Pre-Spring Ball Thoughts: Running Backs

For part I of the Pre-Spring Ball Thoughts series click here: Pre-Spring Ball Thoughts: Quarterbacks 
Part II will cover the Michigan running backs.  The running-back position group is deep.  Not the deepest on the team but almost there.  Just because it is a deep position group doesn't mean there aren't any questions marks surrounding it going into the spring evaluation period.  In  Pre-Spring Ball Thoughts: Running Backs, I will be presenting some of the main questions surrounding the current backs Michigan has in its stable.

This position group has a lot of talent spread out over different recruiting classes.  Michael Shaw is a senior.  Vincent Smith is a junior. Mike Cox is a redshirt junior. Stephen Hopkins is a sophomore and Fitzgerald Toussaint is a redshirt sophomore.  Come the summer time Michigan will have seven running backs on the roster with the addition of incoming freshmen Justice Hayes and Thomas Rawls.

If we go by last seasons depth chart then Vincent Smith is at the number one spot. Last season Smith took the brunt of the carries for the Wolverines.  He carried the ball 136 times for 601 yards and five touchdowns.  Quite impressive considering he tore his ACL late in the 2009 season.  Smith is a tough little back who has done well for Michigan's running game. His only downside is he lacks the size to be a consistent running threat.  It is tough to picture a 5'6", 180lb running back in the three point stance in a power-I formation.  While his speed was effective for the spread option attack will his size allow him to be an every down back in the new west-coast style offense Michigan will be running?

My thoughts:  You can't under estimate the toughness of a kid from Pahokee, Florida.  When he arrived on campus his teammates called him "the worm" because he was tough to bring down in drills.  While his size may be a concern to some people I think Smith could do very well in Michigan's new offensive philosophy.  You can still place him in a 2-back set and either give him a draw play or allow him to run the flat or you can place him as a wing-back and allow him to come on a jet-sweep.  There are many possibilities Coach Borgess can do with Smith.  He is a tough, versatile back who is hard to bring down on initial contact. In order for Michigan's new offense to be effective it is going to require a back that is able to provide sufficient pass-blocking abilities.  Smith has the mental and physical toughness to be a good blocker for the quarterback.  While his toughness isn't a concern does his size allow him to keep a high level of stamina while consistently picking up blitzing linebackers that outweigh him by more than 40-50 lbs?  A skill Smith possesses that will allow him to be effective in the offense is his catching ability.  He runs good routes out of the backfield and doesn't have a reputation for dropping the ball.  I highly doubt we have seen the last of Vincent Smith but will we still see him at the running back position?  I for one, look forward to hearing about him during spring practices and seeing how the spring game and the fall time goes for him. 

At the number two spot sits Michael Shaw (again if going by last seasons depth chart).  Last season whenever Smith was out it was usually Shaw that came in to replace him.  In 2010, he carried the ball 75 times for 402 yards and nine touchdowns.  He has shown flashes of being a good running back.  He has 4.4 speed and is able to switch into high gear after hitting the hole.  At 6'1" and 187 lbs he is a tough player that can take some pounding.  Shaw's downside is he is too flashy.  Instead of hitting the hole with his shoulders lowered he relies too much on shiftiness and cut backs.  His natural instinct to juke the defender has led to too many negative yardage plays.  If he can learn to run more north-south he has all the talent to be a more productive back for the Wolverines.

My thoughts:  It is time for Shaw to step up and become the type of running back he has the potential to be.  He hasn't been able to adjust his game to the college level all too well, which is probably due to him being an injury prone football player.  He has good hands and once he gets into the open field his speed will allow him to separate from the defenders and carry him into the end zone.  Shaw needs to get tougher on the football field. He needs to hit his holes with toughness by lowering his shoulders and creating space for himself.  Coach Hoke isn't going to give him the starting spot by seeing Shaw's flashiness.  He is going to want a tough back that can grind down the opposing team.  Michigan is no longer going to be a football team that scores in a matter of less than a minute.  We will see more sustained drives and a more traditional running game sprinkled in with some read option type plays.  Going into the spring it will be interesting to see if Shaw can take more of a leadership role for Michigan's backfield. 

One of the running backs I am most excited about is (SO) Stephen Hopkins.  At 6'1", 227 lbs he is simply just massive.  He has thighs the size of tree trunks.  He is not a flashy back by any means.  He is the typical Big Ten, lunch-pale style running back that will punish defenders each time they tackle him. Stephen was kind of out of place in Rich Rodriguez's spread option.  Coach Rod opted for small and quick backs rather than big bruising backs.  His reasoning for that last year could've very well been because Stephen was a freshman and didn't have a whole lot of experience playing at the college level.  That is all fine and dandy but for the life of me I could not understand why on a third and one we would see little ole' Vincent Smith trying to dive forward to gain an extra yard only to get stuffed at the line of scrimmage.  The frustration of the stuff was amplified by knowing we had a big, bruiser type of running back standing on the sidelines.  Just his size and momentum alone would allow him to fall for an extra yard or two.  Personally, i would much rather see a tough, grinding north-south running back who can gain an extra yard or two over a flashy east-west back who gets stuffed at the line of scrimmage more than half the time.

My thoughts:  We are going to see a lot more of Stephen Hopkins.  He is a perfect fit for Al Borgess's offense.  It is going to be excited to once again watch a big, bruising running back in a winged helmet punishing Big Ten defenses.   His size will allow him to be able to maintain a good amount of stamina while taking on linebackers that try and come unabated to the quarterback.  His size will also allow him to consistently take the punishment that Big Ten defenses are going to give him throughout the ball game.  Stephen's future at Michigan is very bright.  Look for him to have a more active role this year.

Another big back Michigan has in their arsenal is Mike Cox.  At 6'0" and 211 lbs with a 4.47, 40-yard dash he has the size and speed to be a lethal running back for Michigan. He reminds me a lot of former Michigan running back Chris Perry.  If he can add about 16 more lbs he would be the exact same height and weight but would be faster than Chris was.  Cox is hard to bring down on initial contact. He does a great job of keeping his legs moving and keeping his eyes down the field.  A downfall for Cox is he takes a bit of time to get his speed going. He is not as quick right from the get go as he should be.  This is one area where Perry has Cox beat at.  However, he does have enough shiftiness and cut back abilities in him to work through or avoid tackles.

My Thoughts:  Cox and Hopkins will battle it out for Michigan's starting running back spot.  Brady Hoke will want a bigger and tougher running back carrying the pigskin for Michigan the majority of the time.  While i am sure we will still see some of the smaller and speedier backs, I think the transition back to a more traditional but yet innovative offense will start with having bigger running backs and a bigger offensive line.  In order to have sustained drives Michigan will need to rely on their bigger backs to grind out first downs and keep the ball moving.  I think we will see the smaller backs on 1st or 2nd down with more than 5 yards to go. However, if its 2 and 4 or 3 and 3 one can only assume we will be seeing our bigger backs running the ball. 

Before coming to Michigan, Fitzgerald  (Fitz) Toussaint was a highly-touted prospect.  When he arrived on campus many Michigan fans already had high hopes for him.  After all Toussaint played high school football in talent rich Ohio and had amassed over 4,690 yards on 455 carries and 65 touchdowns.  At 5'10", 200 lbs and a 4.4, 40-yard dash with video game like stats what fan wouldn't have had high expectations.  Unfortunately for Toussaint and the Michigan faithful he shares Michael Shaw's injury bug.  He has been plagued with a bad knee issues.  If he can stay healthy he has the size and speed to become an exciting player.  What I like about Fitz is he is a patient runner.  He will run behind his blockers for as long as necessary then once he sees his opportunity he will switch to high-gear and run through or right past defenders.  He is naturally shifty meaning he can square off a defender and make a cut without losing any speed.  He good speed but isn't as big as I would like.  His speed and toughness allows him to have the potential to be a good back but is he good enough to beat out Cox, Hopkins or maybe even Shaw for the top-spot?

My Thoughts:  It is difficult to gauge exactly how good Fitz can become.  We have only seen him in very limited action against some poor teams.  If he can stay healthy he has all the qualities to be a good back but are those qualities good enough to see the field in such a talent-laden position group.  Fitz still has a long career ahead of him but the competition for the starting running back spot is stiff.  If he isn't going to see the field does he transfer or switch positions?  I think it is too early to write-off young Mr. Toussaint.  He has a lot of potential and a lot to proof.  He has just been unable to stay healthy long enough to truly show off his skill-sets.  If he is healthy this year and isn't able to sniff the starting spot then I would place him on the 'transfer-watch' list.  It is not common that such a highly-touted prospect out of high school will just sit by and ride-the-bench for 4 years.  I for one am pulling for Fitz.  I think he can be a great running back for Michigan but I am not to sure he can have the success that many hope for.

Justice Hayes is one of two incoming freshman running backs from Michigan's 2011 recruiting class. At 5-10, 180 lbs he is smaller than what I would like but he has good speed.  He doesn't have blazing speed to breakaway from defenders but he has what I like to call 'field-fast'.  His strengths are his elusiveness, cut-back ability and vision.  Hayes was originally a Notre Dame commit but switched his allegiance to Michigan in November.  For more info on Justice Hayes click here: Hayes Signing Day Showcase

The other incoming running back is Thomas Rawls. Rawls is 5-10, 200 lbs and runs a 4.5, 40-yard dash.  His running ability has drawn comparisons to fellow Flint native and Heisman trophy winner Mark Ingram.  Even though he has broken some of Mark Ingram's records at Flint he would much rather be compared to his favorite Michigan player Mike Hart.  Rawls was quoted by saying, ""Honestly, I want to play early like he did. I want to play as a true freshman running back. I know I am going to make an impact. Also, Mike Hart holds a lot of records at Michigan, and with all due respect to Mike, I want to shatter those records."  MLive Ralws Story  For Michigan fans if Rawls can be another coming of Mike Hart then we are in for some great seasons ahead of us. During his senior year he ran for 1,585 yards on 150 carries and 19 touchdowns.  For more info on Thomas Rawls click here: Rawls Signing Day Showcase


My thoughts overall:   Here is what i expect to happen after spring and come fall time.  I think we are going to see a variety of formations.  As of right now Michigan doesn't have any fullbacks so that means one of the bigger backs is going to need to step up and take that roll. I would guess that would be Hopkins or Cox.  Don't look at Hopkins or Cox to be permanent fullbacks.  I can just see Michigan using them in that formation.  Also look for Michigan to use a good mix of one-back and two-back formations with the running backs side-by-side. Placing them side-by-side allows Michigan to have many different options from the play action to handing the ball off to either running back causing some confusion within the defense.  It will also allow to have one running back be responsible for pass blocking and the other run out into the flat or to create a mis-match by having the back run out into where the opposing teams linebackers are and get into the open field.  My pre-spring ball predictions is by the fall time either Hopkins or Cox will have the starting spot unless Shaw improves his running game and stays healthy then I think they will battle Shaw for the spot. I think Vincent Smith looses his starting spot just due to the nature of the new offensive philosophy. However, i wouldn't put it past Coach Borgess to place Hopkins or Cox at the fullback spot for a few plays and have Smith running behind him.  I also wouldn't put it past having Smith at one of the side-by-side spots and using him for his catching abilities and speed in the open field.  I think we will see both Hayes and Rawls.  Especially Rawls due to his known academic issues.  This is definitely going to be an excited spring and summer.  There are so many variables that will factor into who gets the starting nod come the Western Michigan game.    After the spring period I will re-visit these thoughts and see how they compare.  

Here are some running back prospects Michigan is looking at in the 2012 class: (click on name to view information)
1. Matt Jones
2. Demetrius Williams
3. Keith Marshall
4. Donovan Roberts
5. Rushel Shell
6. Drew Harris

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