Michigan is set to welcome back Fitzgerald Toussaint after a one-game suspension for what the courts eventually determined was driving while visually impaired. Toussaint's absence was noticeable during Michigan's 41-14 loss to Alabama in the season opener, although it's not like he would have made the linemen in front of him any better.
Still, this is a demonstrably different offense when Toussaint is in the backfield as the feature back. We saw the change in 2011 after Toussaint was named the full-time starter, and we're about to see it again here in the 2012 season.
Toussaint was elevated to the top back in Week 9 against Purdue, two weeks after being held to just seven yards on a pair of rushes against Michigan State (the Wolverines were off the next week). That was an unusually low workload; he had about a dozen carries in each of the games he participated in before the MSU game.
Still, it was a running back-by-committee approach, and one in which Toussaint was generally successful in his limited action. His stat line at that point was 62 rushes, 333 yards and four TDs.
Once Toussaint was installed as the starter, his production exploded over the last six games, and against some rather good defenses to boot. He averaged 21 rushes for 118 yards in those games and scored five touchdowns while catching five passes for 29 yards and another score.
Ah, but this isn't just about Toussaint—it's about Michigan's offense as a whole. And the biggest change in Michigan's offense once Toussaint was taking care of the ground game was that Denard Robinson's role changed.
Robinson's rushes per game trended only slightly downward, but that's skewed by two light workloads in blowouts early in the year and a massive game against Ohio State. His median rushes per game went from 18 to 14 with Toussaint as the full-time starter, and his yardage trended way down—though that's likely as much a result of the caliber of defenses Michigan faced in the last six games as anything else. There aren't any San Diego States in the Big Ten.
Most importantly, aside from a debacle at Iowa that ended in a heartbreaking 24-16 loss (a game where Michigan fans will rue the endgame officiating for years to come), Toussaint's presence allowed Robinson to stay upright and take fewer big hits. For a Michigan offense that absolutely needs Robinson healthy come November (see: his five-TD performance against Ohio State), Toussaint plays a critical role.
Above all else, with Toussaint as the starting running back, Michigan went 5-1, including victories over Nebraska, Ohio State and Virginia Tech to end the 2011 season. The Wolverines need Toussaint around if they want to string together more impressive victories this year.