2011 Position Preview: Running Back

Mike Cox has produced against lesser competition but has yet to earn major playing time in his U-M career.

It’s nearly August, which means it’s about time to kick the football season preview content into full gear. Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll be taking a look at the 2011 Wolverines position-by-position. Today, the position previews continue with a look at Michigan’s running backs:

Previously: Quarterback

Returning: Mike Cox (RS Jr.), Stephen Hopkins (Soph.), Michael Shaw (Sr.), Vincent Smith (Jr.), Fitzgerald Toussaint (RS Soph.)
Departing:
Teric Jones (medical)
Incoming: Justice Hayes, Thomas Rawls

Returning Player Stats:

[table id=152 /]

Overview: Leading up to the 2011 season, the discussion surrounding Michigan seems to be focused on two specific topics (not including more general topics like ‘We have a defense?’ and ‘Can we kick field goals yet?’): Denard Robinson, and the running back situation. The Wolverines return a bevy of backs from last year’s team, but unfortunately for Al Borges and his desire to find a consistent feature back, that group was disappointing last season and no player has emerged so far this year as the clear-cut starter.

Your nominal returning starter is the lilliputian Vincent Smith, but his size (5-6, 180 pounds) combined with a lack of explosiveness may in fact make him the least likely returning back to grab the starting spot. Smith is a well-rounded back who can catch the ball out of the backfield and block quite well for a player his size, but as Alex pointed out when looking at last year’s numbers, he just isn’t very productive when it comes to running the football, especially in short-yardage situations. There’s a chance we see more out of Smith this year now that he should be 100% recovered from a torn ACL suffered against Ohio State in 2009, an injury that may have hampered his performance last season, but in all likelihood he’ll take on the role of third-down back while another player steps into the starting job.

Senior Michael Shaw is the other tailback who saw major action last season, and he was actually relatively productive when healthy — the issue, as it has been his whole collegiate career, was that he was rarely healthy. Shaw came to Michigan as a highly-regarded speed back in the mold of Carlos Brown, and that comparison — right down to the injury-marred seasons and disappointing production — has been eerily accurate. At 6-1, 187 pounds, Shaw has the size and skill set to start and be a productive player this season, but he’ll have to overcome a strong push from the younger players on the roster while proving that he can buck the trend and stay on the field.

Perhaps the offseason favorite to step up and win the starting job is sophomore Stephen Hopkins, who saw limited action last year as a short-yardage back but has the potential to be much more in the new offense. At 6-0, 227 pounds, Hopkins has the size to carry the pile, and while he won’t win many sprints, he has adequate speed and surprising shiftiness for a player with his bulk. Unfortunately, Hopkins also displayed a troubling propensity for fumbling the football last season, an issue he must correct if he wants to see a greatly expanded role this season. If I was a betting man, I’d say Hopkins is the starter when the Wolverines open against Western Michigan, but it will be interesting to see if he can hold on to the job all year.

Depending on whom you ask, redshirt junior Mike Cox is either an all-conference caliber back who’s been unfairly sidelined by the previous staff or a player with tons of physical ability who just doesn’t have the football acumen to be a productive player in real-game situations. The truth likely lies somewhere in between, but Cox is certainly a player to keep an eye on as the season approaches — he’s the most athletically-gifted running back on the roster, in my opinion, and at 6-0, 211 pounds has great size for a college tailback. On the flip side, Cox has a reputation for struggling with the playbook and being unreliable to execute his assignment — an issue that may only be exacerbated in a new system — and his only collegiate production has come against the dregs of Michigan’s schedule. Cox is the very definition of ‘wild card’, and I honestly won’t be shocked either way if he runs for 1,000 yards or never sees the field this season.

Redshirt sophomore Fitzgerald Toussaint is another player who came to Ann Arbor with high expectations but has had his career marred by injury. Nothing captured this better than last year’s game against Bowling Green, when Toussaint ripped off a 61-yard run on his first collegiate snap, only to see the former track star caught from behind due to a lingering leg injury; when Toussaint capped off the drive with a five-yard touchdown run, he injured his shoulder and missed the next five games. I really liked Toussaint coming out of high school, but right now he’s a less-experienced version of Michael Shaw, and I have a hard time seeing him leap to the top of the depth chart this year, though I wouldn’t rule out him becoming a key contributor down the road.

Of the two incoming freshmen, it appears Flint’s own Thomas Rawls has the best chance of seeing the field in 2011. I’ve been on the record predicting he’ll take the starting job this season, in large part because the veterans in front of him have done little to take hold of the top spot on the depth chart. Rawls is a well-built, compact back at 5-10, 214 pounds, and while he doesn’t have great breakaway speed, he exhibits very good power and an ability to get to the second level quickly — he reminds me of a less shifty, but bigger, Mike Hart. That’s obviously a lofty comparison around these parts, but I really believe Rawls has a decent shot to come in and make a similar impact as a freshman.

Grand Blanc’s Justice Hayes is the other true freshman at tailback, and while he was the higher-rated of the two, he seems a much greater candidate for a redshirt season. That’s not to say Hayes isn’t good, but his skill set fits much better with a spread offense, and Michigan already has a reliable receiver out of the backfield in Smith. Hayes could be one heck of a third-down/change-of-pace back in the future, but he’ll have a hard time climbing up the depth chart enough to justify burning a year of eligibility this season.

Recruiting/The Future: With Michigan’s class of 2012 quickly filling up, especially with this week’s commitment of fullback Sione Houma (more on him when I preview the tight ends and fullbacks), it appears less and less likely that Brady Hoke will use a precious spot on a running back. The one possibility that exists right now is for blue-chip Ohio State commit Bri’onte Dunn — who will visit Ann Arbor for this weekend’s BBQ at the Big House — to flip his commitment, but that scenario appears less likely now that it looks like the Buckeyes will avoid the most severe potential sanctions from the NCAA. The Wolverines would only take an elite running back, and four-star Pennsylvania RB Greg Garmon recently dropped Michigan from his list, so it’s Dunn or bust right now. I expect Dunn will stick with OSU, barring a major shift in the tenor of the NCAA’s investigation, and Hoke will wait to grab his feature back of the future until the class of ’13.

The Last Word: I’m get the strong sense I’m going to feel very stupid no matter what I predict out of the running backs this season, but I’m going to stick by my guns and say that Thomas Rawls emerges as the starter by the end of the season and has a pleasantly productive year. Stephen Hopkins, Michael Shaw, and Vincent Smith should all see decent playing time in one capacity or another, but I’m not ready to trust Mike Cox until he shows that he can master a playbook — if he does, this entire situation could change. Your guess is as good as mine when it comes to this position group, and the hope is that — among a talented group of players who each have their flaws — at least one back emerges who can take much of the pressure off of Denard Robinson.

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