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Posted on Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 5:59 a.m.

Biceps say it all: 'Black beast' Thomas Rawls an enforcer in Michigan football backfield

By Kyle Meinke


Michigan sophomore running back Thomas Rawls speaks to reporters during Sunday's media day.

Melanie Maxwell |

Thomas Rawls is a punisher. A wrecking ball. A guy more interested in inflicting pain than avoiding it.

Those are among the countless descriptors used this offseason to characterize the Michigan football team's physical sophomore tailback -- and they can all be distilled into one tidy word.

And it's tattooed down his bulging right bicep.


Down his left bicep is another tattoo, which reads "Bete noire." He says it's French for "accomplish your hopes and dreams," which he could do in the opener against Alabama with the status of starter Fitz Toussaint yet undecided.

Literally translated, though, it means "black beast" or "a person to be strongly detested or avoided."

Defenses might tend to identify more with the latter.

"I mean, when he runs, he’s tryin’ to hurt the guy," Michigan running backs coach Fred Jackson said Sunday at the team's media day. "Anybody who tries to tackle him will know they’ve been hit.

"He don’t take many blows, he gives blows -- and that’s what you’re looking for in a running back."

The 5-foot-10, 218-pound Rawls has received an impressive amount of praise for a guy with 13 career carries, just as he did during last year's camp when he had zero.


Want to check out Michigan take on defending national champion Alabama? Click here to visit the Michigan Football News and Views Facebook page and vote for who will be the Wolverines' most important player, besides Denard Robinson, in the 2012 season. That vote will earn you a chance to win three free tickets.

A little-known fact, though: Rawls, according to Jackson, was winning the tailback battle heading into the final week of last year's camp until a hit by linebacker Mike Jones dislocated his shoulder.

The injury was significant physically, but also handicapped his growth mentally, and he never did crack the regular rotation last year.

"It was a major setback," Rawls said.

The script was flipped this year when Toussaint, now entrenched as the starter, was suspended following a drunken-driving arrest last month. He returns to camp Monday after missing a week of practices, but his status for the season opener against Alabama is undecided.

Next in line: Rawls.

If Toussaint indeed is held out of the lineup for that game, Rawls' debut as a starting college tailback would come against the reigning No. 1 rush defense, and the nation's best rush defense of the past half decade.

That's an imposing assignment for most tailbacks. Rawls is not most tailbacks.

"I don’t think it’s going to phase him," said Jackson, whose son, Fred Jr., coached Rawls at Flint Northern. "I think he’s going to play as if he’s been there, even though he hasn’t."

Added Rawls: "I’m ready. No Michigan running back is scared of anyone or anything."

Rawls said he's an even better tailback now, after spending a season soaking in on- and off-field lessons dispensed by Toussaint and senior tailback Vincent Smith. That includes improving his vision, which, like Toussaint's early, wasn't good.

And, like Toussaint, is getting better.

"Usually a guy with good vision is a little bit taller," Jackson said. "Thomas is probably, maybe, 5-8. He tells me he's 5-11 and I'm 6-2, I think, and I look down on him and eat soup off his head.

"But he's shorter than Fitz, and Fitz has got to be 5-9. You can't usually see a guy like that, with that kind of vision, with that kind of feet, and he has good enough feet to do what we need him to do.

"He's got Mike Hart kind of feet, but a lot faster than Mike."

That's a striking comparison, considering Hart is the Wolverines' all-time leading rusher. But Rawls has had his sights set on Hart ever since he first overcame academic hardships to earn his scholarship to Michigan.


Thomas Rawls puts on a Michigan cap after announcing his decision to commit to the Wolverines last year.

Flint Journal

Rawls beat the streets of Flint, unlike some of those closest to him.

"Growing up back home, I had a lot of friends shot and killed," Rawls said. "Guys I even played football with, family shot and killed. Guys I grew up with in high school, family, getting locked up and going to jail.

"But one thing about all that: Even though it is horrible and it is sad, it also gave me motivation to keep driving and going a different route, a positive route."

It has left him angry. And he runs that way, according to coaches. What does that mean, exactly?

"Just running real physical and feel like can’t nobody stop you -- feel like you can’t be hit," Rawls said. "Puts you in the zone where there’s no fear. It’s just all fun, but you’re also taking care of business.

"Just running angry. It’s just a mentality you gotta have -- you gotta have it. It starts in your heart, and that’s what I got."

A couple days after signing his letter of intent, Rawls celebrated his fortune by visiting a local tattoo parlor.

He scripted "Tenacious" down his right arm, "Bete noire" down the left.

Black beast.

Something to be strongly detested or avoided.

Kyle Meinke covers Michigan football for He can be reached at 734-623-2588, by email at and followed on Twitter @kmeinke.


Steve McQueen

Tue, Aug 14, 2012 : 4:56 a.m.

So Black Beast is now Rawls nickname? I hope people will be OK with that, especially since he gave it to himself.


Tue, Aug 14, 2012 : 1:05 a.m.

Rawls has probably gotten some of that toughness from watching Vincent Smith, because Vincent Smith is one of the toughest dudes at Michigan. Vincent Smith is an under the radar guy who does all the tough assignments without complaint... a Michigan man for sure! Rawls and Smith are what running backs need to be like. Fitz as well...who needs to take out his frustrations on the field, as when going through problems the field is sometimes the only solace.


Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 11:38 p.m.

I wonder how he will explain this to his employer when he ends his college career. Black Beast, eh?


Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 10:42 p.m.

The Beast is something you read about in the Book of Revelation in the Bible. I'm not ready to call Thomas Rawls a devil. He is human, but will have to deal with an Alabama defense that is close to inhuman. Brady Hoke will need to devise the game plan of a lifetime in order to remain anywhere near Alabama on the scoreboard. Somehow Michigan will have to keep the ball out of Bama's evil greedy hands.

Blu n Tpa

Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 6:57 p.m.

What does a LSU fan and a balloon have in common? Neither add anything interesting or intelligent to the conversation due to hot air and both are kicked by grade school children around the playground.


Tue, Aug 14, 2012 : 3:59 p.m.

No, it wasn't.

Blu n Tpa

Tue, Aug 14, 2012 : 11:27 a.m.

Way, I see you agree with me. Except for you living a sheltered life and never kicking a balloon around (after some kids B-Day party) until it popped, you offer no objections. So, by accepting the rest of the post, you also think LSU fan isn't adding anything interesting or intelligent to the conversation and that he could be use to getting his "balloons" kicked by grade school children. Maybe you can answer the question Lsu/sec fan ignores: What's Michigan's bowl record vs the SEC? (BTW wasn't it you who wrote recently that Michigan never won a Rose bowl game under Coach Carr?) TiM Go Blue!


Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 11:15 p.m.

I have, it was a school not far from the LSU campus. TheWay, you had to be there to see it I never laughed so hard in my life that's why evertime SEC posts I can't help but laugh.


Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 8:02 p.m.

I've never seen any kids kicking a balloon around a playground before. And I bet you haven't, either.


Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 6:10 p.m.

so, this is the French taught at um? Is this his major? interesting.

Steve McQueen

Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 5:35 p.m.

"Thomas is probably, maybe, 5-8. He tells me he's 5-11 and I'm 6-2, I think, and I look down on him and eat soup off his head. That is Classic Fred Sr. Good to see him in regular season form lol.

Steve McQueen

Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 5:32 p.m.

Rawls is a a dead-ringer for a young Charles Woodson.


Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 4:59 p.m.

I question if we are putting too much emphasis on the back and not enough on the O line. As the article points out, Alabama has a top notch D line, so how much can a back so without a line that can counter the defense? What I like about quick backs is their ability to get through a hole before it closes which I think is a great skill of Denard. He seems to be so quick he can get through the holes faster than any runner I have ever seen. But if a defense is so good that before you get to the scrimmage line the first player you encounter is a defender it is going to be a long day.


Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 6:07 p.m.

they gotta take what they can get...

Macabre Sunset

Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 4:46 p.m.

It's great to have a guy like Rawls on the team, and there's a huge difference between seeking out contact and wanting to "hurt" defenders and trying to injure someone. Players know the difference. But I feel bad for these guys. This is a big part of the reason running backs have incredibly short NFL careers on average. They make an impact right away, but even when you're initiating the contact, the big hits add up quickly.


Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 4:27 p.m.

C'mon Kyle - using Fred Jackson quotes to tell a story ? Does anyone believe ANYTHING Fred Jackson says anymore ? Every single back, every single year - is faster and smarter and bigger than a Michigan legend. It's a joke. Also - how is it that you find a way to make so many photos ? Are you trying ?


Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 3:43 p.m.

Good luck to Thomas Rawls, after talking the talk, he needs to walk the walk. He's setting the bar real high but he delivers, that would be spectacular. We shall see.

Deadra Whitley

Sun, Aug 19, 2012 : 8:47 a.m.

thank you robert he has never said anything to seem cocky thats not him.. he is there like all the other players to play the game..settle down ppl and just enjoy the journey he is there to do his job..and he is representing his team he said we are not scared because they are working hard and they are ready how is that cocky..smh

Robert Granville

Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 4:28 p.m.

What has he said or done that makes you say, "he's setting the bar real high?" The expectation for greatness comes from the program, the fans, the history.... but I haven't seen him do or say anything that would make him seem cocky.

Bob Gross

Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 3:31 p.m.

Passez au bleu. Saisissez votre chance contre l'Alabama Thomas!

Kyle Meinke

Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 5:54 p.m.

Bon appetit!


Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 2:18 p.m.

So, Michigan now has someone who is known for inflicting pain. I suspect this means - inflicting pain on the opposing players. I thought this attribute was beneath a Michigan player. Or so the commentary said as much in prior years.

Robert Granville

Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 3:08 p.m.

I think you're conflating "inflicting pain" with "unnecessary roughness." One is a goal in football the other is a penalty.


Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 2:37 p.m.

Don't worry, in another year they will be writing countless stories about how he's "matured" once lewan "graduates" (and i use that term loosely).


Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 1:56 p.m.

He runs tough but how does he keep from getting hurt again? I think he'll be as good, as Touissant, maybe better, but will likely go out with an injury with his running style. That's why Touissant is back practicing,. Vincent Smith is just to small to carry the load.

Steve McQueen

Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 5:37 p.m.

"there have been plenty of successful 5 footers in the NFL." Yeah like Mark Ingram... no wait....scratch that.

Kyle Meinke

Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 3:31 p.m.

Scott, you bring up an excellent point re: the injury thing, and Rawls actually addressed that. It just didn't fit in the story. He said part of why he got hurt was he kept seeking out contact. Now, he's doing a better job of knowing when to skirt around it, then leveling the hammer when he has to. Toussaint went through a similar process last year as well. I think that, as well as vision, are two things young backs typically have to acquire over time, no matter how good they are. And Rawls, according to Rawls, is figuring out both.


Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 3:26 p.m.

Smith carried the load in 2010 as a soph., rushed for > 600 yds ( him and DR combined for > 2000 yds as well ), was a great pass receiver and blocker. Don't recall him getting knocked out of many games because of his size. Smith's tattoo might read, ' pound for pound the toughest kid on the team '.


Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 2:06 p.m.

there have been plenty of successful 5 footers in the NFL.


Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 12:54 p.m.

My tattoo says "White Pansy"

Steve McQueen

Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 5:36 p.m.

are you from Ohio Scott? just kidding.


Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 4:07 p.m.

Classic....and Classy!


Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 1:59 p.m.

I went with the barbed wire chain around my bicep- classic look.


Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 12:24 p.m.

Added Rawls: "I'm ready. No Michigan running back is scared of anyone or anything." YES -- I like this guy.


Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 11:11 a.m.

Not according to my French translator: Bete noire means: pet peeve. Still appropriate though.


Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 1:28 p.m.

Someone needs a new French translator.


Mon, Aug 13, 2012 : 12:48 p.m.