hands. (Remember 2 drops by Kevin Dudley back in the day and then we ran the same play a 3rd time, but put Ecker or Brian Thompson (I think Thompson) at FB and caught a TD pass...I want to say it was the dreaded Alamo Bowl but I could be WAY off).


ANYWAY!... it's pretty simple

Manball FB: John McColgan
---Joey Kerridge (not saying he plays...just the #2)

Running FB: Stephan Hopkins (primarily out of 2 RB sets)

Catching FB: Steve Watson
---Ricardo Miller (not saying he plays...just the #2)


I highly doubt there will be enough snaps for the FB spot for Kerridge to un-redshirt or Rico Miller to play. It's really just situational. But like Brian said, expect a lot of 3 WR and 1 TE. So having 3 guys who have roles at FB (one, in McColgan as your main guy) is more than plenty.

Hopkins will likely get a few snaps in that B.J. Askew role, sometimes carrying the ball, sometimes blocking. SDSU did run some 2 RB pro-set stuff last year. Maybe Watson comes in on key 3rd downs or Goalline situations and flares out to catch a pass. Nothing too crazy for either of those guys. Everything else will be McColgan plowing into defenders.



September 1st, 2011 at 1:37 PM ^

I don't disagree with your "FB" assessment but do you think they will really specialize them that much if they used them that way?  Can't Hopkins catch, block, and run?  Why give the D a ton of clues.  hmmmmm,  ewwwww, I got a raging clue !

Mr. Yost

September 1st, 2011 at 4:48 PM ^

I mean that's why you's not like all can't do all 3, but you have specialties. But if you see the defense adjust or cheat...burn them. It's not like it's a dead give away. Not like Steve Watson enters the game and the defense is going to back off and rush 3 and drop 8 because of one player and one FB.


And if that were to happen, I'm pretty sure Denard and Devin are both smart enough to check to a manball power play and run it right down the defenses throat.


September 1st, 2011 at 2:47 PM ^

Let's just say that Oregon's Heisman leading RB is a 5 out o 5.  Or someone like a Mark Ingram or a McFadden (if we look to the past - just thinking of insanely dominant backs).  Do you really think that any of our backs are only half a grade below those guys? 

Hell, if thos guys were true 5s, then M. Hart was only a 4.5.  Are these guys equal to Hart?  I think not.

Look, I like a lot of these guys and I think that they can be productive, but to say that RB is a position of strength is rampant homerism.


September 2nd, 2011 at 10:13 AM ^

I think they are vastly underated because of their previous health issues. Shaw is a senior with excellent speed and decent moves. The only reason he hasn't produced more is injury and a young inexperienced offensive line his first two years. Now the line is very good, with 4 returning starters and a 4 star RS-junior coming into the line. Huyge is a three year starter as is Omameh. Lewan is a future NFL starter and Molk is an All-American. Half of being a stud running back is having a great offensive line. Ingram wouldn't have been nearly as good as he was without Alabama's O-line. McFadden is exceptional, and I don't think any of our guys can match him even with them playing better than I expect, but that's why he is a five and our guys will be 4 with the  possibility of maxing out at 4.5.

Shaw and Touissant were both solid 4 star recruits with sprinter speed. Touissant, because of injuries, hasn't seen the field. I have been extrememly high on him since he commited.

I think, if 3 is average Big Ten backfield, then they are absolutely a 4 based on talent and the guys blocking for them. (Again the big IF is health. They are a 1 if they can't get on the field to play). If either Touissant or Shaw stay healthy and outplay their seeming  potential, then I can see them getting to 4.5 like Hart. They both have superior athleticism to Hart.


September 1st, 2011 at 4:16 PM ^

When can we finally put the "OH NOES NOT VINCENT SMITH ON 3RD AND 1?" Of the 8 times we ran Smith on 3rd and 1 last season, he picked up the first 6 times. Those are fine numbers.



September 1st, 2011 at 9:15 PM ^

I'm betting fullbacks are only more prevalent when Michigan is "imposing its will" on an opponent, and by "imposing its will" I mean "boring the hell out of everyone in the third quarter against a MAC opponent."

You no like MANBALL.


September 2nd, 2011 at 10:19 AM ^

Very smart football minds, like Magnus, thought the same thing. But I have been on the Shaw/Touissant bandwagon for a while. Cox not getting a sniff outside of tomato cans and frequent talk of him not "getting it" made me think  his athletic skills weren't ever going to translate to playing time.

I also have never truly believed in the Stephen Hopkins hype. Lots of people just assumed he would be the man because he is the biggest, but he doesn't have the speed, quickness, knowledge, hands or vision of the other guys. I like him and think he will continue to  improve and help us in the future but there is a reason he was a meh 3 star and Shaw/Touissant were big time 4 stars.