Trailing Notre Dame, 24-7, at the start of the fourth quarter, Stephen Hopkins lined up in the I-formation behind junior quarterback Denard Robinson, as senior running back Michael Shaw ran in motion. The Wolverines needed half a yard — it was obvious whom the ball was going to.

Robinson took the snap and immediately handed it to the 6-foot, 228-pound running back. Hopkins put his head down and tried to bulldoze his way through the Fighting Irish defense. But before he made it back to the line of scrimmage, the ball was loose.

Somehow, the ball bounced right back to Robinson, who dashed left and scampered into the end zone from two yards out for the score. Just how the Wolverines drew it up, right?

Though Hopkins lucked out against the Fighting Irish, his inability to hold onto the ball helped land him a spot on the bench. In just eight carries this season, he’s fumbled twice.

That is, until Michigan coach Brady Hoke and his staff decided to use Hopkins in a different role — as a fullback.

Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges noticed something in Hopkins they felt would fit perfectly in their system and would allow them to play Hopkins without taking time away from the other running backs.

“He’s a good lead blocker,” Borges said. “He has tailback-type skills, so he has good feet, but he has some toughness.”

The sophomore out of Double Oak, Texas has played in five games at fullback this year and is now the starter, in front of fifth-year senior John McColgan.

Though Hopkins may not have as big of a role on the stat sheet, he may be more important now than ever.

“(Hopkins’s) role has become bigger (since switching to fullback),” Hoke said. “On the kickoff return team, he’s done a really good job blocking there, and he’s become more of a factor offensively.”

The transition from running back to fullback is one that’s not often embraced — the back must go from playing in the spotlight to working in the trenches, earning playing time with toughness and blocking, often going unnoticed in the public eye.

“So much of it is a buy-in,” Borges said. “If you’re still thinking in the back of your mind you’re still going to be a tailback, you can’t be a fullback. That doesn’t work in our offense.”

According to Borges and Hoke, Hopkins has bought in, and it will continue to pay dividends for Hopkins and the team as he continues to grow at fullback.

“For some guys, I think they have problems with (the transition),” Hoke said. “Some of them fight it, but he’s been great.

“He’s jumped in with both feet.”

And this time, he didn’t drop the ball.

PENN STATE WHISPERINGS: With the recent allegations at Penn State and the announcement of coach Joe Paterno’s dismissal, Hoke knew he’d be asked to comment about the situation in Happy Valley.

He came prepared.

“I’m going to make a brief statement just regarding everything up at Penn State,” Hoke said at the beginning of his press conference on Wednesday. “One thing I can tell you, we have an utmost respect for what coach Paterno’s done on the field.

“It’s really a situation that’s obviously unfortunate, but it’s one that doesn’t affect us. We’ve got to worry about Michigan and the decision that we make in getting ready for this week and going to Illinois and winning a football game.”

Asked later in the press conference about the Nittany Lions’ situation, Hoke simply said, “We’re not going to talk about that.”

Senior defensive tackle Mike Martin also said the team remains focused solely on what Michigan needs to do this week to beat Illinois, but he did offer one comment on Paterno’s impending retirement.

“The Big Ten trophy is the Stagg-Paterno trophy,” Martin said. “So I think that says it all and how much (Paterno has) given to college football.”

The trophy is currently named after Paterno and the legendary University of Chicago coach Amos Alonzo Stagg. However, members of the Stagg family have recently voiced concern over having their name attached to Paterno’s, and it is possible that the name of the trophy will be changed.

HOLLOWELL’S REDSHIRT BURNED: Freshman Delonte Hollowell, a defensive back out of Detroit Cass Tech High School, played in his first career game last Saturday against Iowa.

He played on special teams and recorded his first career tackle.

Until that point, it appeared that Hollowell, who weighs just 164 pounds, would redshirt and work on gaining weight for next season.

According to Hoke, Hollowell was just too good in practice not to play in games.

“He’s such a pain in the butt all week, to be honest,” Hoke said. “On the scout team, how he competes, doing everything we ask him to do — he’s got very good quickness. He’s athletic, he’s not big, but he’s very intelligent.

“We got to a point and we looked at some depth issues we felt we had, and it was an opportunity for him to get five good games under his belt, and the experience is going to pay dividends this year.”

BARNUM’S BACK?: After missing Saturday’s game against the Hawkeyes with an ankle injury, redshirt junior offensive lineman Ricky Barnum should be ready to play on Saturday against the Fighting Illini, according to Hoke.

“He did some things (in practice Tuesday),” Hoke said. “We’ll see. He’ll play, but we’ll see how healthy he is.”

Even if Barnum isn’t 100-percent healthy, his presence would greatly help an already-limited offensive line — the Wolverines have just six linemen with experience.

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