The indefinite loss of running back Fitz Toussaint is the largest hurdle that the Michigan Wolverines offense will have to overcome heading into the 2012 season.
But what does that loss mean for the eighth-ranked Wolverines? Does Toussaint's potential absence mean Michigan's running game is done for against one of the best defenses in the nation?
Sophomore Thomas Rawls may be one of the least talked-about running backs in the Big Ten. Granted, the former Flint Northern star was mentioned as one of the league's best freshmen a year ago, but he only saw 13 carries (10 against Minnesota for 73 yards).
Toussaint, meanwhile, stole the stage, rushing for 1,041 yards and nine touchdowns for the BCS bowl-bound Wolverines.
Rawls essentially was pushed to the back burner, despite heavy praise from running backs coach Fred Jackson, Sr. and head coach Brady Hoke. But Rawls could finally get his chance to prove that he's worthy of carrying the load; he could be the Wolverines' first option against Alabama if Toussaint is unavailable.
"We're just going to the next guy—we're not really changing anything," Wolverines offensive coordinator Al Borges told reporters. "Thomas Rawls is going to be that next guy. Vince is going to do what he's done, and on we go.
Is Thomas Rawls a suitable replacement for Toussaint?
"The key to these situations from a game-plan perspective is try to make it as seamless as you can. Just go."
For those not familiar with Rawls, he's the Flint city single-game rushing-record holder. He scampered for 396 yards as a senior against Bay City Western, breaking former Flint Southwestern and Alabama star Mark Ingram's record of 358 yards—and Ingram is one of his idols.
Rawls was often compared to Ingram by Flint-area coaches. The comparison is warranted, Jackson said at the 2011 UM Football Media Day.
An absolute bulldozer, Rawls is a hard runner with little to no fear. Michigan followers shouldn't be the least bit worried about the ball being in good hands. It's perfectly logical to be concerned; Toussaint was the go-to back, and giving the ball to a sophomore could be risky. But that shouldn't cloud fans' judgment. Rawls is just as capable as any back in Ann Arbor—and, possibly, in the Big Ten.
He just needed to get his shot.
At 5-foot-10, 215 pounds, Rawls has the ideal size for the type of power running Hoke and Borges are bringing back to Michigan. No more smaller, speed-oriented guys like in the previous offenses. Rawls is the bruiser that can lead Michigan to glory in Toussaint's absence.
Senior Vincent Smith was the primary No. 2 starter for Michigan in 2011. He appeared to be on the upswing as a sophomore, rushing for over 600 yards and quickly gaining attention in 2010. However, he wasn't overly impressive in his limited role with Michigan last season. He did average over five yards a carry against Michigan State, but failed to explode as expected. Smith was in danger last season of being pushed behind Rawls and fellow Flint-area incoming frosh Justice Hayes, a former Grand Blanc star.
But Smith isn't a throw-in player. His statistics from a year ago may not suggest it, but he's capable of reaching the same heights this fall as he did in 2010.
Losing a 1,000-yard rusher is cause for concern. Not every team has a youngster ready and willing to go.
But not every team has a kid like Rawls.
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