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Toussaint runs to starting job

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- For the second time this season, Michigan coach Brady Hoke has named a starting running back.

This time, it might stick.

After Vincent Smith had a 100-yard game against Eastern Michigan, Hoke said the junior deserved to start. On the Monday after redshirt sophomore Fitzgerald Toussaint ran for 170 yards and two touchdowns against Purdue, Hoke felt good enough about him to give him the nod.

For now.

"I think it's Fitz right now," Hoke said. "I don't think there's any doubt. I think he's earned that opportunity."

That statement is as definitive as Hoke has been this season when it comes to the ever-changing Michigan running back position. Toussaint, when he has received more than 10 carries in a game, has been reasonably effective.

"It's good for that back because they'll get more comfortable in that system," senior center David Molk said. "More comfortable running. Experience is everything in this game, and it's going to be a positive for them."

In every game in which he has had more than 10 attempts except for Northwestern, Toussaint has averaged at least 4.2 yards a carry. He averaged 8.5 yards a carry against Purdue.

In some ways, the 5-foot-10, 195-pound native of Youngstown, Ohio, already has been the de facto starter. Toussaint started six of Michigan's eight games and likely would have started a seventh, against Notre Dame, had he not missed the game due to injury.

"He always runs the ball hard," senior tight end Kevin Koger said. "You could see he was running with bad intentions, and he did a great job on Saturday."

Against Purdue, Toussaint was his most productive. Besides his career-high yardage, he ran with both speed and strength. He was able to bounce outside with ease and had strong cutbacks.

His most dazzling run came in the third quarter. Toussaint cut through a hole made by left tackle Taylor Lewan and then split two Purdue defenders on his way to a 59-yard touchdown. It was the Wolverines' longest run from scrimmage this season -- besting a 53-yard run by Denard Robinson against San Diego State.

"He played tremendously," Hoke said. "He had great vision, great balance, and the most exciting thing was his burst out of holes."

While Toussaint is described as sarcastic by offensive lineman Mark Huyge, the running back can't mock this: The past few weeks have been his best on the field at Michigan.

After redshirting his freshman season, he missed the first three games of last season with a knee injury. He then returned for one game before missing the next five with an injury to his shoulder.

With an offseason to recharge, Toussaint, now a redshirt sophomore, is finally getting a chance to show his abilities. He has gained 503 yards this season with six touchdowns. His 6.1 yards per carry is equal to Robinson, but in 53 fewer touches.

If Saturday -- when he received five more carries than Robinson -- is any indication, Toussaint might close the gap on his speedy quarterback by season's end.

It took more than half the season, but Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges have what they want -- a lead running back.

"Right now," Hoke said. "Fitz would definitely be the guy."

Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at michaelrothsteinespn@gmail.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.