Preview 2013: Running Back Comment Count

Brian August 26th, 2013 at 4:48 PM

Previously: Podcast 5.0, The Story, Quarterback


Rating: 4 of 5. Yeah, I said it.

Fitzgerald Toussaint Sr.* Derrick Green Fr. Justice Hayes So.*
De'Veon Smith Fr. Thomas Rawls Jr. Fitzgerald Toussaint Sr.*
Drake Johnson Fr.* De'Veon Smith Fr. Drake Johnson Fr.*
Fitzgerald Toussaint returns from the horrific ankle injury that neatly summarized his 2012 season. Michigan adds horses in freshmen Derrick Green, De'Veon Smith, and (redshirted) Drake Johnson. They get back Thomas Rawls and Justice Hayes.
Will any of it matter? Will Michigan be able to stare down a first and ten in a big set and expect two, even three yards? Will everything just melt into goo without Denard Robinson's 7.2(!!!) YPC holding things aloft? How much of last year was even on the running backs and how much was on never blocking anyone?
Ack! That's not even this preview! Come back for the offensive line!

The Man Comes Around

"In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer that could approach six yards a carry." –Albert Camus


Bryan Fuller

attributes a plenty
screen WOOP
good at tiptoeing sidelines
picks up feet smartly
A-/B+ speed
plus balance
picks through traffic 
notre doom
more purdoom
even more purdoom
are you friggin kidding me
are these STILL purdue clips?
MSU doom, finally
mother died today
or maybe yesterday
i can't be sure
I was assailed by memories of a life that wasn't mine anymore
one in which I'd found the simplest and most lasting joys
FITZGERALD TOUSSAINT was coming off a breakout sophomore year in which he cracked a thousand yards on just 187 carries, coming in at an impressive 5.6 yards a crack. That's good for 21st all-time (minimum 100 carries) and was the best YPC season from a Michigan running back since Tim Biakabatuka's 1995 campaign.  Yes. It had been nearly two decades since a Michigan back had been so efficient on the ground. People were hyped.
They got a resounding thud, and not the good kind that Derrick Green promises.
The first sign of trouble was an offseason DUI that cost him the opener and restricted him to eight carries in the Air Force game. Once returned to full service Toussaint was swarmed on play after play, losing an astounding amount of production. His YPC dipped to 3.9. At left there are six separate clips from the Purdue game alone in which Toussaint is swarmed by defenders in the backfield. Michigan won that game 44-13; Toussaint eked out 1.1 yards a carry. Yeah, man, eventually I just started quoting The Stranger. If there's anything Fitzgerald Toussaint needs it's a meditation on the absurdity of human existence. And maybe a block. Just one block. Is that too much to ask?
I suppose it is.
And just when it looked like he was turning the corner thanks to a 19-touch, 120-yard day against Northwestern, his lower leg turned into paste on his third carry of the Iowa game.
Poor damn Toussaint.


Toussaint rehabbed with a vengeance, and went into spring camp with a vengeance, and hopes to confront the Big Ten in superhero outfit and big guns this fall. His coaches have taken notice. Borges:

"Fitz has got fire in his eyes. I see no signs of any injury ... He is very hungry.

"One thing about running backs, it's not like the lines. You get to see them cut, even if it's not live or not with pads on. His stop and go ability looks to be right back where it was."

Fullback Joe Kerridge looks like a cross between a refrigerator and a bear (more on this in the Tight End And Friends section) and says Toussaint outworked even him over the summer:

"He busted his butt to get back before the start of camp. It seemed like every time I went in this summer to lift or do conditioning, Fitz was already there and he would still be there after I left."

When fall camp launched, the immediate and consistent buzz was that Toussaint was back to his old self—his old-old self. Tellingly, the coaches didn't dance around the topic like they do on most every other personnel battle. First he was back, then he was playing very well, then he was leading, and then it was his job, full stop.

So… what now?

[after THE JUMP: Yeah, what now? Freshmen are large men. A replacement for Vincent Smith, and veterans trying to hold off the youngsters.]

A resurgence. Toussaint's 2011 is much closer to his true talent level than his 2012. Denard Robinson draws a lot of attention but in last year's preview I was calling him "Mike Hart but fast" and kind of meaning it. The cuts he displayed two years ago were no fluke and had nothing to do with the quarterback:

His vision and ability to pick through traffic:

But fast:

That doesn't just evaporate. Remember this guy?

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.

He is in there still.

The yards went away because a large portion of what happened to Toussaint last year was not his fault. As I went back through the clips I culled for UFRs, the "DOOM" category got larger and larger and larger. After careful consideration I have settled upon this as the most Poor Damn Toussaint run of last year that did not end with his ankle vaporizing:

"so broken I don't know what's going on," declared yrs truly

Actually maybe it was no one blocking a defensive tackle against Michigan State, or every carry in the Purdue game. There are lots of options.

He did seem off from time to time, missing cuts or inappropriately bouncing the ball outside. To me that's a symptom of never knowing if the offensive line is going to block the play you think you're running or identify the middle linebacker. It's hard to hit the hole with authority when you have no idea where it might be and strongly suspect it will fail to exist at all.

Maybe Toussaint got lax last summer, assuming he would carry the mail forever and didn't need to put in as much effort. Maybe the DUI threw him off. If so, those things are not hurdles this year. The narrative of fall camp is exactly what you want to hear when there is a position battle: it is this guy's job, and even the head coach will tell you so.

Meanwhile, the offensive line should improve enough to get him the cracks he exploited two years ago. They don't have to be perfect, or even great, to give him an opportunity to juke a guy.

Toussaint cracks a thousand yards on over 5.0 a pop, and if he doesn't it's on the line.

The Fresh-Man, Or Men

576342_1derrick green

Smith and Green

The depth chart says another thing, and it's right for the first few weeks of the season. But it doesn't take long for talent to rise to the top at tailback.

It says here that Toussaint will be pushed—gently, it seems—by two incoming freshmen. The one with the titanic hype is DERRICK GREEN [recruiting profile], the #1 back to both Scout and Rivals last year. A man with wolves for legs and enough speed to crank out 40 yarders, if not 80 yarders, Green was reputed to be a college sophomore, physically.

He may now be more than that. You are probably still coming down from the adrenaline after the mad e-looting and e-chaos that transpired after the fall roster listed Green at 240 pounds. Fred Jackson thinks it's fine, you guys:

"I know when I saw him on high school film, he was 240, 235 or 240," Jackson recalled. "He's a big guy. Look at him from the back and the side, he's a huge human being.

"He's that big."

Nevertheless, Pictures were found. Magnifiers were brought out, epic zoom applied, "sharpen" repeatedly screamed at Photoshop in an attempt to get it to do that thing they do in movies to turn four pixels into an inch-perfect map of the Sahara Desert, all in the service of determining whether Derrick Green was fat. Derrick Green was determined to either be fat or not fat by these efforts.

More concerning than five pounds that may or may not exist (277-pound Frank Clark has had his weight listed at 268 and 274 by Frank Clark himself in a couple of Countdown To Kickoff videos) is the knock Green picked up at the start of fall camp. Green tweaked an ankle and was very gradually brought back into contact over the next three weeks. Michigan tried to downplay it for reasons of paranoia, but make no mistake: he has not gotten a lot out of fall camp. He's behind where he needs to be as a result. Yeah, it's not that tough to pick up running back, but it's not quite that easy.

Green's entry into the lineup will be slowed as a result, especially with Fitz impressing consistently. The soft early schedule will help him get acclimated, and by midseason he should be seeing most of the short yardage carries and some others spotting Toussaint.

Behind—or alongside, or perhaps in front of—Green is fellow freshman DE'VEON SMITH [recruiting profile]. Smith's strong fall camp complicates matters here. Por ejemplo:

"I also heard teammates (receivers, tight ends, etc.) rave about freshman running back De'Veon Smith and his strength. Smith is the 'overlooked' running back, Brady Hoke said, but he's not here to sit."

Michigan got Smith after a pitched recruiting duel with Ohio State and has won a very Hart-like back with uncanny balance who pumps his legs through contact, has a hop-cut in the hole, and never fumbles. This, basically:


To listen to his awesome coach Dick Angle, Smithamania* is about to run wild on the Big Ten:

“I don’t think there’s a hell of a lot of difference between 4.6 and 4.5, especially when you’re 215 pounds and you’re running the football and you never fumble it and you always end up in the end zone,” Angle said. “So they can have their 4.3 guys and 4.4 guys and I’ll take Smith, even if he was 5-flat, which he isn’t. He runs a 4.5-forty consistently and all he does is score touchdowns, run for first downs, catch passes and wins.”

It makes a ton of sense to redshirt Smith with the Toussaint/Green 1-2 punch plus three guys who are viable targets for spot carries and the presumed absence of a tailback in the 2013 class, but… you know… it's not actually crazy if you believe Smith is just better right now. The #2 guy is going to play.

The veterans will pick up most of the leftover carries in the first couple games as Michigan works their freshmen into the lineup. By midseason one or both of the newbies will pass Rawls and Johnson to be the primary backup. Hayes may still have a role.

*[working title]

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

Third Down Back

The departed Vincent Smith couldn't run the ball that well, but damn if the kid couldn't pick his way through throwback screen traffic and thump linebackers who went after the QB. Facing a year when youth on the interior and pass-protection excellence on the exterior figure to spawn a panoply of opponent blitzes, Michigan would like to replace Smith with… pretty much Vincent Smith. Except fast.


The nearest equivalent on the roster was consistently spotted in the scrimmage video as Devin Gardner's shotgun sidekick, so we'll give him the nod here. He is JUSTICE HAYES [recruiting profile], a true junior who was the state's most-touted recruit a couple years back. Originally a Notre Dame commit, Hayes flipped to Michigan in unusual circumstances. Hayes was given the cold shoulder on a visit, got the message, and switched his commitment soon after.

In two years at Michigan Hayes has seen just enough time to burn a redshirt and get blown up by poor blocking a half-dozen times. That's all the information we have past the recruiting hype. That hype projected Hayes as a spread back and potential slot receiver, to the point that his recruiting profile compared him to Steve Breaston; recently-departed Notre Dame offensive weapon Theo Riddick is another comparison point:

His body structure is reminiscent of Notre Dame running back Theo Riddick.
… will need to add some more strength and size in order to make yards after contact at the next level. He could work on his balance. …. Hayes is very versatile and could player defensive back, wide receiver or running back at the next level. He is a high-character kid that possesses serious leadership skills. ... He adds instant speed and will be hard to keep off the field.

Hayes fits the bill as a throwback screen target, wheel route runner, and safety valve. Since it looks like Toussaint is going to get a feature back load in an offense that's going to run a lot Michigan is going to want to give snaps to someone else in whatever manner they may be most effective, and Hayes in the shotgun is the most obvious opportunity… as long as he can pass block. He seems like a better bet than anyone else.


The problem faced by non-Toussaint, non-freshman tailbacks is this: there were three of them competing in spring without any of those guys around and none truly emerged as a contender. Jackson:

Based on the spring you would say how did (Thomas Rawls, Justice Hayes, and Drake Johnson) come out?  They were fairly even… those three guys. Now you look at those guys and you say you’ve got to get a guy out of that bunch. 

If one had, you could project that guy to be in the mix for serious time. None did, and so they will be relegated to playing roles of a larger or smaller variety. Hayes appears to have escaped purgatory to become the third down back—he is the guy out of the bunch. The others don't figure to be so lucky.


Rawls didn't break enough tackles last year. [Eric Upchurch]

It was inevitable that THOMAS RAWLS would disappoint last year. Thomas Rawls had been proclaimed by multiple Fred Jacksons to be

Rawls could have singlehandedly gutted Ohio State and he would not have quite matched the hype.

Rawls did not gut Ohio State. After a few promising late-game carries against the likes of UMass, Purdue, and Illinois he earned some meaningful playing time, often as a short  yardage back. The results were not good, whether Rawls was bouncing it out like it was still high school or not bouncing it out like the corner wasn't open. A lack of vision combined with a surprising lack of power

Rawls contacts the safety at the one, powering in... er, powering to the one. … Rawls meets an unblocked LB at the LOS and can't make extra yards. … Rawls is on the edge with DBs moving laterally; no YAC.

--Iowa UFR

…meant he wasn't even very proficient at the role that was projected to be his floor: short-yardage back. He was Kevin Grady, except not particularly good at picking up a yard. It's hard to see that improving enough for Rawls to keep his 57 carries from a year ago once the freshmen get up to speed. Smith and Green are just on another level.

Drake Johnson[1]

Michigan also gets DRAKE JOHNSON off a redshirt. Johnson was a low-ranked local kid who functioned as the be-all, end-all of Ann Arbor Pioneer's offense. He was headed to Eastern Michigan before Jackson successfully pled his case to the head man, and now he's… you know, around. Given Jackson's occasionally dubious talent identification skills, this one is filed under "cock an eyebrow at the coaches" rather than trust them.

Johnson did get some bowl practice hype

I think Drake Johnson is a guy who at the end of the fall and bowl practice, we liked a lot what he did.”

…and has been mentioned approvingly in spring. He is also the nominal #2 back on the CMU depth chart. He'll get some early carries as the freshmen pick up the finer points of pass blocking, but he'll have to show something quickly if he's going to stay ahead of Green and Smith. Given how far Johnson had to go as a high schooler it's more realistic to expect he will contribute a bit more next year, when Toussaint is gone and (probably) no one replaces him in the 2013 class. He's kind of a Brandon Minor type—tall, upright runner—with less rage.

While we're here, let's remember that Drake Johnson is the reason we know Fred Jackson cannot have his thirst quenched by anything.

Finally, Michigan did bring WYATT SHALLMAN [recruiting profile] in as a mondo tailback, and he did practice at that spot in camp. A redshirt is in order after a knee injury; he's more fully discussed in the TE spectrum.



Fullbacks have been moved to the tight end spectrum.



August 26th, 2013 at 4:55 PM ^

"In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer that could approach six yards a carry." –Albert Camus


If I ever get fired from my job it will be because Brian makes me laugh my damned ass off in my cubicle while my co workers politely discourse with the company's clients with utmost professionalism.

Zone Left

August 26th, 2013 at 5:20 PM ^

What, TALENT didn't make Omameh cruise six yards into the backfield when he pulled! Basic footwork technique and coaching have nothing to do with that.

Like a lot of folks here, I'm skeptical of Funk too. Pulling around the edge, breaking down, and successfully engaging a linebacker you have a split second to pick up is a talent. Seriously, that's really hard to teach. Taking a single drop-step and moving generally toward the right area is technique. I'm not convinced Funk is a good teacher yet, which is basically the whole goal of Hoke's staff. 


August 26th, 2013 at 5:23 PM ^

Omameh could never pull very well. Maybe different coaches could have gotten through to him, but pulling was just never his bag. He was a chip-and-leak-downfield guy, not a meet-large-men-in-the-hole guy. Mealer was a guard who had to play center because he could snap the football. Barnum didn't have that nasty streak you need in a downhill system.

Zone Left

August 26th, 2013 at 5:59 PM ^

I totally get that the interior line was a bad fit. That's why I'm skeptical instead of RAGE! about the line coaching. I just don't understand why they used the technique they used. I really hope Kalis and Glasgow show some nice movement and can remain relatively tight to the line of scrimmage rather than bowing out behind the running back. 

If you want to run that Power play as a base to the offense, you've got to be able to hit quickly and move defenders around. What I've seen over the last two years is that the combination of staff and players aren't able to do it.

By the way, why ruin the BISB "brand" with the name and logo change? I always knew a football playing dog was a dog to pay attention to. I'm not so sure about a puppy version of my dog with a broken leg. He just makes me sad.


August 26th, 2013 at 5:35 PM ^

Seriously.  For all the great stuff going on the last few years, I'd say last year's O line appeared about as confused as any I've seen for Michigan in 35 years of watching us.  I'm very concerned that Funk has his head half way up his own ass by how poorly his crew performed last year, the cherry on top being the confusion over a basic assignment that cut Clowney loose for the "Hit of the Season" on Vinny White.

I envision we'll run for about 50 running back generated yards vs ND tops.  I am hoping to God Funk will surprise me and prove me an idiot.


August 26th, 2013 at 7:53 PM ^

Brian? Is that you? 

PS, I'm beginning to like the lack of voting. I'm still uncomfortable with it, and I fear change, (plus the level of funny gifs and memes have diminished drastically,) but the genuine open discussion has come back with a vengeance.


August 26th, 2013 at 7:00 PM ^

The Big Ten conference champion rarely finishes 1st or tops in league rushing.

Over the last 10 years, Big 10 teams that  finished around 3rd in league rushing seemed to win a larger  proportion of the titles.

Michigan finished 5th in rushing yards in 2012 behind Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio and Northwestern respectively.

Year       Conf Champion         Conf Rushing Rank (yrds)

2003      UM 10-3                       4th

2004       UM 9-3/Iowa 10-2     5th/11th

2005       Ohio 10-2                   5th

2006       Ohio                           4th

2007       Ohio                            3rd

2008       Ohio                            3rd

2009       Ohio                            3rd

2010      MSU/UW                      5th/2nd

2011       UW                               1st

2012       UW                                2nd  (* but unbeaten Ohio finished 3rd again)



Swayze Howell Sheen

August 26th, 2013 at 8:42 PM ^

Camus quotes are appropriate for football.

To wit (from the Stranger):

"For all to be accomplished, for me to feel less lonely, all that remained to hope was that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration."

That is a football quote if there is one. 


August 27th, 2013 at 7:52 AM ^

I expect that both Smith and Green will feature heavily and will completely surpass all returning RBs other than Fitz by B10 play. Hoke said that he expects both of them to play on Saturday, even if on special teams. So no redshirt for either. Why burn a redshirt for both of them when there are 4-5 others at the position unless you expect them to contribute meaningfully this year? The fact that these guys are definitely not resshirting means that what we all expect - that the retainers other than fitz are just not that capable - may be true.

Green and Smith are both beasts, and may end up splitting reps with fitz as the season wears on.


August 27th, 2013 at 9:31 AM ^

I would expect that a few games into the season we should have a pretty good RB rotation worked out. At the very least it should be a good 1,2 punch. Probably it be more like a 1,2,3 punch. And if Hayes can be pretty decent receiving out of the backfield there should be alot of options and positives to look forward to. Of course most of this depends on the O line........