BY TIM ROHAN
Daily Sports Editor
Published September 2, 2010
In the middle of a summer of hard work, this group of friends needed a break. Michigan’s running backs just wanted to kick back and put up their feet.
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They gathered at Fred Jackson's home for some dinner and the usual ribbing.
Jackson, who has been the Wolverines’ running backs coach for the last 18 years, has had this group over before. And before them? Mike Hart used to break bread with Jackson. Before Hart, it was Chris Perry, Anthony Thomas, Tim Biakabutuka and Tyrone Wheatley — All-Americans, All-Big Ten guys, all workhorses.
A framed Sports Illustrated cover of Hart hangs on Jackson’s wall amongst the other treasured memories from his coaching past. The walls are littered with proud history. He showed the group a helmet signed by Michigan’s 1997 National Championship team, to which Thomas contributed during his freshman year.
But on this night, the running backs are relatively anonymous with no real history of their own yet.
Sophomore Vincent Smith, redshirt sophomore Mike Cox, junior Mike Shaw, redshirt freshman Fitzgerald Toussaint and true freshman Stephen Hopkins will all have their shot at making a mark on Michigan football. But the question is: can they shine all at once?
The group enjoyed the evening at Jackson’s home, still in the dark about who will carry the load this year, or whether it will even be one man at all. Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez declared at Michigan media day that the group will play as a committee of backs. Days before the season opener he said that three to four backs will get carries against the Huskies.
Jackson has typically used one or two feature backs the Wolverines could ride to the Rose Bowl. He used to like it that way.
“You can ask any one of them — they won’t tell you if they play (first), second or third team,” Jackson said. “Because I’m always rolling. I roll them all the time. One time, when a guy does something great, I take him out. And he wonders why he comes out. When a guy does something bad, I leave him in. They don’t know, and that’s the fun part about being a coach. You’ve got them right where you want them.”
A GUIDE TO SUCCESS
Four years ago, Steve Slaton was “the guy” in Rodriguez’s spread offense at West Virginia, dashing his way to a fourth-place Heisman trophy finish in his sophomore year.
The following year, when Slaton was a junior at West Virginia, five-star recruit Noel Devine was just beginning his career as a Mountaineer. So in the span of one offseason, Slaton went from being a feature back and a Heisman trophy runner-up to sharing carries with a true freshman.
He had to deal with a situation that Michigan’s current group faces: multiple talented guys jockeying for carries.
“You want to be on the field,” Slaton said last month. “(But) when Devine came in, he was definitely a benefit to the team. … (He) was making too many plays in practice not to have him on the field. You don’t want to waste that talent.”
Soon enough, Slaton discovered the benefits of having a legitimate partner-in-crime at running back.
“It’s harder on the defense,” he said. “You’ve got more guys to touch the ball. With one guy, he gets tired toward the end of the fourth quarter. With two guys you stay fresh.”
Meanwhile, at Michigan, Hart was carrying the load for the Wolverines. He, too, was in the hunt for the Heisman in 2006, finishing fifth. And even though he was playing in former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr’s pro-style offense, he also was a zone-scheme running back — which is the same scheme as in the spread offense.
He began his freshman year in the middle of a running back-by-committee situation. In Hart’s first two games as a Wolverine, he was an afterthought, running for a measly 37 yards on eight carries. But in the third week, against San Diego State, Hart ran for 124 yards on 25 carries. He went on to become the school’s all-time leading rusher.
“After that, I just kinda knew (I was the guy),” Hart said. “They didn’t have to tell me.”
Hart came out on top of the group and went from an unknown to the furthest from it. They gave him a chance and he ran with it. Could that be a potential outcome for this year’s Wolverines?
Jackson says that the running back should serve as a security blanket for the quarterback in the spread. And Hart had some advice for this year’s group of Wolverine running backs.
“They’ve got to work hard,” Hart said. “Never assume that they’ve arrived, (even) when they’re at that level when they’re going to be the next best guy. Chris, myself, Biakabutuka, A-Train, we had to work hard for four years. Once they were the starter, they didn’t stop working.
“I think those guys need to realize there’s always someone coming up behind them that wants to take their spot. And keep working to get better. … Then, they could be that guy.”
THERE ARE DOUBTS
If this year’s running backs didn’t wear numbers on their jerseys, Jackson doesn’t think you would be able to tell them apart. That’s the idea behind such a deep committee of backs.
“I think you’re going to see the whole season and not really know who’s who,” Jackson said. “Because now I’ve got guys attuned, that can do everything. Sometimes in the past, we’ve had to use this guy for this down or that guy for that down, based on their abilities. Not even Vincent and not even Hopkins, the smaller and the bigger guy — all of those guys are capable of everything.
“Stephen Hopkins can catch. Vincent Smith can block. That’s to our advantage, to have that set up.”
Each back brings his own flavor to the game, but Jackson doesn’t necessarily have to adjust the playbook based on each runner’s relative strengths.
Shaw sees the pros and cons of his position as a running back in a committee: on one hand he will always have to look over his shoulder, and on the other hand Michigan has a quality stable of backs to attack defenses.
The surplus of talent at running back is one reason Michigan is starting the season with a committee, but there is another. In the offseason, no back has outperformed the rest and showed Rodriguez and Jackson that he was worthy of being relied on for an entire game.
Each has his own question marks. Smith tore his ACL in the final game of 2009 against Ohio State. And though the consensus is that he’s back to 100 percent, any knee injury for a quick-footed back is of legitimate concern. Shaw hasn’t seen much of the field throughout his first two years and neither has Cox. Shaw, also, was close to being academically ineligible for this season. And the two freshmen, Toussaint and Hopkins, have never played a single down of football for Michigan. Toussaint won't play in Saturday's game due to a knee injury, too. In practice leading up to this point, no one had established himself as the go-to guy as Hart did in 2004.
“If one guy does (establish himself) and he’s really, really good, then that’s good,” Rodriguez said. “But I don’t know if we’re going to have that.”
Players in this group have been waiting a while for their shot, though. They were stuck behind two oft-injured seniors last year in Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor, and in 2008, hyped freshman Sam McGuffie was getting carries, too. In the physical Big Ten, coaches learn the hard way that it takes more than one guy to survive — unless you have a back like Slaton or Hart.
Other coaches in situations similar to Michigan know it.
“That’s one thing I’ve figured out,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Good players get the ball. But there’s no formula for it. I know this — it’s nice to have more than one player at a position.”
MEET THE COMMITTEE
Although he enrolled early in the spring, it took Hopkins until Aug. 21 to realize he belonged. In a team scrimmage, Hopkins took an inside handoff and darted up the field. He beat the linebacker to the hole and made a move on the safety, who fell down. Hopkins scrambled down to the four yard line.
“At that moment, I was like, ‘OK, I can do it,’ ” said the 227-pound true freshman.
Plays like that one remind Jackson of former standout Chris Perry.
“He can play fullback, he can play halfback,” Jackson said. “Hopkins is a really good football player. He’s got feet like Perry. And he’s just a young guy, but he’s got a great mobility change of direction for a guy his size.
“I don’t know if Chris weighed 230 or not. … Stephen’s a 230 guy. A big man with feet. Soft hands with quick feet.”
Hopkins is the young one of the group and will avoid a redshirt this season because he fills a key big-back role for Rodriguez. It also doesn’t hurt that Jackson thinks he’s nimble enough to run like Perry, who Hopkins watched play growing up.
But even the bulldozing Hopkins might not be the toughest Wolverine back to bring down.
One day in practice, Cox took a carry and found a running back’s worst nightmares waiting for him — junior defensive tackle Mike Martin jumped on Cox’s back to take him down. Cox kept chugging though, carrying the strongest guy on the team — a 300-pound behemoth — for five extra yards down the field.
Senior cornerback Troy Woolfolk knows there’s no question about who’s the toughest back to bring down. “Mike Cox,” Woolfolk said. “And it’s not because he’s going to run you over. His legs are ridiculously strong. He squats over 500. … I can’t wait to see defenders try and get him down, I’ll just be laughing on the sideline.”
Hopkins said Cox is the best athlete he’s ever seen, and others who have seen Cox play describe him as a “freak athlete.” In 2009, Cox ran for 113 yards and two touchdowns against Delaware State. That day, he showed he can run people over, get around them or just run past them.
“I think sometimes Mike doesn’t know how big and strong he is,” Rodriguez said. “Sometimes he dances like 170-pounder and he’s 215 pounds.”
The real dancer might be sophomore Vincent Smith. Smith, a Pahokee, Fla., native, flashed his cut-on-a-dime ability last year and his true speed. And though he spent much of the offseason rehabbing, he also got bigger, stronger and more defined.
Jackson thinks that if called upon, Smith could carry the ball 20 times a game. Smith has the balance of a smaller back (5-foot-6, 180 pounds), but he can run in between the tackles too.
“He’s not a little guy who runs big, he’s a little guy who runs small,” Jackson said. “By that I mean, he’s always under people’s pads. When you’re under a guy’s pads, you don’t get hurt that much. That’s what Mike Hart was. He was under your pads all the time. (Smith) plays like that.”
Although he’s a sophomore, Smith is one of the more experienced of the group — along with Shaw.
Shaw’s 400 career rushing yards makes him the team’s active leader. He’s been a change-of-pace guy his first two years at Michigan — backing up McGuffie, Brown and Minor. As Jackson sees it, Shaw’s head was swimming during his first couple years at Michigan, a similar situation to that of Anthony Thomas, who didn’t break 1,000 yards until his junior year.
“I’ve seen a mature guy who’s not guessing or thinking, just playing,” Jackson said. “Because a lot of times, you get a guy with a lot of talent and they’re thinking. It’s like Anthony Thomas as a freshman. People telling me, ‘Oh, he’s never going to play. He doesn’t have this, he don’t have that.’ That was just because he was thinking.”
The last of the group may just be a combination of all the rest. Fitzgerald Toussaint redshirted last year, sat and watched. His teammates see the combination of size and speed he brings to the game. At 5-foot-10, 200 pounds, Toussaint has shown in practice he’s a tough guy, too.
“Mike Hart ability with speed,” Jackson said of Toussaint. “The kind of guy who can do Michael cuts. He can sit down and sink his hips and explode without making steps. And he’s faster than Mike. A very, very tough guy, just like Mike was. He’s a similar back to Mike Hart. He’s not the type of inside runner that Mike was, but he’s going to get there just with his knowledge. Right now he still thinks he’s all (between the) tackle guy. But he can go inside and outside.”
The way Jackson sees it, opposing defenses could be softened up by Cox and Hopkins, and then burned by Smith, Toussaint and Shaw. The prospect of playing two of them at the same time had Jackson beaming — the possibilities are endless.
“I think all of us together (are) dangerous,” Hopkins said.
THE QUESTION REMAINS
After the scrimmage in which Hopkins broke that long run, a scrimmage that was deemed a success for the whole group, Jackson took them back to review film. After dishing out the good, the bad and the ugly, he dismissed his guys. He figured they had friends to see and other priorities to take care of.
Jackson wandered to his office to grab his coffee and a few other things. When he returned to the film room 20 minutes later, they were still there talking and carrying on.
“You can tell there’s something brewing there with those guys,” Jackson said. “They help each other, they pick each other up.
“To me that’s what’s good. You don’t have that all the time. Sometimes you’ve got a third guy who’s hoping the second guy gets banged up or has something wrong with him so he gets a chance. I don’t think I have that in that room. I sincerely don’t believe I have that.”
For Hart and Slaton, who were both entrenched as starters, they wanted to be on the field.
“It was just a thing you got to work for,” Slaton said of earning the starting job. “I didn’t worry about the depth chart. I just wanted to play. Football was something that I love to do. I just went out there and had fun. Did what I did, and tried to make plays.”
Added Hart: “I think anybody who goes to Michigan, any running back, any position, you want to be the guy. You want to be the starter.”
Ultimately, one member of this group will start Saturday against the Huskies. The million dollar question is, will someone take a stranglehold on the position? Does the team even need to have a true lead back?
“If I had to go with one guy, I could,” Jackson said. “But because of the way they’re practicing, I don’t have to. And I think I like it better this way because of the versatility of being able to play anybody. … I sort of like it better this way.”