You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Sun, Aug 14, 2011 : 2:23 p.m.

Michigan has picked a third-down back, a plan for Denard Robinson's carries and 2 talented freshmen

By Kyle Meinke


Michigan running backs coach Fred Jackson, shown in practice last week, sounds confident that the Wolverines have a running back they can count on in third-down situations.

Melanie Maxwell |

The running game remains one of the biggest storylines of the Michigan football team's fall camp -- but things are becoming a little more clear.

Two firm revelations to come out of Michigan's media day at Schembechler Hall on Sunday:

First, Michigan will use a primary third-down back, and in fact, that player already has been selected. Running backs coach Fred Jackson said he won't name the player, but it'll be apparent when the team opens its season Sept. 3 against Western Michigan.

"I got a guy who's going to be a great third-down back for us," Jackson said. "I don't want to say right now who that guy is because I'm still trying to develop depth at the position.

"But the first game, you'll see who that is. I promise you, you'll see who that is."


Second, Michigan coach Brady Hoke announced he expects quarterback Denard Robinson to get about 10 to 15 designed carries per game. The junior averaged 19.7 rushes per game last year — which includes a 65-21 win against Bowling Green in which he rushed just five times — in Rich Rodriguez's spread-option attack.

He will rush less this year as the team transitions to the pro-style offense.

Of course, the biggest storyline on the running game is the competition for lead tailback, which offensive coordinator Al Borges — who will handle most of the playcalling this year — would prefer to use over a tailback-by-committee approach.

Borges said there were about seven candidates for the job at the start of fall camp, but would like to narrow that list to a couple finalists early on. That has not yet happened after one week and seven practices, but could happen soon with three two-a-days scheduled for this week and the team's first scrimmage Saturday.

Jackson said players won't be informed who wins the job until a couple days before the opener against Western Michigan, and added that it might take a couple games for Michigan to find its long-term back.

The starter is expected to receive about 25 carries per game in the Wolverines' new power-run scheme.


Senior running back Michael Shaw has rushed for 802 yards and 11 touchdowns in his Michigan career.

Melanie Maxwell |

Senior Michael Shaw, juniors Vincent Smith and Michael Cox and sophomores Stephen Hopkins and Fitzgerald Toussaint are the returners vying for the position, but Jackson has been particularly impressed by freshmen Thomas Rawls and Justice Hayes.

Both are serious contenders for the position.

"I have a lot of guys in there, and I told (the returners) up front, 'I'm going to play the best backs,'" Jackson said. "They're look at the same thing I look at, and what they see is two freshmen playing their butts off."

Rawls is a 5-foot-10, 219-pound back whose bruising, down-hill style has drawn some comparisons to fellow Flint native and 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram. Hayes is a 5-foot-10, 176-pound back from Grand Blanc who has a shiftier style of running.

Among the two, Rawls could have an edge because the coaching staff has said it's looking for a big-bodied rusher to carry the load. However, Borges said last week the freshmen's heads "are spinning a little bit" because they weren't around for spring practices and have missed some drills in fall camp because of classes.

"One thing about camp is that it's tough, but that's just what it is," Rawls said. "I've been doing good, working hard."

Hopkins and Shaw could have the edge among the returners because of their size and experience.

So far, though, no backs have separated themselves from the pack.

Jackson said the freshmen have been so good in camp, it has ratcheted up the intensity of the competition among the returners.

"Every day they come to work, they know they got to bring their lunch pails because the freshmen are coming out there like they're sophomores," Jackson said.

"Those two freshmen have made the whole room different because now the upperclassmen look around and know the competition is way beyond where they expected it to be (during spring practices)."

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



Tue, Aug 16, 2011 : 7:07 a.m.

This is really great: to see Michigan with a stable full of potential standout ball carriers. The offensive line is shaping up too, so Denard won't be out there risking his neck on every play. The offense, we must remember, was rated 8th in Div. 1 last year, so that squad has less catching up to do than the defense. It will be all eyes on the defense every time they take the field. Coaches Hoke and Mattison both come in with great reputations and, so far, it looks like they deserve those reputations. I think everyone expects to see real improvement on defense this season. It appears to be a very high probability. This could be another legendary team and season for Michigan: if nothing else but for being so improved from the Dark Abysmal Record of the past three years. Would would have thought in August of last year we'd be seeing this transformation?


Mon, Aug 15, 2011 : 4 p.m.

Good to be actually talking about real football again, rather than "who should be coach" etc. Third down back? I would think Cox or Hopkins given what they've shown on the field last year. Shaw and Smith have experience, yes, but neither has shown the consistency we hope for yet. But what are they doing in practice where the line has some bulk and blocking coaching? They may be way better. Let's hope that ALL the backs are so good that it won't matter.


Mon, Aug 15, 2011 : 12:57 p.m.

When I think 3rd down back, I think of situations that are 3rd and medium and 3rd and long. That's a job for Vincent Smith, IMO. The kid is fast. He's shifty. He's also tough and can stick his head in there to block a blitzer. He's the type of kid that will be perfect to catch a short pass in the flat and then getting RAC to get the first down. Short yardage 3rd down will go to the short yardage package, which is going to be Hopkins, IMO. Either him or Rawls. Can't wait for the season get started.


Sun, Aug 14, 2011 : 11:48 p.m.

I think 15 designed carries is still way too many if a main objective is to protect Denard's health.


Mon, Aug 15, 2011 : 4:57 a.m.

Except the main objective is to win football games. The best way to do that is to put the ball in your best player's hands and let them make plays. Denard is equipped with the tremendous ability to run and pass. Therefore, Denard will run and pass. Run the ball 15 times per game. Pass the ball 15 times per game (or more... we'll see). Let the tailback do the rest. I see no problems here.


Sun, Aug 14, 2011 : 10:52 p.m.

I still think DR is still the best choice for your third down back.

Terry Star21

Mon, Aug 15, 2011 : 5:39 a.m.

Well, I agree using him but only about 15% of the time. Remember, he is too predictable to the opposing D... remember the bowl game, they had his number, then even bragged about how they new what was coming !

Terry Star21

Sun, Aug 14, 2011 : 10:25 p.m.

Hey D21, you read my mind. I too like the back that takes that third down play and then hands it over to the referee in the end zone - now that's too cool. I would have guessed Stephan Hopkins as the choice because of his power, however I really believe Stephan is in that major break through year and will be our lead runner. Shaw seems the most capable of what Jackson and Borges attempt to accomplish - from what I have been reading. MgoBlueForTiM.....whether it be Hopkins, Shaw, or others - take to the end zone !


Sun, Aug 14, 2011 : 10:56 p.m.

Thanks TS21 and it will be interesting to watch them take the field in a few more weeks after a 3 year drought.


Sun, Aug 14, 2011 : 9:39 p.m.

Did you all see Hoke's quote today? "If we don't win the big ten championship, we have failed these kids as coaches.....There will be no excuses for not winning at Michigan". Like a BIG breath of fresh air!! What a nice change from what we got used to (or didn't) and how leadership and expectations begin from the top. He is standing in front of that team, placing high level of expectations and he definitely has their back. And just wait, our team will achieve immediately. Might not be perfect, but this team will be like the teams of old. Full of spirit, hard work, and yes, expectations!! Michigan is back. (I guess former coach was right after he led us to a loss at ND his first year...."Michigan football will be back").


Mon, Aug 15, 2011 : 12:51 p.m.

Heartbreak, that quote just jumped out at me as well. That is the quote of a true leader. Over the past 3 years, it's been "the players aren't good enough", "the players aren't working hard enough", "the players have to earn their wings", etc. That was all demotivating garbage. Motivation through public humiliation was RichRod's MO and IME, that doesn't work. You want to hammer players, do it behind closed doors inside the program, but you never show these kids publically that you don't have their backs. Hoke will do great things, maybe not this season, but soon.

Terry Star21

Sun, Aug 14, 2011 : 10:28 p.m.

I hear ya heartbreak...Hoke is inspiring - put me in coach I'm ready to go !


Sun, Aug 14, 2011 : 9:24 p.m.

Good Job Fred and the coaching staff for handling this correctly. Make Thomas Rawls the starter and get the ball out of the FR's hands on 3rd down. Perfect choice is our Sr. Mike Shaw.


Sun, Aug 14, 2011 : 8 p.m.

And gracefully hands over the ball to the ref after scoring a TD a la Barry Sanders.

Terry Star21

Sun, Aug 14, 2011 : 10:30 p.m.

We think alike my friend, don't blink your eyes on that third down play...because the next thing you'll see is him handing the ball to the Ref - 6 pts.


Sun, Aug 14, 2011 : 7:53 p.m.

My vote is for the back who runs the best. And never fumbles the ball.


Sun, Aug 14, 2011 : 7:03 p.m.

It might be frustrating not to have one back that is a cut above. But the depth looks to be in place to be able to pound the ball for the entire season with lots of interchangeable parts.