Toussaint emerges as Hoke's lead back, replaces Robinson as workhorse

Marissa McClain/Daily
Fitzgerald Toussaint during game against Western Michigan University in Michigan stadium on Saturday September 3, 2011. Michigan won 34-10, though the game was cut short due to poor weather conditions. Buy this photo

By Tim Rohan, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 4, 2011

What kind of running back is Fitzgerald Toussaint?

The question seemed simple enough. Denard Robinson smiled, leaning back in his chair.

“Oh man,” Robinson said, with a guffaw. “All right, I don’t want to juice his head up too much.”

Sitting to his left was Toussaint, the redshirt sophomore who missed eight games in his first season due to knee and shoulder injuries, the back who took his first career handoff from and saw nothing but green grass in front of him only to be caught from behind by a Bowling Green defender 61-yards downfield. He's the same back running backs coach Fred Jackson said had “Mike Hart ability with speed,” a year ago.

“Fitz is probably one of the best running backs I’ve played with,” Robinson said. “When he gets the ball, he runs hard and he makes guys miss and he’s fast — he’s a good back.”

Toussaint shot all 5-foot-10, 195 pounds of himself out of a rocket into the heart of Western Michigan’s defense every time he got the ball on Saturday, shooting gaps between the tackles, side-stepping defenders in a phone booths.

Relentlessly, Toussaint kept answering the bell, launching himself into the opponents’ gut.

“We just chip away until we get the long one,” he said. “Credit to the offensive line, keep doing their job, then eventually it will come.”

The hiring of Brady Hoke could be the best thing that ever happened to Toussaint.

Last year’s backfield was just as crowded as it is now, and Toussaint was fourth on the depth chart entering his redshirt freshman season. Jackson said he could become the inside runner Hart was, but it would take time.

Injuries complicated matters. Toussaint played in four games at running back and carried the ball just eight times all season.

Senior running back Mike Shaw and junior running back Vincent Smith saw most of the snaps at running back, but they were just Robinson’s sidekicks, meant to just divert defense’s attention away from Michigan’s dynamic quarterback. In 10 of 13 games last season, Shaw and Smith, together, failed to carry the ball more than Robinson.

Hoke’s power running game may have been invented for a back like Toussaint. Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges wanted to lead with one running back and ride him all game long. The good ones usually improve the more you feed them, he said.

But Shaw wasn’t just going to fade into the background. All fall camp, the position battle shifted between Shaw and Toussaint. Then, in the last week of camp, Toussaint started getting more reps with the first team.

“I kind of had a clue,” he said.

Friday night, Hoke announced Toussaint would be his starter. Hoke later said the reason was because he liked the way Toussaint finished fall camp.

So Toussaint started to chip. Four yards here. Five yards there. When Michigan reached the goal line on its first possession, it was Toussaint who punched it in.

“I thought there were some hard runs,” Hoke said after the game. “I thought Fitz ran the ball up in there pretty hard, took some guys on, which is what you want to see out of your backs.”

Shaw started the second drive, and Smith jumped in as the third-down back, but again Toussaint punished the defense busting a 10-yard gain then later diving for another goal line touchdown. Chip, chip, chip.

On Toussaint’s next carry, he took Robinson’s handoff and ran between right guard Patrick Omameh and right tackle Mark Huyge’s clean hole and grabbed the chunk he was looking for. A Bronco defensive back came into his vision on his right, and like a true Hoke running back, Toussaint lowered his shoulder and tried to run him over. But it backfired and his daylight had darkened after 43 yards.

Two plays later, Shaw took a handoff and the hole was even bigger this time. No defender was within 10 yards of him when he scored from 44 yards out.

“I think they both found — had good vision, let me put it that way,” Hoke said. “I think Michael’s got a little bit more top-end speed, so he was able to get away from the safety. If you notice on that one long run by Fitz, he lowered himself to go through a guy. And if you watch you can see Junior Hemingway launching himself, trying to get a block over the top. That’s exciting to me. That’s good football to me.”

Tough, physical, just like Hoke wanted. On Monday, Hoke announced Toussaint would probably start again against Notre Dame, but Shaw would see the field.

Like Borges wanted, the running backs were the workhorses against Western Michigan, not Robinson. In his 2010 debut, Robinson carried the ball 29 times against Connecticut.

Toussaint chipped away 11 times for 80 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday. Shaw ran for another 54 yards on four carries. And Robinson ran the ball eight times, about half of which were designed runs, for 46 yards.

The first play of the game was a designed quarterback run — a 39-sweep — to the left for Robinson. Borges and Hoke had planned it that way to get him going early. But most of Robinson’s designed runs — three of which came on the first drive — were between the tackles or just off them. One can wonder if the hits Robinson takes in Hoke’s new physical style may be more harmful than the ones that knocked him out of many games last season, even if he carries the ball fewer times.

With his speed and foot quickness, Robinson was still able to dance his way for a few long gains through that traffic. But in the rain-shortened game, Michigan fans didn’t witness the magic of Robinson in space — his longest run went for 12 yards. When he does find space, he may benefit from Toussaint’s chipping.

Near the end of the press conference, Robinson — the nation's second-leading rusher last season — was asked if it were ideal that he was the team’s third-leading rusher.

“Oh yeah, I enjoy seeing him run the ball, and Mike Shaw get the ball, Vince (too),” Robinson said. “I love seeing those guys get out in space and make them miss. That’s nothing to me.”