The Michigan football team’s running backs were supposed to be an asset this year.
Five different backs — redshirt sophomore Fitzgerald Toussaint, redshirt junior Michael Cox, senior Michael Shaw, junior Vincent Smith, and sophomore Stephen Hopkins — all had the potential to have breakout years and take over the starting role.
“I know all of them are ready to play,” quarterback Denard Robinson said at Big Ten Media Day in late July. “Hopkins is the big back, Shaw has the speed and the moves, you got Vincent Smith with quirks and shakes. … You got Mike Cox. It’s going to be crazy.”
But two games into the season, the running backs are a concern.
Toussaint grabbed hold of the starting position against Western Michigan and delivered, tallying 80 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries. But in the process, the injury-prone back hurt his shoulder, sidelining him for the Notre Dame game last week.
Shaw took over the starting duties against the Irish but did little to convince anyone he should be the No. 1 back, as he lost three yards on two total carries. Hopkins had five carries for just 10 yards and a fumble. Smith has been a solid third-down back but no longer appears to be in the running for the starting job.
“Of course I am (concerned about the running backs),” said Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges after practice on Tuesday. “But I’d be more concerned about them if they had more carries and you weren’t getting the yield that you wanted.”
But against Eastern Michigan on Saturday, the backs should have a chance to tally up a significant number of carries — at least in comparison to the limited number they’ve seen so far, which is in part due to the rain-shortened game against the Broncos and partly due to the Wolverines’ inability to put together a sustained drive against the Irish.
“The first game, we had a chance to get them rolling a bit,” Borges said. “They weren’t doing too bad. But (against Notre Dame), we just found one heck of a time getting into any rhythm. When you’re not rhythmic, you’re not getting first downs, you’re not converting third downs, you don’t get the turns, and you don’t get the snaps.”
Toussaint leads the running backs with just 11 total carries. Shaw has six, Hopkins five, and Smith three.
On Saturday, each one could have the opportunity to separate himself from the pack against an inferior Eastern Michigan team. If Michigan can build a sizable lead in the first half, each back should get his touches — possibly even freshmen backs Justice Hayes and Thomas Rawls.
“It will always depend on how fast they learn, maturity-wise, and all those things,” Hoke said of the freshmen. “I think they’re OK. Depending on where we get, they may play.”
But while the Wolverines should clearly have the edge over the Eagles overall, the Eastern Michigan run defense is one of the team’s biggest strengths and could present a challenge for Michigan.
The Eagles have allowed just 41.5 yards per game on the ground in their wins against Howard and Alabama State and have notched 10 total sacks. Eastern Michigan’s early success should give the Michigan running backs even more incentive to prove they can perform well against a solid defense.
And while it will be up to the running backs to perform, it’ll also be up to the offensive line to prove that they can help the backs be successful.
“I’d like to think (the running backs’ struggles is on us) 100 percent,” said redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Taylor Lewan. “I would like for (Toussaint) or Shaw or anybody that’s running the ball to be able to walk through the hole rather than have to squeeze through.”
The running backs should get their carries Saturday, but Lewan and the Wolverines are still focused on what’s most important.
“I think Eastern Michigan is a good team,” Lewan said. “They’re not a team to overlook at all. That’s the truth. Every Saturday is an opportunity to get a ‘W’ and to make our record even better. And at Michigan, it’s 10 wins a year, 11 wins a year that we want.
“Anything less than 11, 12 wins a year is a failure.”