At this time last year, the Michigan football team was stuck with a quarterback controversy: Denard Robinson or Tate Forcier?

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While that controversy has clearly been settled, the Wolverines have a new one on their hands this season. And if people thought deciding between just two candidates was difficult, how about deciding among seven?

That is exactly what Michigan running backs coach Fred Jackson is tasked with. With a pro-style offense in place, Jackson, along with Michigan coach Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges, said he would prefer to have one primary back, a guy who would carry the ball around 25 times per game.

And Hoke said all seven of his backs — freshmen Thomas Rawls and Justice Hayes, sophomore Stephen Hopkins, redshirt sophomore Fitzgerald Toussaint, junior Vincent Smith, redshirt junior Michael Cox, and senior Michael Shaw — have a legitimate chance to be the go-to guy. They just have to earn it in practice.

And as it stands now, each one is still in the hunt for the spot. But after Michigan Media Day on Sunday, it appears that the traffic jam at the top may slowly be starting to clear.

Jackson raved about Rawls and Hayes, saying that they were making the competition the best he’s ever been around. Jackson even said that nobody should be surprised to see both first-timers playing “very early in the season.”

But both are very different players, as Rawls is more of a physical, in-your-face type of guy, whereas Hayes is a quick, crafty runner. So the question becomes, which would fit better in Hoke’s offense?

The gut reaction would be to say that because of Rawls’ size and strength, he would be the better fit in a pro-style offense. But we really won’t know until either back hits the field.

Regardless if either freshman sees significant playing time, one thing is clear: they will (and already) have a positive effect on this team, and their never-give-up attitudes will only better those around them.

And the jury is still out on the other backs. Smith was the Wolverines’ second-leading rusher last season (behind quarterback Denard Robinson, who outgained all of last year’s backs combined). Smith gained 612 yards and tallied four touchdowns, while Shaw followed him with 414 yards and five scores.

But even these numbers are deceiving. Shaw began the season as the starter, but he was slowed by injuries and Smith took over the starting duties halfway through the season — probably a task that came too early for the then-sophomore, who had ACL surgery the year before.

Neither of the two top backs showed enough to even come close to becoming the front-runner for the job this year, and they now find themselves in the middle of a heated competition.

But Shaw is the only senior in the group, so his experience will no doubt give him an advantage.

Rounding out the list of last year’s top backs were Hopkins (157 yards, four TDs), Touissant (87 yards, one TD), and Cox (56 yards, no TDs).

The most likely candidate out of those three to make a push for the job is Hopkins. At 6 feet tall and 228 pounds, he’s a bulldog in the backfield who is tough to take down. He may not be the fastest of the group, but he has gained some speed since his arrival in Ann Arbor, and his hard-nosed style is a nice fit in the pro-style offense.

Touissant, like Shaw, has been injury-prone, missing 10 games last season due to knee and shoulder problems. But he’s been healthy so far in camp, and if he can stay healthy, he has the potential to make a push for the starting job if he can find the best way to utilize his speed.

He was recruited out of high school as a back with serious big-play potential, and he showed a flash of that last year, when he had two carries for 66 yards against Bowling Green.

Cox, the final man battling for position, has only seen garbage time in his career and is the most unproven back in the competition (not counting the freshmen). It would take a huge effort in the final leg of camp in order for him to solidify the spot.

But while Jackson does intend on selecting one primary back, he also said he would like to have a third-down back — he already has one picked out, but he didn’t say who it was.

If I was a betting man, I’d say the third down back will be Hayes.

But then again, last August, who could have predicted that Robinson would be a Heisman Trophy candidate in 2011?

Preseason grade:: B
Projected starter: Stephen Hopkins
Key losses: None
Surprise player:: Justice Hayes, Thomas Rawls

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