Preview 2012: Backs Of All Varieties Comment Count

Brian August 27th, 2012 at 4:13 PM

Previously: Podcast 4.0, the story, quarterback.

Rating: 4.5 of 5.

Fitzgerald Toussaint Jr.* Stephen Hopkins Jr. Vincent Smith Sr.
Thomas Rawls So. Sione Houma Fr. Justice Hayes Fr.*
Drake Johnson Fr. Joe Kerridge Fr.* Dennis Norfleet Fr.
But for a DUI arrest charged to a friendly but still naughty Fitzgerald Toussaint, this would be the position with the fewest question marks on the offense (Denard Q: INTs). Michigan has its breakout starter back plus returning starters at fullback and third-down/space/quarkback. But, yeah, DUI. He's not likely to play against Alabama—Hoke is engaging in gamesmanship—but Toussaint is going to ascend back to the top of the depth chart immediately afterwards.
Still, the legal issue has opened a door for Thomas Rawls, who is Mike Hart but fast, Mark Ingram but better, and Obama except more likely to be elected president in 2008. He'll either start delivering on that promise this year or be filed under the Grady/Underwood wing of tailbacks who seem like a good idea but cannot change directions ever.
A more interesting Q may be what Michigan does with their non-tailbacks. Stephen Hopkins can run a little; incoming freshman Sione Houma is more tailback than fullback, and they've got a full complement of little space bastards. Can they use all these guys effectively? Will they try?

The Starter



dragged down
jukes three Gophers
cuts all the way back
wut lol
stop and go six
good cut
stretch slash
lol Zook
finds a gap on power
backside slash
simply outruns Purdue
hits the edge vs UNL
crappy cut block
find a man, man
wrong side of Schofield

Fitzgerald Toussaint spent his first couple years at Michigan as china in a bull shop, laid up with various injuries that prevented his considerable talent from seeing the field. This did not prevent Fred Jackson from calling him both "Mike Hart but fast" and "Chris Perry but fast." God bless Fred Jackson.

In 2011 his bones and joints mended as Thomas Rawls's failed him at an inopportune time and Toussaint was thrown into a three-way battle with Vincent Smith and Mike Shaw for the starting job, one that last year's edition of this post hoped (and predicted) he would win:

Toussaint 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. …  Anything from Mike Hart (except crappy :( ) to Mike Hart (except fast!) is possible.

Bumps and bruises continued to dog him (he missed the ND game and his inexplicable two carries against MSU almost has to be injury related) but Toussaint actually delivered on Jackson's hyperbole.

He kind of is Mike Hart, but fast:

"full on Hart déjà vu," I said

Juking in a phone booth was Hart's specialty. Toussaint has that and sprinter's speed. As a bonus, he didn't fumble in 187 carries last year. He only lacks Hart's pile-pushing doggedness.

After the inexplicable MSU game, he blew up. His first 20-carry game was the next week against Purdue; he smoked five different Boilers on his signature run of 2011…

…and ended up with 170 yards. The offense imploded the next week and took Toussaint with it, but after that he laid waste: 192 yards against Illinois, 138 against Nebraska, and 120 against Ohio State. (Then the offense imploded again.)

At season's end Toussaint had become Michigan's first 1,000 yard back since Hart and at 5.8 YPC its most efficient since Tim Biakabutuka was going ham on Ohio State in 1995. When he wasn't going off during his second half surge, it was because the walls were coming down around him and there was nowhere to go.

He is legit. He runs between the tackles, finding a crack and jetting straight upfield when it's there. He is a decisive cutter with good vision. When it's not there he can stutter-step and bounce outside. Once in the secondary his change of direction often leaves safeties flapping in his wake. If there's a downside it's a spotty blocking record and not much activity in the passing game (just six catches a year ago), but those are things that Michigan can fix as time goes by.

Toussaint would enter 2012 with a rock-solid lock on the job but for that offseason DUI, which should see him miss the Alabama game. (That assumption may be dubious given the depth chart, but I'm still guessing he gets the standard one game DUI suspension.) That gives Thomas Rawls a crack at the job, and the two subsequent games should be comfortable enough that Toussaint will get eased back into the lineup. By the time ND rolls around, he should resume his place as the feature back.

Toussaint's raw numbers won't reach Hart levels because of the suspension, the guy next to him in the backfield, and the potential emergence of Rawls, but a replica of last season beckons, plus 40 or 50 carries. He'll be All Big Ten caliber even if he doesn't get on the list.

[hit THE JUMP for the rest of the cast of characters.]

Third Down Back


Vincent Smith returns for a final go-round. The diminutive rabbit-chaser out of Pahokee never turned into the sort of ankle-breaking game-changer everyone always wants out of 5'6" tailbacks, he has carved out a niche for himself by thumping blitzing linebackers in the chest and catching wide-open throwback screens. He's on the field because he does this:


And this:

He does the former so well there's a Vincent Smith blitz pickup gif.

As a runner he is not Darren Sproles. He battled Toussaint at the beginning of the year, and then tailed off. He had just three carries and one catch in the final four games after racking up 47 and 10 in the first nine. The run dropoff was expected since it coincided with Toussaint blowing up, but the inability to keep those throwback screens motoring is a concern. (To be fair, Smith probably would have scored a 40-some-yard touchdown against VT if Denard hadn't turfed it.)

I mean… he's a guy. His carries dropped precipitously (136 to 50) once Michigan found out they had a feature back. With Rawls coming on and potentially more dynamic versions of Smith around, chances are his carries get hacked down again. He'll get a dozen or so to keep defenses honest, he'll get some checkdowns and throwback screens, he might even throw another touchdown.

He is what he is. He's a tough bastard, a program guy who will do whatever the team wants and hope to pick up a piece or two of individual glory along the way. His most valuable contributions will come when Denard needs some breathing room and he burrows into the nearest opponent.



I should have written down which of these was Rawls and which was MechaGodzilla. Your guess is as good as mine now.

Never in the history of Michigan football has there been a player with more hyperbole at his back than sophomore Thomas Rawls. Rawls has been coached by not one but two Fred Jacksons and comes out of Flint, where Alabama Heisman winner Mark Ingram hails from. The Fred Jacksons—both of them—have said "Rawls is like Ingram, except a lot faster." This is not a joke. Neither is this:

"Thomas Rawls, to me, is a combination of Anthony Thomas and Chris Perry, but he's faster than both of them."

The elder Fred Jackson then had the audacity to call Rawls "Mike Hart but fast" when he already had Mike Hart but fast on the roster. God bless Fred Jacksons.

After a freshman season firmly in the "wasted redshirt" category (13 carries, 10 of them against Minnesota after Michigan was up a billion), Rawls started delivering on a tiny slice of the hype in the spring game:

…showed a knack in short-yardage ramming and the sort of spread-oriented north-south RAGE runs that Brandon Minor used to specialize in.

It was the short yardage that was most impressive. Michigan's OL was rarely getting Rawls the holes they intended to get him. … when that happened to Rawls he downshifted behind wherever the intended hole was supposed to be and burst into the next one over…. He lowered his head, knocked guys back, and showed enough presence of mind to reach the ball across the goal line when he was suspended near it. Your short-yardage back: check.

Rawls also displayed that north-south bowling ball mentality on a couple of belly plays from the gun on which flailing arm tackles failed to bring him down and he fell forward after contact.

Seeing those carries again is not a MIND BLOWN kind of thing:

Those two carries where Rawls powers his thighs through tackles are kind of Ingram-like, right? (And this one against Minnesota!) We're going to be okay for Alabama, right? This is probably something I should be answering instead of asking.

Answering: no, probably not. Rawls isn't the kind of guy who's going to slip by an unblocked player or burst through a secondary. At 5'8", 220 he can grind like Kevin Grady. I'm dubious he'll have the wiggle or raw speed to be a feature guy.

Behind Rawls there's a fleet of specialists with no experience. The most conventional tailback sort is freshman Drake Johnson, a low-rated kid out of Pioneer who runs fast, but runs high. He's almost certain to redshirt. I will do his recruiting profile during the bye week.

In the land of quarkbacks, Justice Hayes [recruiting profile] is coming off a redshirt year; Dennis Norfleet [recruiting profile] just arrived from Detroit King. Both are speedier versions of Smith. Hayes saw a number of snaps in the open practice and is presumably fourth-ish in the pecking order for carries behind the three guys mentioned above; Norfleet is ticketed for return duties this year and may get to show off some moves in garbage time. I love Dennis Norfleet.

Either one of the quark guys could find a role as a Vincent Smith++ if they can block. They probably can't just yet. Next year is when one or both should emerge.

Finally, freshman Sione Houma [recruiting profile] arrives from Utah as a RB/FB hybrid. He could develop into a power back with a side of Aaron Shea down the road, or he could just be a banger. A redshirt beckons for him as well.


Rating: 4.

Junior Stephen Hopkins started out last year telling people that the amount of fullback he'd been playing was "none." He ended it supplanting senior John McColgan as the designated head-basher. This transition was helped along by a couple of early-season fumbles by Hopkins and indifferent play from McColgan; happily, Hopkins being a pretty good fullback was also part of the quick transition.

He's big (240 pounds now) and more agile than the usual head-pounding guy. As early as Minnesota he was making blocks like this:


And that's all she wrote. The two DTs getting annihilated and Hopkins thumping the MLB such that he provides a crease away from the Gopher free hitter—visible in the left frame above and stuck behind the Hopkins block in the second—gives Toussaint a free pass into the virtually nonexistent secondary.

Minnesota-was-awful disclaimers apply, sure. He came in for praise against real teams as well. This is a great iso block against Iowa:

A little later he would club the same guy; he also flashed the agility to get out and cut guys on the perimeter.

By the numbers, Hopkins had an erratic but generally encouraging season. He had a +5 against Iowa, a +7 against Nebraska, a +3.5 against Northwestern, and hovered around zero most of the rest of the time either due to marginalization (3WR + TE sets) or struggling a bit (OSU and Purdue). Collectively those numbers are the best for a fullback in the history of the run chart. Which is two years. But, hey! The best.

Michigan is banking heavily on Hopkins taking his promising 2011 and building on it. With Kevin Koger gone and tumbleweeds at tight end, Michigan spent most of the spring game in three-wide shotgun with Hopkins featuring as a Rodriguez-style superback. Even if he's less prominent now with a couple of freshmen added to the TE mix, Hopkins is going to be a key component of the run game. If he can add some receiving and rage-carries to his repertoire, all the better.

Backing up Hopkins will be redshirt freshman Joe Kerridge, a traditional walk-on thumper, and the aforementioned Houma.



August 27th, 2012 at 4:45 PM ^

Hayes is 5'10", 185.

Toussaint is 5'10", 200.

I don't see why Hayes is already being pushed out of the mental running of being a real, non-situational RB. He was the #85 recruit in the nation, as a RB.


August 27th, 2012 at 5:23 PM ^

Brian, you don't think Rawls has the wiggle or high end speed to be a featured back and then you compared him to Grady?

No disrespect, but you're way off.

Rawls has much better vision than Grady.   Rawls is not slow by any means either and has plenty of wiggle.  Rawls is our future, feature back, and if he can perform how I think he can against Alabama, we may have quite the two headed monster running attack on our hands.  Think Auburn mid 2000's

Remember, Rawls was getting more carries than Fitz in fall camp last year until he dinged up his shoulder.  He was running with the ones.  This staff has always thought highly of him.  He has the body type and running style which Hoke and Borges want.

Fort Wayne Blue

August 27th, 2012 at 5:31 PM ^

game week!!!!!
game week!!!!!!!!
game week!!!!!!!!!!
game week!!!!!!!!!!!!!
game week!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
game week!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
game week!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

i'm getting the shivvers!!!



August 27th, 2012 at 9:11 PM ^

this the series from last year where SR. Denard in 2nd year in system >> Jr. Denard????? If so, I like the greater than/less than, though the kids these days are ruining them. Is that why it was stopped?


September 12th, 2012 at 8:21 PM ^

read his stats.  2600 yds. rushing in two years of HS. 34 TD. No fumbles. Had knee issues in senior year , did not play.   Just watch for him. 244 now.  Would like to see him and Hopkins in a set.  Not just a thumper.


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