By Michael Florek, Daily Sports Editor
Published August 14, 2011
The Michigan football team’s two freshmen running backs, Thomas Rawls and Justice Hayes, came in with the reputation as game-changers. Just a week into fall camp, they’re proving it.
With their presence, the competition to be the Wolverines’ feature back is a whole new game.
“Those two freshmen have made the whole room different, because now the upperclassmen look around and know that, hey, that the competition is way beyond what they expected it to be,” running backs coach Fred Jackson said Sunday. “Don’t be shocked if both (freshmen) play very early this year.”
Rawls comes from Flint Northern High School, where he was coached by Jackson’s son. At 5-foot-10, 219 pounds, he’s the more physical back of the two and more prototypical for the power-run style Michigan coach Brady Hoke plans to run.
Hayes is one of the lightest backs (176 pounds), with good hands and an “uncanny burst” of speed, according to Jackson. Because of Hayes’ stature, blocking was a concern — but one of the first words out of Jackson’s mouth at Michigan Media Day was a mention of their toughness.
“Justice will give you 180 pounds in your face,” Jackson said. “He’s going to give it to you. He’s not going to back down from nobody.”
Both backs are from the Flint, Mich. area — Hayes lives in Grand Blanc, Mich. — and mentioned Flint native and former Alabama running back Mark Ingram as a role model. Hayes has been mentored by Ingram, while Rawls mentioned that he always wanted to meet him but never got the chance.
But it was Rawls who Jackson compared to Ingram. Jackson has no predecessor for Hayes.
“Thomas Rawls is comparable out of high school to Mark Ingram kind of player,” Jackson said. “I saw them both as seniors and I don’t know how Mark was at Alabama as a freshman, but I’m telling you Thomas is an excellent football player.
“Justice Hayes is not a pile-driving guy, but he’s a guy that if you’re in a phone booth he can probably make you miss him. And (he’s) got great quickness — tough. I can’t remember one guy I’ve had that’s like him.”
They’re still freshmen and that means summer classes, which has cut down on some time on the field. But Hayes has said he’s only missed out on the stretching and Jackson feels that the two have caught up.
They won’t be at a disadvantage as full-pads practices continue this week, with a scrimmage on Saturday. Hoke said Thursday that the next eight days will determine a lot about the position battles. Jackson will form a depth chart in two weeks.
The coaching staff wants a feature back who can carry the ball about 25 times per game and Jackson feels like after a couple of games he’ll know who that is. But other guys will play. Jackson has already found a third-down back, but wouldn’t mention the name in order to “build depth at the position.” And if there’s more than one back who meets expectations, he’ll play.
“I can’t stop good football players from playing,” Jackson said. “I promised them that. You’re going to see more guys play, but there’s going to be a dominant guy.”