|Speculation growing on running back situation|
|Written by Matt Pargoff|
When news broke earlier this week that junior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint was suspended from the team indefinitely after being arrested for driving under the influence, it left many fans wondering what Michigan’s backfield would look heading into the season. With head coach Brady Hoke providing no further insight on the running back’s status for the season, speculation on the matter has only increased.
Toussaint took control of the starting role over the course of the 2011 season, putting up excellent numbers in the final six games to finish with 1,041 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. For many fans, the primary focus is on the season opening contest against Alabama and whether or not Toussaint will be allowed to participate in that game. But “indefinitely” could mean a lot of things, so it possible that the suspension could cut into more of the season than just the first game.
Aside from the importance of that season opener, there is good reason that fans are focused on Alabama. The Crimson Tide had the top rush defense in the nation last season, and will bring exceptional speed to the table on that side of the ball. Toussaint is the only proven player at running back with even a chance to match that speed.
The most likely player to take Toussaint’s place as the starter, if he does not play, is senior Vincent Smith. While the diminutive 5-6, 172 pound runner does not have great speed, he is a solid, steady and proven runner that can be trusted to hang onto the ball. That dependable ball security may be a key factor in giving him in the nod over the younger runners.
Smith has started in 11 games in his career, carrying the ball 234 times for 1,175 yards (5.0 yards per carry) and eight touchdowns. If Toussaint’s suspension stretches well into the season, Smith will probably get the bulk of carries in his absence.
Against Alabama, if the contest develops into a close low-scoring affair, the senior runner will be trusted not lose the game for the Wolverines. That said, if more points are needed, the fact that he is the least physically imposing player at the position could become an issue. He is not likely to outrun many Bama defenders, nor is he likely to run them over. In that scenario, the Wolverines may be forced to lean on other more dynamic rushing threats.
In the event that Michigan turns to one of the younger players at the position, sophomore Thomas Rawls appears to be next in line to grab some carries. Like Smith, he is not the fastest running back, but where he could separate himself is through his power. The 5-10, 220 pounder has the ability to muscle his way through defenders. Whether he can put that to good use against a defense as talented as Alabama’s remains to be seen. But if Toussaint’s suspension stretches into the season, Rawls will definitely get more opportunities to carry the ball. Last season, he ran for 80 yards on just 13 attempts.
Rawls had a couple nice runs in the spring game, but was mostly shut down. Every carry the sophomore had in that scrimmage can be seen in video below.
If the Wolverines feel that speed is the best answer to counter the Alabama defense, there are no experienced players that fit the bill. Redshirt freshman Justice Hayes does have good speed and quickness, but he did not stand out in the spring game – all of his carries can also be seen below. While Hayes could see playing time this season, it is unlikely that the coaches would want his first collegiate action to come against one of the nation’s top defenses.
The same can essentially be said for Dennis Norfleet or any other of the incoming freshman. While Norfleet has excellent speed and quickness, he lacks size, and it would be very risky to play him against the Crimson Tide. He has a shot to see playing time over the course of the year, but the season opener would be pushing the Wolverines’ luck.
Another option that Michigan may have to consider is fullback Stephen Hopkins. The junior came to Michigan as a power running back and possesses a similar set of skills as Rawls. The difference there being that he has more experience.
The situation at running back is certainly not ideal. If Toussaint doesn’t play in the opener, he will certainly be missed. But at this point, it is only speculation as to how long his suspension will even last. “Indefinitely” could mean the first half of the opening game or the first half of the season.