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Wednesday, November 28, 2012
Season analysis: Running backs

By Michael Rothstein

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan believed it was set at running back entering the season. Fitzgerald Toussaint was being discussed as a fringe Heisman Trophy candidate. Thomas Rawls was a backup with a ton of potential.

How much things have changed this season.

Michigan’s running backs were mostly ineffective in 2012. They looked nothing like what many believed they would.

The Good

If one were to count Denard Robinson as a running back, then this position would have, again, had a great season. Robinson gained 1,166 yards and scored seven touchdowns in 10 games, continually showing he is almost always the fastest players on the field.

Dennis Norfleet was also a major positive, despite only receiving two carries all season. The freshman did most of his damage on kick returns, where he averaged 23.4 yards. His speed will only make him more of a kick return weapon -- and maybe one in the backfield -- as he continues to learn throughout his career.

Also, and a lot of this is a mirage, but Michigan’s top two running backs (Toussaint and Rawls) both averaged 4 yards per carry or better.

The Bad

Where to begin? While Brady Hoke has continued to point to the Wolverines’ offensive line’s inability to finish blocks, those blocks often seemed to work just fine when Robinson was the ball-carrier.

Other than Robinson, though, the numbers were ghastly this season. Toussaint, coming off a 1,000-yard season, gained only 514 yards (51.4 a game) before suffering a leg injury. Rawls had some production, but 37 percent of his 242 rushing yards this season came in one game, against Illinois. Vincent Smith was inserted into critical situations against Ohio State and Alabama and could never get going.

For a team so focused on running the ball and with a head coach in Hoke who stresses the importance of it, the Wolverines could get nothing going almost all year long.

Some of this had to do with the plays called -- for instance, why run into the middle of the Ohio State defensive line when that is the Buckeyes’ strength and the middle of the Michigan offensive line has been inconsistent. Some of this had to do with the aforementioned offensive line. And some of it had to do with the running backs themselves, either being too tentative to turn up field or running right into defenders and being brought down.

The Future

Tough to say. The extent of Toussaint’s apparent leg injury is unknown after he had surgery following the Iowa game two weeks ago. Hoke said he “hopes” Toussaint is ready for the season opener in 2013, but even then, who knows how long it will be until he regains his form.

Rawls has shown potential, but when thrust into a potential featured role against Ohio State, he carried the ball only five times, gaining 2 yards. Michigan’s coaches like his running style, but his production has been spotty.

Likely, this is an area where Michigan needs some major help. This is a spot where an impact freshman could make a difference, either of the redshirt variety (Drake Johnson) or a true freshman if Michigan were to land Derrick Green (Richmond, Va./Hermitage) to complement Deveon Smith (Warren, Ohio/Howland).