Michigan will sport a familiar backfield with a new twist Saturday against Central Michigan.
In his re-debut with the Wolverines, senior Fitz Toussaint is scheduled to be the No. 1 option during the season opener at the Big House in Ann Arbor. Now a redshirt freshman, Drake Johnson has been tabbed as the No. 2 back, according to Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com.
Coming off surgery of the right leg, Toussaint will have the chance to prove yet again that he’s capable of eclipsing 1,000 yards—a feat he accomplished as a sophomore in 2011—and carry the load for his offense. As the veteran of the fold, the onus is on Toussaint to perform and spearhead a rushing attack that was inconsistent a year ago, despite averaging 183 yards per outing.
Thank Denard Robinson for the padding.
At 5’10” and 200 pounds, Toussaint most certainly has the ideal size for coordinator Al Borges’ aggressive running game.
Johnson, one of many underclassmen waiting for a shot, has steadily impressed, dating back to a string of exemplary Outback Bowl and spring practices. At 6’1” and 213 pounds, the former Ann Arbor Pioneer star is the type of downhill runner who should flourish in the pro-style scheme.
Michigan’s deep and talented pool of running backs prompts debate. Which tandem is the best?
Thus far, Toussaint and Johnson look like they’re the guys. But could that change during or after Saturday’s clash with the Chippewas?
Yes, most likely.
Juniors Thomas Rawls and Justice Hayes were in the mix for a top job during the spring. Freshmen Derrick Green and DeVeon Smith were once also considered challengers for Toussaint’s perch.
At this juncture, it appears Rawls and Hayes are destined for the lower end of the depth chart. It’ll be difficult for them to out-duel Green, a 6’0”, 240-pounder who’s returning from an ankle injury suffered in fall camp. Smith, a 5’11”, 224-pound bruiser, has turned heads too.
Don’t rule him out just yet.
Why Toussaint and Johnson Work
Experience is Toussaint’s strength. Potential is Johnson’s.
Each back brings a bulldozer approach to running the ball. Toussaint ventured into the Land of Lateral Movement in 2012, but it was a disastrous attempt that produced little to no results. He’s a north-south runner and should stick to that style.
Johnson, on the other hand, has the ability to evade defenders with deceptive speed. However, he’s better suited for the hammer-like carries that are successful components of Borges’ desired operation.
Complementing the pair is the offensive line, anchored by seniors Taylor Lewan, left tackle, and Michael Schofield, right tackle. If a guy can’t run behind them, he can’t run behind anyone.
If both hold true to their specialties and the O-line owns the trenches, Toussaint and Johnson could prove to be Michigan’s top power-back set. With so much talent at his disposal, it’s likely Borges will tinker with different combinations until he’s explored all of his possibilities.
But the tandem of Toussaint and Johnson is clearly an adequate solution for getting the tough yards.
Why Toussaint and Rawls Work
Like many others on the team, Rawls joined Michigan during a time of change. As one of the first hard runners of the Hoke era, Rawls has shown glimpses of why he’s been compared to former Alabama star tailback and fellow Flint native Mark Ingram, a punishing runner who won the 2009 Heisman Trophy.
Like Ingram, Rawls is a Point A-to-Point B back who’s not known for being overly elusive. In 2012, his nine carries for 90 yards helped Michigan dismantle Illinois 45-0. He’s got a little shake to his game, evidenced by his 63-yard scamper against the Illini.
He adds a slight variation to the Toussaint-Johnson pair, giving Borges—here’s that word again—options.
What Does the Future Hold?
Depending on the length of the leash from Hoke, Toussaint could be pulled within the first two weeks if he fails to produce. Taking a backseat to an underclassman as the No. 2 probably isn’t the way he wants to end his career.
However, the need for a feature back is stronger than ever. That’s Toussaint’s job if he can hold on to it.
Should Toussaint soar, that would allow opportunities to integrate Green and Smith, two gems of Hoke’s 2013 recruiting class.
Hayes has yet to separate himself from the pack in any regard. He has a skill set that’d fit great at the slot—he’s fast, has great hands and is among the most slippery tackles in the Big Ten. The former Grand Blanc All-Stater doesn’t have the prototypical size that other backs possess, making him a prime candidate for odd man out this fall.
He averaged 4.6 yards in 2012 and scored a touchdown. As a wild card in the offense, Hayes can flourish and possibly fill part of the big-play void left by Robinson.
Paired with a rhino runner in the backfield, Hayes would add a passing threat to the formation. He could throw off defenders and allow, say, Toussaint, Green or Rawls to take advantage and hit the open field.
Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81