Rawls, Hayes join crowded backfield transitioning to new offense

Marissa McClain/Daily
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Daily Sports Writer
Published February 3, 2011

Two more joined Fred Jackson’s party on Wednesday, but the guest list could shrink soon.

Michigan signed running backs Justice Hayes and Thomas Rawls to join an already crowded backfield consisting of junior Mike Shaw, sophomore Vincent Smith, freshman Stephen Hopkins, redshirt sophomore Mike Cox and redshirt freshman Fitzgerald Toussaint.

But as the Wolverines switch back to a pro-style offense, Jackson, the Michigan running backs coach, was told he needs to have just two backs ready to play and one more waiting on deck as a “possible.”

Do the math. That leaves quite a few odd men out.

“I think it’s going to make a lot of guys look and say, ‘I either can do it or I can’t do it,’ because some of the guys we’ve got aren’t suited for this offense,” Jackson said. “And they’re going to find that out starting in about two or three days when you put pads on.”

The offensive scheme is shifting back to what Jackson used when he was tutoring the likes of Chris Perry and Mike Hart. Michigan coach Brady Hoke is selling toughness and physicality, starting with his offensive linemen — sounds like a revival of three yards and a cloud of dust.

“They want to get more physical on the line,” Michigan offensive lineman commit Tony Posada said Wednesday on WTKA radio. “They want to run the power-I offense. They want to get back to some smash-mouth football. But they’re still going to do some spread.”

“Running back is a part of the game again, that’s what I like,” Jackson said. “I love it when the backs can have something to do with the outcome of the game."

The latest arrivals to the party will fit right in, though. Jackson gushed over Rawls’ ability on Wednesday — his high school coach was Jackson’s son, Fred Jackson Jr., at Flint Northern High School.

At 5-foot-10, 220 pounds, he has drawn comparisons to another Flint, Mich. native, Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram. Jackson says Rawls is just like Ingram, but faster.

“I saw him in games when he had the football and it’s 3rd-and-1, and he can either make you miss or run through you and keep on running,” Jackson said of Rawls. “A lot of guys run through guys getting ready to tackle them and that’s where he goes down. Thomas Rawls can hit you, lift you — I call it hit-and-lift — and keep on going.

“That’s a special talent.”

Jackson watched film of Chris Perry on Tuesday night and recalled the same hit-and-lift style he said Rawls possessed.

Hayes didn’t shy away from coming into a class with Rawls. During a radio interview on WTKA on Wednesday morning, Hayes said that he and Rawls have already talked about playing with each other. And as Hayes put it, he could be the outside man while Rawls works the middle.

Hoke said Wednesday that he recruits a few high school running backs because they’re usually the best athletes on the field. It doesn’t necessarily matter if he already has a full stable of backs, because they can be moved to other positions, he said. That may be the case with Hayes, who, at 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, could be an athlete that Michigan will need to find a way to get on the field.

“(Hayes) can play any position,” Jackson said. “Very athletic, can catch the ball out of the backfield. Tough kid. Very competitive … He can play anywhere — corner, safety, running back, slot. He’s just athletic.”

Jackson added that Hayes’s preference is to play running back and that he will be given a chance to play the position, but Jackson didn’t know where Hayes would end up.

Even though he is on the smaller side now, Hoke estimated that Hayes could be up to around 190 pounds in the next year. When Hoke arrived at Hayes's name on Wednesday, as he announced the recruiting class, Hoke knew the running back for his quick feet.

Shiftier, more elusive running backs like Smith and Shaw — the 1-2 punch last season under Rich Rodriguez — may have to step aside as the bigger Hopkins (6-foot, 230 pounds) takes a increased role in this new offense.

And the wild cards may be Toussaint — who was interrupted by injuries in 2010 — and Cox, who never saw much playing time under Rodriguez.

The resurgence of the pro-style offense also has brought back the use of a true fullback in the sets that the Wolverines will run. But there’s a problem: Rodriguez didn’t recruit fullbacks and there isn’t one in Hoke’s 2011 recruiting class.

Could Hopkins play some fullback too?

“He may have to,” Jackson said. “But I don’t think I have another guy other than John (McColgan).”

McColgan appeared in just two games in 2010. Another possibility is that a player currently on the team could make a position change. For now, Jackson’s not even thinking about trying Rawls there.

“No, I wouldn’t do that with Rawls,” Jackson said. “I’m going to keep Rawls back there dotting that 'I.' I want him to dot that 'I.' ”