Position Preview: Running Back

Vincent Smith could be Michigan's top back if he can fully return from a torn ACL.

Leading up to the start of the 2010 season, I’ll be taking a look at Michigan’s team position-by-position and looking at each player with a chance to compete for playing time. Yesterday I kicked off the series with the quarterbacks; today, it’s time to examine the Wolverine running backs:

Returning Player Stats:

[table id=112 /]

The Projected Starter: Sophomore Vincent Smith is back practicing with the team after tearing his ACL against Ohio State last year, and many have penciled him in as the likely starter in 2010. Smith appeared in eight games as a freshman and saw more consistent action as the season wore on, rushing for 166 yards and a touchdown against Delaware State and tallying a combined 10 catches for 82 yards and two touchdowns in the last two games against Wisconsin and OSU. At 5-6, 180 pounds, Smith is undersized for a feature back, but he is an elusive runner who is also a threat in the passing game — even if he doesn’t start, I’d expect to see Smith get a lot of playing time in third-down situations. Smith will have to prove he is fully healthy and has the running ability to hold off the bigger and more athletic guys competing behind him, but he showed flashes as a freshman that he could be a solid and versatile option at tailback for Michigan.

The Competition: Three backs — redshirt sophomore Michael Cox, junior Michael Shaw, and redshirt freshman Fitzgerald Toussaint — all have a solid shot at earning the starting job if they come through with a good fall camp, meaning Smith’s perch at the top of the depth chart is a tenuous one at best.

Michael Cox was a relative unknown out of high school, but he has shown he may be Michigan’s most athletically gifted running back in practice and during mop-up appearances against Eastern Michigan and Delaware State last season. The biggest obstacle standing between the 6-0, 210-pound back and the starting job may be between his ears — he has had some difficulties picking up the playbook, and a mental error led to a fumbled exchange with Devin Gardner in the spring game. If Cox can eliminate those issues, he could easily earn the starting job with his combination of speed and power — his downhill running style would be a great complement to Denard Robinson in the zone read.

The biggest question mark surrounding Michael Shaw has nothing to do with the football field — rumors have surfaced this summer that Shaw is very close to being ineligible, and while he is currently practicing with the team, the summer classes that could determine his eligibility have not yet ended. If he can sort out his academic issues, Shaw is Michigan’s most experienced and fastest back, but after battling through injuries in his first two seasons he will have to show he can handle the pounding of Division I football if he wants to see an expanded role. At his best, Shaw is a game-breaking talent who is liable to score from anywhere on the field. We will need to see that side of him on a much more consistent basis if he is going to live up to his recruiting hype.

Fitzgerald Toussaint may be the most complete back on the roster, and he is just two years removed from a 2,239-yard, 28 touchdown season as a high school senior at Youngstown (OH) Liberty. Toussaint did suffer a shoulder injury last year that kept him from seeing game action, but he impressed when healthy on the scout team and has seen some practice time with the first team this year in the early days of fall camp. If Toussaint can translate his practice exploits to the real games, he should see the field as a redshirt freshman and could possibly become Michigan’s next four-year starter at running back — he certainly has the talent to do so.

Others: True freshman Stephen Hopkins is probably not in the mix to start, but the 6-0, 227-pound Texas prospect should carve out a role as the team’s goal-line and short-yardage back. Hopkins clearly has a nose for the end zone after amassing 5,010 yards and 61 touchdowns in his final three high school seasons, and he could very well lead the team in rushing touchdowns despite seeing limited playing time.

Michigan’s other three-star freshman, Livonia native Austin White, is almost certainly ticketed for a redshirt year. If he does find his way onto the field, it will likely be because of his ability in the passing game — he has great hands and lined up almost everywhere on the field for Livonia Stevenson.

Slot receivers Terrence Robinson and Kelvin Grady — both of whom played in the backfield in high school — have also practiced in at running back, but this is likely a situational strategy that will come into play on obvious passing downs. Both players have the shiftiness and speed to be very dangerous in open space, so we could see Rich Rodriguez try to utilize them with screens and swing passes to take advantage of their strengths.

Redshirt junior walk-on John McColgan will see the field when Michigan needs a fullback after senior Mark Moundros moved to middle linebacker in the spring, although Moundros could potentially play both ways in the fall. Either way, the Wolverines seldom utilize the fullback position, and the 6-1, 238-pound McColgan will likely only be called upon as a blocking back.

Outlook: Michigan has a lot of bodies competing at running back but no clear starter as of yet. With so little experience at the position (Shaw’s 400 career rushing yards are the most by any player on the roster), it’s very tough to project what type of production the team will get. I’m guessing we will see a running-back-by-committee approach early on until a clear leader emerges. As for who that leader will be, your guess is as good as mine, although I’m very intrigued by the potential of Toussaint and Cox. This is probably the toughest position to predict on the whole roster, and we might have to wait until several weeks into the season to see a true number one back if one gets established at all.

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