With all the accolades he's already received, it shouldn't surprise anyone if Derrick Green is handed the starting tailback job when fall camp begins in September.
Justice Hayes, Thomas Rawls, Drake Johnson, Dennis Norfleet and Fitz Toussaint are planning otherwise.
All six of them would like nothing better than to win the position before Green—and for that matter DeVeon Smith and Wyatt Shallman—and snap on their helmets for the first time.
Winning the starting job will be no picnic, but with Michigan heading toward a downhill, pro-style offense, it might be difficult for sophomore Norfleet and freshman Shallman to have a legitimate chance.
At 5'7”, 168 pounds, Norfleet has all the moves and pure speed to be a fine tailback, but running between the tackles on a regular basis might be detrimental to his health. He's more suited to be a situational back, catching screens and flares in space.
Toussaint, who struggled throughout 2012 before a leg injury ended his season, will be held out of contact drills this spring.
That leaves Johnson, Hayes and Rawls to fight it out.
A 6'0”, 212-pound redshirt freshman, he has the best combination of athleticism, power and speed of the bunch. Hayes, who has 4.45 speed, might be tough enough but only carried the ball 18 times for 83 yards a year ago. Rawls, who impressed early in the season, struggled to find or create holes late in the year. He never carried the ball in the Outback Bowl.
Brady Hoke appeared to be selling Johnson at his pre-spring practice press conference (via mgoblog.com). “Well, (I'm looking for) improvements that Justice Hayes needs to have, and Thomas Rawls needs to have. You look at Dennis Norfleet, who we’ve moved back there. I think Drake Johnson is a guy who at the end of the fall and bowl practice, we liked a lot what he did.”
Johnson, who played his high school football across from the Big House at Ann Arbor Pioneer, didn't get the respect from the recruiting services he actually deserved.
Instead of working the camps as a high school junior, Johnson ran track instead. And he did it quite well, eventually earning All-America honors in the 110-meter high hurdles.
ESPN.com ranked Johnson as the No.160 back in the nation along with a 2-star rating. Other than Michigan, Johnson's only other offer came from Eastern Michigan.
I didn’t go around to these camps and have to show out, Johnson told annarbor.com. I kind of just did it. I proved that I was the best on the field. Not at these camps that are like "Oh, he can go through cones quickly, he can jump high." It was on the field, Johnson added. I didn’t have to go buy stars.
By gaining 2,805 yards on 343 carries (with 37 touchdowns) as a senior, Johnson earned the opportunity to become an every down back. He's now trying to prove it.
He also made quite an impression in a 2010 meeting with eventual state champion Detroit Cass Tech (2011-12).
All he did was score on a 79-yard punt return, a 41-yard interception return, a 19-yard run, and a pair of receptions (18, 26). He also threw a seven-yard pass in the 44-42 loss to the Technicians.
Johnson finally received some respect, being named to the 2011 Associated Press All-State team and Detroit Free Press Dream Team.
Although he was redshirted a year ago, Johnson impressed recently graduated linebacker Kenny Demens at practice: “First of all, Drake Johnson is another player who gave us problems on scout team, Demens told Scout.com.
Drake was one of those guys that when Coach (Greg) Mattison ripped our butts wide open it was because Drake Johnson more than likely did his thing, got loose on us… whatever it was. Drake is going to be a great player. I like his style. He runs hard. If he sees me in the hole he is going to bring me his all and that was big coming from an 18-year old.
Demens also had positive things to say about Hayes and Rawls.
Justice Hayes… he is nice. Really nice. I hope Michigan can get him in space, he told Scout.com. Thomas Rawls had a year to get some carries under his belt and I feel like next year he is going to be comfortable back there when he is in the game and just make it happen.
Johnson. Hayes. Rawls. When September comes, it will one of their's to lose.