Michigan tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint enjoyed what was truly a breakout season in 2011.
He didn’t secure the starting job until midseason, but Toussaint finished the year with 1,041 rushing yards and a promising future.
Unfortunately, Toussaint’s good fortunes didn’t last. After an alcohol-related arrest and the subsequent suspension from this year’s opener, Toussaint’s effectiveness took a turn for the worst.
Before ending his season during the Iowa game with a lower-leg injury that eventually required surgery, Toussaint’s production dropped to just 514 yards, less that half of his 2011 output.
Toussaint’s struggles allowed backs like Thomas Rawls and Justice Hayes to get increased playing time. The added experience will not only help the team in the approaching Outback Bowl, it will add competition to the backfield when Michigan reconvenes for spring practice in March.
With Denard Robinson graduating, Michigan will now switch to the pro-style, ball-control offense it has promised since head coach Brady Hoke arrived. The I-formation will feature an offensive line that can dominate the line of scrimmage, an effective drop-back passer and a tailback who will actually run between the tackles.
The new offense places more emphasis on the starting tailback's role, giving him around 25 carries per game.
And don't think that the better running backs in the country haven't noticed. The Wolverines have already landed 4-star recruit Deveon Smith from Holland HS in Warren, Ohio, and still have their eyes on scout.com's No 2-rated running back Derrick Green from Hermitage, Va.
Realistically, Smith and Green could both challenge Toussaint for the starting job. That is, if Toussaint can recover from both his off-the-field problems and his leg surgery.
Rawls, who will get the start at the Outback Bowl, looks exactly like the prototypical power-back. The 5'10", 210-pound sophomore showed signs of brilliance in short-yardage situations and gaining yards after initial contact. He did have trouble following his blockers at times, but plenty of reps can cure that.
Hayes could be the next Vincent Smith, but he’s quicker to the hole and has better breakaway speed. He’ll be dynamite catching screen passes in space.
True freshman Dennis Norfleet, like Hayes, has plenty of quickness, but he's moved over to defense for the bowl game and his future at the running back position is in question.
Then there’s freshman Drake Johnson, who has yet to carry the ball for Michigan. Possibly the best best athlete on the roster, Johnson prepped just a three-wood shot away from the Big House at Ann Arbor Pioneer.
If Hoke can somehow keep Johnson from losing his 2012 redshirt, he’ll be in the lineup at the Outback Bowl. At 6'0", 209 lbs, Johnson is a combination of size and speed. During his senior year in high school, he totaled 2,805 rushing yards while earning All-America honors in the 110-meter high hurdles.
There's no doubt Michigan will be improved at the tailback position in 2013. The increased depth, the new I-formation offense and a new star (or two) will guarantee it.