When Michigan released its first depth chart of the season on Monday, six running backs were listed on it. As in, every single running back on the roster was on the depth chart.
That’s pretty rare for a team, especially one like Michigan, which rarely likes to give anything away. But offensive coordinator Al Borges said he has done it before.
“At one point I did,” Borges said. “It may not have been at running back. Yeah, I'm sure I have at some place I've been. That's a lot, though. I will say that.”
Michigan coach Brady Hoke clarified Monday that while not every guy on the running back depth chart might carry the ball, he will play, whether it be as a back or on special teams.
But one name who we know we’ll see at running back is redshirt senior Fitzgerald Toussaint. He was named the starter midway through fall camp, and Hoke said he’d like to get Toussaint anywhere between 18-25 carries a game as a featured back.
“He just looks like the old Fitz,” Borges said. “Fitz is a hard worker and he goes hard every single down, and he's got great feel for our system and our run game in particular.”
Last season, when the Wolverines transitioned into a more traditional pro-style offense with Devin Gardner at QB, they actually stayed relatively consistent with carries. Through the first eight games of the season, Michigan averaged 40 carries per game. Beginning at Minnesota and through the rest of the season, when Gardner was the starting quarterback, that number dropped to 37 carries per game.
However, if Toussaint does carry the ball 18-25 times against Central Michigan, the additional seven 12-19 carries will be up for grabs, and they could go to any of the other five running backs.
Listed in the No. 2 spot is redshirt freshman Drake Johnson, who was a late addition to the Wolverines’ 2012 class. He’s a local kid who played high school football at Ann Arbor Pioneer, one block from Michigan Stadium. Hoke said he was impressive last season on the Wolverines’ scout team and through fall camp this season.
In the three and four spots are redshirt sophomore Justice Hayes and junior Thomas Rawls, respectively. Rawls was Toussaint's backup last season and finished with 242 yards on 57 carries and four touchdowns. But he has dropped behind Hayes, who had 18 carries for 83 yards and one touchdown last season.
Splitting the fifth-string position are freshmen Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith. Green was expected to compete for the starting spot with Toussaint during fall camp, but he hasn’t quite lived up to that expectation, whereas Smith has been more of an unknown.
However, it’s not too surprising to see the freshmen listed lower on the depth chart. It takes a while to adjust to the college game, and one of the biggest jumps true freshmen have to make, especially in Michigan’s offense, is pass protection.
“If you had to pinpoint one issue with a young back, it's trying to figure out all the pickup and the protections,” Borges said. “Whether it's six-man protection or whether there's play-action or whatever -- just figuring out who to target. That's not always easy to do.”
Toussaint said that was the hardest jump for him to make when he got to Michigan, too. He said that Michigan has really emphasized that this fall, but it's something that comes with experience.
“My best advice is to go out there and take a fast game and slow it down,” Toussaint said. “You have to get in the playbook. You have to know exactly what’s going to happen.”