Michigan Football: Why Aren't Wolverines Using Talent and Depth at Running Back?

Adam Biggers@@AdamBiggers81Senior Analyst IIOctober 16, 2013

Thomas Rawls is one of three running backs behind Fitz Toussaint.
Thomas Rawls is one of three running backs behind Fitz Toussaint.Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

It's been suggested that Brady Hoke and his Michigan coaching staff stubbornly deny the obvious issues that plague their team's running game.

There's a ring a of truth to that. 

But it's not entirely their fault. 

No, MGoBlog recently discovered the root of all evil. Perhaps there is a logical explanation as to why senior running back Fitz Toussaint had just 27 yards on 27 carries during Saturday's 43-40 quadruple-overtime loss to Penn State.

Maybe there's a reason why Hoke has shelved three able running backs. 

And there is: Wolverines offensive coordinator Al Borges has just seven plays in his playbook, and the majority of them are for Toussaint. 

This computer program is the cause of all the problems (Photo: MGoBlog).
This computer program is the cause of all the problems (Photo: MGoBlog).

Ben Jones of StateCollege.com was baffled over the weekend.

Now that we've laughed off incredibly important issues, it's time to get serious and explore the depths of Hoke's running back well—the well he hardly uses to his advantage. 


Give Thomas Rawls Another Look

November 10, 2012; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines running back Thomas Rawls (38) stiff arms Northwestern Wildcats linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo (44) in the second quarter at Michigan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

In 2012, Rawls, a former Flint Northern star who was once compared to 2009 Heisman Winner Mark Ingram, showed glimmers of hope. 

The following table illustrates a somewhat looked-over statistic from Rawls' sophomore year. 

AttemptsTDAttempts per TD

That's a small sample size attached to a subjective statistic, sure. But compare that to Toussaint, who needed 130 carries to get five touchdowns in 2012—or roughly 26 touches per score. Obviously, getting a touchdown every 14.25 carries is better than getting one every 26 times. 

Put it into perspective: Wisconsin's Montee Ball rushed 356 times and scored 22 touchdowns, which equates to about 17 touches per touchdown. Venric Mark of Northwestern needed 226 carries for 12 rushing touchdowns, which equates to about 19 touches per touchdown. And with an average of about 11 carries per touchdown, Ohio State's Carlos Hyde scored 16 times on 185 totes. 

Due to quality of team and competition, the numbers vary from player to player, which is to be expected. The point is that Toussaint wasn't anywhere near the conference's best ball-carriers when it came to effectively running the ball.

On top of all of that, he averaged four yards per carry as a junior. Since breaking out as a 1,000-yard threat two years ago, he's rushed for 938 yards and 12 touchdowns on 238 carries...but it's taken 16 games to fall short of his former and stellar 13-game marks (21 carries per touchdown). 

Again, that's a subjective angle. In 2011, Toussaint was among the Big Ten elite with 1,041 rushing yards. He carried the ball 187 times for nine touchdowns, or about 20 carries per touchdown. However, Denard Robinson was the quarterback, and that took away dozens of scoring opportunities from Toussaint, who may have been able to score every 15 or 16 attempts. 

At 5'10" and 218 pounds, Rawls is a perfect downhill runner for Borges' offense. Wait, let's rephrase that; he's perfect for Borges' pro-style offense, not for what's being run at the moment. 

In Week 1, he rushed for 12 yards (long of nine) and a touchdown on three carries during Michigan's 59-9 thrashing of Central Michigan.

He's been on the bench since, and that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. 

Toussaint has topped 100 yards just once this year, but he's had plenty of 70-yard games which stand as highlights when compared to this past Saturday's 27-yard, 27-carry offering versus the Nittany Lions. 


What About Derrick Green?

Why leave the new toy in its packaging? Why?!
Why leave the new toy in its packaging? Why?!Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

A year ago, getting Green would have been a dream come true for Michigan fans.

At one time, the former Richmond Hermitage High (Va.) standout was a blue-chip prospect who was the cure for everything. 

Now he's decorating sidelines at a Big Ten field near you.

Ranked as the No. 1 running back of 2013 by Rivals, Green entered Ann Arbor with 5-star credentials and immense expectations.

Rawls hadn't panned out just yet, and the Wolverines needed a Plan B who could eventually be Plan A. That was Green, who has had all of 26 attempts for 84 yards and two touchdowns. 

The 5'11", 240-pound freshman was given 11 carries in Week 1, momentarily laying low only to resurface in Week 6 with 11 touches versus Minnesota. 

Here. There. Not really anywhere. Green, like Rawls, is in limbo. Talent abundant; chances to prove one's self are scarce. That seems to be the general outlook. For whatever reason, Michigan isn't using what it has.

It's stubbornness at its worst.

The following graphic is a screen grab obtained from a video posted by YouTube user "parkinggod," who used footage from the Big Ten Network. While far from a world-class sprinter, Green has enough speed to elude tacklers and rumble for big gains. 

Derrick Green isn't Dennis Norfleet, but he can run. (screen grab via YouTube)
Derrick Green isn't Dennis Norfleet, but he can run. (screen grab via YouTube)

Justice For DeVeon? 

Justice Hayes is also a running back. Michigan may have forgotten that.
Justice Hayes is also a running back. Michigan may have forgotten that.Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

In 2011, former Grand Blanc star Justice Hayes was tabbed as the No. 3 high school running back by Rivals. The 4-star recruit initially committed to Notre Dame but cited personal issues and comfort level as the reasons why he later chose Michigan. 

Running backs coach Fred Jackson said the following about Hayes during an interview at 2011 Michigan media day:

Justice Hayes isn't a pile-driver guy—he's a guy that if you're in a phone booth, he can probably make you miss him. 

I can't remember a guy I've had that's like him.

Listed at 5'10" and 190 pounds, Hayes was never thought of a traditional bruiser. He was a running back trapped in a slot receiver's body. Or, he was a spread back better suited for the MAC but caught at Michigan. That explanation has fit at one time or another. 

Hayes hasn't dazzled at running back. But he has great hands that make him a viable target out of the backfield. He won't get the difficult yards in the trenches, but he's capable of converting short-yardage situations with sideline catches, as he did during a late drive against Penn State. 

Why not try something with him? No time to be stubborn now.

This isn't a pro-style offense. It's a pro-style offense trying to separate itself from the spread, but it must continue using spread components out of necessity. 

Hayes, who has one carry for seven yards, fits. 

Want a player with something to prove? How about one who's 5'11" and 224 pounds? That'd be former Warren Howland bulldozer DeVeon Smith, who was also offered by Ohio State. Unheralded, Smith left high school with a 3-star ranking from Rivals but didn't crack national charts. 

Smith has seven carries for 12 yards.

Note: Redshirt freshman Drake Johnson had two carries for nine yards prior to suffering a season-ending ACL injury against Central Michigan. 


It's Not All on Fitz

Will Fitz Toussaint ever return to his 2011-self?
Will Fitz Toussaint ever return to his 2011-self?Leon Halip/Getty Images

Lack of big plays isn't the problem with Toussaint.

He's burst for at least 10 yards several times. He's even sprinkled in a couple of 20-yarders for good measure.

The problem with Toussaint is that he continues traveling laterally while he should be shifting forward—or North, for those who think vertically. 

Toussaint would be better utilized if Michigan had a reliable No. 2. That much is obvious. Getting a few extra breaths of rest would be easier for Toussaint if the coaching staff rode Derrick Green more often. 

When rolling, Toussaint can be one of the most dangerous playmaking running backs in the Big Ten. He can catch, evidenced by a 31-yard grab during his team's 41-30 win over Notre Dame, and he has enough speed to burn up the sidelines. 

Size, of course, is another one of his assets; he's no runt at 5'10" and 200 pounds. 

The Wolverines' offensive line has hindered Toussaint's progress. But then again, Toussaint has hindered Toussaint's progress. 

With plenty of youth careening through the revolving door at both guard positions and at center, the offensive line is in the midst of a tailspin. It seems as if Hoke and Borges can't figure out who fits where and why. 

Left tackle Taylor Lewan isn't going anywhere, and the same goes for fellow senior Michael Schofield, who anchors the right side. Graham Glasgow, a sophomore, has been decent at center. 

So, needless to say, several factors contribute to Toussaint's failures—123 carries for 424 yards (3.4 yards per carry). 

The following graphics were pulled from a video posted by YouTube user "gonzalef941," who depicts Toussaint as a star back—which he was at one time.  

A great example of what Toussaint used to do, the first screen grab illustrates Toussaint's former get-to-the-opening mentality.

As a sophomore, he wasted little time finding lanes. He rushed for 1,041 yards that season, pacing himself for many more in the future, or so most thought. 

Fitz Toussaint used to have an eye for the end zone (screen grab via YouTube).
Fitz Toussaint used to have an eye for the end zone (screen grab via YouTube).

The second example is an identical screen grab which attempts to illustrate the execution of MGoBlog's "PLOWWWER BLARGH!" run. 

BLARGH! The graphics represent Toussaint's carries this season. (screen grab via YouTube)
BLARGH! The graphics represent Toussaint's carries this season. (screen grab via YouTube)

As long as the Wolverines refuse to look elsewhere for production, running backs will continue to give nothing of substance to the offense. Sputtering and flat, Michigan's one-back rushing attack, in its current state, cripples Team 134's chances of winning a Big Ten championship. 

2012 Big Ten rushing leaders via ESPN

Follow Adam Biggers, Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer, on Twitter @AdamBiggers81


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