Running backs have long carried the torch for the Michigan Wolverines offense.
Despite all of the talent in the backfield, the Wolverines' running game in 2012 was lackluster, dull and plain boring.
Sophomores Thomas Rawls and Justice Hayes were expected to shine, but they couldn't piece together many meaningful series in the absence of Fitz Toussaint, Michigan's 1,000-yard rusher in 2011.
Now that the Wolverines have Derrick Green entering the fold, along with Drake Johnson, a redshirt freshman with droves of potential to unleash, the backfield battles will certainly be some of the most entertaining and interesting come fall.
While there is a chance that Toussaint will see action this season, don't count on it at the moment. Michigan has enough talent on deck to sit Toussaint and be successful without his services.
Some guys have it, some are looking for it—that's why running back should be the most competitive out of any position.
On the Hot Seat
Obviously, Rawls and Hayes are in danger of being skipped over by Johnson and Green. Rawls was effective on third downs (8.9 yards per touch, 11 carries) for most of 2012, but he failed to really explode in such a manner that would command high praise from coach Brady Hoke, who told MLive.com's Kyle Meinke that he wants to see more from the soon-to-be juniors.
“Well, (I’m looking for) improvements that Justice Hayes needs to have, and Thomas Rawls needs to have," Hoke said (via Meinke of MLive.com). "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 may end up the sole heir to the No. 1 spot if Rawls and Hayes don't get into gear and dramatically improve. Although Rawls' arrival was met with great anticipation, he's entering a make-or-break campaign with Michigan.
Ride the bench or carry the load—only Rawls can determine his fate in Ann Arbor. The Flint native rushed for 242 yards and four touchdowns on 57 carries. His most impressive game was a 10-carry, 90-yard showing during the Wolverines' 45-0 romping of the Illinois Illini.
Will Rawls and Hayes be passed by Green and Johnson?
However, subtract a 63-yard touchdown run from that equation and you're left with a paltry nine-carry, 27-yard offering that left a lot to be desired. Rawls definitely has the capability to run over opponents with his 5'10", 218-pound frame. Unfortunately, the former Flint Northern star hasn't shot out of the gate fast enough.
His development has appeared to be sluggish. But, being the competitor that he is, don't expect to see him back down from the challenge at hand. Being in danger of sliding down the depth chart should be enough motivation for Rawls to make the jump that's expected of him.
Hayes is a different story altogether; he's more of a slot receiver who's been given carries at tailback. The former Grand Blanc High standout had 18 carries and 83 total yards in 2012. At 5'10" and 183 pounds, he's not a bulldozing back like Green and Rawls, so his days in the Wolverines backfield could be numbered.
Hayes is more of a natural fit at the slot because of his great hands and speed. He'll likely be moved around, hardly used in power sets like the I-Form offense.
The Youngsters Are Hungry and Able
When a player comes in as one of the top running backs of his class, expectations for him to perform right away are always present. That'll be the case for Green in 2013.
Depending on Johnson's development, Michigan followers could see more of Green this fall than initially anticipated. Oftentimes, the right move is to redshirt a freshman so he can gain experience and adapt to the college game.
But when that freshman is 6'0" and 220 pounds, that theory can be tossed out the window; Green has what it takes to make an impact, and he'll have to impress his coaching staff if he wants to compete for meaningful snaps this year—you know, the ones during live-game action, not practice.
Hoke favors a two-back set, which has been the trademark of Michigan football for decades. Having Green in the mix gives the Wolverines a powerful runner to rely upon when the going gets tough in the passing game.
Johnson rushed for over 2,800 yards as a senior at Ann Arbor Pioneer High; he's not a guy the Wolverines want to keep on ice for long.
What Will Michigan Do with Dennis Norfleet?
Norfleet is a speedster who saw punt return duties in 2012. Incredibly quick, agile and fast—did I mention fast yet?—Norfleet's talent has to be utilized in a way that allows him to showcase his wheels. Unfortunately for the 5'7", 161-pound soon-to-be sophomore, his future as a Wolverines running back seems a bit uncertain.
Is Norfleet a viable option at RB?
Michigan has options, and most of those options are 200-plus pounds. Norfleet's move to offense was a bit questionable, but the coaching staff obviously sees past his size limitations.
It appears that Michigan has a one-two punch in line for 2013 with Green and Johnson (maybe Rawls?). It may also appear (after reading this) that other backs may not have much of an opportunity to make an impact this fall—that's not the case, not right now.
Having more than enough to talent and not enough spots for that talent isn't exactly a problem for Michigan. Utilizing the skill sets of said players will be a challenge, though.
Michigan wants to return to a power-running style; that's clear. Hoke expects more out of Rawls and Hayes; that's clear, too. Once the No. 1 job is given, the battle for the No. 2 spot in Borges' two-back scheme will be just as vital to the overall complexion of Michigan's ground-and-pound attack.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81