Projected Starter: Fitzgerald Toussaint
After his 1,000 yard season last year, everyone knew Fitz Toussaint was Michigan's running back in 2012, the first established starter since Mike Hart left in 2007. Unfortunately, Fitz went and got himself a DUI and now his status with the team (in reality, just for the first few games) is in question. The chances are he misses the opener against Alabama or at least the first half of the game, depending on Hoke's disciplinary decisions, but we'll go forward assuming Fitz will retain his starting role once he's fully reinstated to the team.
Fitz didn't really break out until the Purdue game last year after he was given only two carries the week prior against Michigan State. He turned in solid performances against Western Michigan, Minnesota, and San Diego State early in the year, but none of those defenses showed much resistance; Fitz's performances could be written off as promising games against sub-par competition. After the MSU debacle, Fitz closed the regular season with 678 yards on 112 carries (6.05 yards/carry) until running into the Virginia Tech defense in the bowl game (30 yards on 13 carries).
Fitz has all of the traits you could want in a primary back: good vision, strong cuts, the ability to make people miss, ball security, and the strength to push the pile forward. Though not the workhorse that Mike Hart was, Fitz is a more complete back, and paired with Denard in the backfield, he presents a pick-your-poison proposition for defenses. Because opponents didn't want to risk Denard carrying the ball, that resulted in a lot of set-up blocking and open lanes for Fitz last year.
Barring a long suspension, Fitz should continue down the road he ended last season on: 5.5 to 6 yards/carry throughout the year and 15-20 carries a game. Even if he misses a game or two due to suspension, Fitz will likely surpass 1,000 yards this year, but won't get much higher than that.
The Backups: Vincent Smith, Thomas Rawls
Preposterous though this may sound, Smith is probably the X-factor against Alabama if Fitz can't play--and probably even if he can. Though Fitz has proven to be a great ball carrier, Smith brings something to the table that no other back on Michigan's roster can: the ability to catch balls out of the backfield. Alabama's defensive line is going to nullify the advantage Michigan's offensive line will have against most teams, so the ability to keep the defense honest and account for a scat back coming out of the backfield could be valuable.
People have underrated Smith for the last year because of Toussaint's performances, but Smith was a dangerous back both carrying the ball and catching it under Rodriguez. Because of the Denardness of the 2010 offense, however, Smith has only garnered more than 15 carries twice in his career: against Purdue in 2010 and Delaware State in 2009. Smith is an exceptional blocker, but he can also make people miss in a phone booth. His ability to flex out as a slot receiver, catch balls from the backfield, and underrated running abilities make him a serious threat against teams (namely Alabama, the only team that he'll get significant touches against).
Next off the bench is Thomas Rawls. After the spring game, most spectators were convinced that Rawls is the future, but this won't be his year. My reaction following the spring game:
Thomas Rawls wins the annual Spring Game award for Most Impressive Player Likely to Spend the Season on the Bench. Rawls is a power runner that showed good vision and an ability to get upfield. This year still belongs to Fitz Toussaint, though. Rawls will be a good option when Toussaint needs a breather, but he doesn't offer much that Fitz doesn't already bring to the table. The biggest concern with Rawls isn't even about his play: I'm worried the coaches will try and revive the I-formation running game behind Rawls' shoulder pads. As we saw once again in the spring game, this team is ill-equipped to run from the I formation.Those I-formation fears will be diminished next year when the Shane Morris show comes to town and the team plays from under center more, but this year, any I-formation running is conceding defeat. Rawls will be the short yardage back this year (with occasional appearances by bowling ball fumbleback Stephen Hopkins) but won't get more than 5 carries against any team that's not an early-season cupcake or late-season blowout. While promising, Rawls is still unproven, and though his spring game performance was impressive, it's still just a spring game.
The rest of the guys on the roster are just that: on the roster. The incoming freshmen (Dennis Norfleet and Drake Johnson) will spend the season on the bench, and redshirt freshman Justice Hayes is buried behind a bunch of competent-to-great backs already. Hayes might get some burn against Air Force and UMass, but otherwise, he'll spend the season riding the pine unless things go terrible wrong.