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Posted on Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 5:59 a.m.

Michigan searching for solutions to paltry production from tailbacks

By Kyle Meinke


Vincent Smith, left, was Michigan's most productive running back against Michigan State. He rushed eight times for 37 yards, 26 of which came on one first-quarter run.

Melanie Maxwell |

Fitz Toussaint said he thinks he has an inside track on becoming the Michigan football team's next featured back -- whether he earns the title this year or the next.

Offensive coordinator Al Borges just wants someone to produce, regardless of who it is.

The Michigan tailbacks have struggled in recent weeks, bottoming out with a 10-carry, 40-yard performance in a 28-14 loss to Michigan State in their last game Oct. 15.

That is not enough, especially for a team that has struggled to pass the ball consistently this year.

"I thought we beat ourselves," Toussaint said of the loss to the Spartans. "I thought we needed to match their intensity, and we didn't."

The tailbacks have been a sore spot for much of the season, stretching back to fall camp. The coaching staff made it clear they were searching for one back to carry the bulk of the load -- “I don’t like rotating guys — never have,” Borges said the first week of camp -- but the group has been so underwhelming, the Wolverines ended up going with multiple backs anyway.


Come back to at noon Thursday for a live chat with Kyle Meinke. He'll discuss news that emerged during Michigan’s off week and preview the game against Purdue on Saturday.
Michigan's top back, Toussaint, has rushed for 333 yards this season, which is 143rd in the country. Junior Vincent Smith has been the other primary back with 37 carries for 251 yards.

Each provides something a little different. Toussaint is more of a downhill, punishing runner, whereas Smith is more elusive. He also is better at catching screens and blocking.

Toussaint said he thinks he's close to separating himself. Until then, he said he's getting increasingly comfortable with the tailback-by-committee approach.

"Just go out there, compete every day, never stop, compete through the whistle," he said of how he mentally prepares for sharing the carries.

Toussaint said frustration has not set in among the tailbacks, mostly because the team is winning. Their lack of production also has been mitigated by the deft running of quarterback Denard Robinson, who leads the Big Ten with 108.9 yards rushing per game.

But against the Spartans, who successfully corralled Robinson (18 carries for 42 yards and 9-of-24 passing), their failure was accentuated.

Toussaint received only two carries against the Spartans, a season low, after struggling to pick up Michigan State's blitzes early in the game. Smith received the other eight carries for 37 yards -- 26 of which came on one first-quarter run.

That's 10 carries for 44 yards and no touchdowns. That kind of paltry production allows teams to key in on Robinson, who did not run or pass well against Michigan State.

Although coach Brady Hoke prefers to have a featured back, he said this week he's OK with the current arrangement, as long as the backs combine for more than 100 yards. That, obviously, did not happen against Michigan State.

Hoke was quick to point out, though: It wasn't entirely the backs' fault.

"I don't want to put it all on them," he said. "I think they're doing a nice job. Two of them are playing most of the time. They're competitive, and they're tough. Like anything else, whether you talk about your quarterback, or a linebacker not making as many tackles -- sometimes, that's the front.

"It's the same thing with a running back. Sometimes, it's the opportunities, or what we're doing up front."

Michigan's offensive line was pushed around consistently against the Spartans, to the tune of seven sacks. There also were few rushing lanes for the backs to attack.

"Up until the last game, I thought we were really starting to get a good feel (up front)," Borges said. "But, you know, sometimes, you get a rude awakening and you realize you’re not where you need to be. Sometimes, it takes a game like that to realize that, I guess.

"It’s never one thing. It’s always a combination of things. People always want to blame one player or coach or whatever, and it’s generally not that. It’s normally a combination of issues.

"It’s not the backs, it’s not the line — it’s all of the above."

It's worth pointing out Michigan State is eighth in the country in rush defense and No. 2 in total defense. So, it's not alarming the Wolverines struggled in that game.

But the backs continuing to scuffle, and no one seizing the featured back role, is more disconcerting.

"No one’s standing out," Borges said. "It’s not that there’s something missing, it’s just no one is standing out. Until (someone does), we’re going to operate as we’ve operated."

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



Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 4:55 a.m.

I have a solution for the RB problem. Line Drob up there. Maybe in the slot too. Since he is clearly the best ball carrier on the team. However, he isnt the QB.. Soo.. lets stick Gardner there, and then maybe, if were lucky, UM will have a fully functional offense.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 11:58 p.m.

Since Rawls outweighs Touissant by 20 lbs. and Smith by 40 lbs, he might be better at North/ South running in short yardage situations. He's look impressive so far.


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 3 p.m.

agreed ! T. Rawls should get some carries in the next couple of games, nothing complicated,maybe 1st or 2nd down straight ahead runs.. He has the size and speed, give him a chance..


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 11:08 p.m.

What ever happened with Michael Cox? He is the kind of back that Michigan use to feature but my guess is that he doesn't pick up the blitz or doesn't quite understand the offense. Has anyone heard anything other wise why he has not seen the field this year because in limited game appearances in the past he was always impressive and the spring game as well.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 10:35 p.m.

Wow, the division that still exist between us GREAT M Fans. Reading these posts ( we're worse on each other than we are on MSU & OSU fans ), it's not about M football, the team and the players, it's all about the love or hatred of the coaches. I can just imagine what this new group of coaches are going through trying to satisfy this fan base and alums. On one hand, trying to give one group the style FB he promised coming in. And on the other hand, having to win right away with the team he inherited. Believe me, this coaching staff know they have a team they can win with, but they also know the style they need to play is not going to be favorable for some because of the hatred of the last coach. So instead, they run this hybrid piece of crap because out of hate, some fans don't understand that it was inexperience last year. Hate it or not, last years offensive production was better, DR: 2500+/1700+, Total receiving: 2800+, Total rushing: 2300+, 7-6, and remember this was a young team, all that production is back this year and next. Not everything RR did was wrong, there were some things needing change and some things to build upon, but they can't build upon it because of the hate for RR. It's not about paltry production from the RBs, DR's passing, the OL, the WRs, not big enough, or whatever. It's about trying to please the division...WILL NOT HAPPEN!!!


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 8:53 p.m.

A running game starts with the offensive line. Period Let's not abandon ship here. I believe these are great coaches we have here at Michigan now. adjustments will be made. Let's not forget a lot of these players are not recruits of Coach Hoke's and not the type of players for his system. I am looking for a great second half of this season. Just look at the intensity of the players versus last year. Michigan has turned the corner and are going in a good direction. Given time Coach Hoke will have this team and future teams at Michigan playing the type of football expected at Michigan.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 5:30 p.m.

There's this guy that I know and he said.......... Richity Rich Rod sat on a wall, Richity Rich Rod had a great fall, All the KINGS horses and all the KINGS men, Couldn't put Richity Rich Rod together again! Make sure to play Edgar Winters Frankenstien as loud as possible while reading the Richity Rich Rod poem. It will help clear your brains of things like spread offenses, Greg Robinson defenses, MCC chapter 52-14 and anything else brought up by THEO212.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 11:53 p.m.

No one defended Greg Robinson's defense. It was appalling. It's just the transition from the spread to west coast offense that is painful to watch when Michigan plays a team with a defense. They don't have the horses and they won't until the 2012 guys develop.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 3:54 p.m.

We need some big tough boys who can plug holes or make holes. The running backs aren't getting enough carries. Denard is being asked to do too much. The other players must learn to play harder and smarter. On passing plays, perhaps Gardner is the better answer. Truly, I still miss Tate Forcier.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 3:28 p.m.

Yup a lot of you are seeing the same thing I am. You can't change a leopard's spots. Our O line and our backs are undersized by design. Sparty and Wisconsin's RBs are 30 or 40 pounds heavier and don't come down as easily from a one-arm tackle. It didn't take long for Al Borges to integrate more and more of RR's plays, but as mentioned already, RR's offense failed badly last year against physical, top 20 teams in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Miss St. The comment above about breaking records is somewhat delusional when the stark reality of being slapped down by physical teams hits you.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 11:35 p.m.

Bill I agree, but if your defense gives up quick scores on every drive (like last year) the offense does get the ball back with a chance to move it. So I guess we could set 2 records like that, offensive yards and defensive futility.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 2:52 p.m.

Truth is, we'd stand a better chance going all spread offense in all our remaining games. The defense is much better.But the offense is worse (horrible running north/south, horrible in protecting the quarterback, horrible at throwing the ball),. Still, they are trying to transition to a new big ten type offense. But the linemen and running backs aren't north south players. I'm grateful we don't play Wisconsin. Going north south against OSU and Nebraska and their defensive lineman will guarantee us two losses. I wish Borges would go back to last years plays, at least against OSU. Michigan should do anything to beat "OHIO". Borges and Hoke would prove themselves clever and do what it takes. Like Hoke said, "this is Michigan, there are no re-building years." If so, use the strengths of the players you have. What's the worse that can happen? Denard gets knocked out a game and you bring Gardner in to run your "new offense"

Joe Kidd

Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 5:22 p.m.

I liked the plays where DRob would fake a run, causing the defense to react and he could toss a short pass to an open TE or RB running up the middle often undefended. Not seeing it much this year, but it was very successful last year.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 3:40 p.m.

Whether Hoke admits it or not, he is rebuilding, given the recruiting class for 2012 and rightfully so. OSU has a very good defense, as good as MSU's. Michigan lost 37-7 to the Buckeyes last year and it wasn't pretty. I hope Hoke and Borges are "clever enough" to win us some games that we could lose for the remainder of this year.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 1:59 p.m.

- The offensive line is undersized. Wisconsin AVERAGES 6'5", 322 lbs. Their average is larger than any one Michigan offensive lineman. This cannot be solved this season, obviously. - Direct snap/runs to Denard rarely work. The entire defense is keying on him. If he takes the ball and immediately starts running, the entire team tackles him. Borges needs to disguise Denard's runs better... the plays are too predictable and take too long to develop. And PLEASE don't run him three consecutive plays... it wears him out and the defense reads this too easily. - Denard is fast, but not elusive in the pocket. One unblocked defender can sack him. He needs to learn to escape better (watch Michael Vick do this). - Too many deep-balls. Keep him throwing quick outs or screens. Force the defense to spread out. This will open things up for runs, whether it's Denard or a tailback... once you establish the short pass and the run, THEN try an occasional deep ball.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 3:35 p.m.

Very good analysis and comment, I totally agree. The running backs need to improve, find small holes. If they remain so inconistent, it might be tough to win games.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 1:04 p.m.

I'm sure glad the special teams are operating at peak levels. Couldn't be any problem there, could there?


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 2:54 p.m.

They are horrible. Why?


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 1 p.m.

This has been a problem the last four years. These backs are to small and can't run north and south, only east and west to attempt to use their speed. This is another reason why Denard has obtained more rushing yards then the RB's! Something needs to change. Football is a running game. The run sets up the pass. With Denard running and having the chance of getting hurt, Michigan has to figure this out soon. Oh, and no more dual use of QB's! Poor play calling lost the game for Michigan against Michigan State. Michigan could/should had won that game.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 11:31 p.m.

Also, while there were definite concerns with the play calling that didn't cost Michigan the game. Like it or not MSU was more physical and better on the line of scrimmage. More often than not that is where the game is won or lost. Sure, having great backs, receivers and a QB that can deliver in a tight space under pressure can change that but at this point Michigan doesn't have that.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 8:55 p.m.

@Mick52-Mike Hart was much more powerful then these current RB's. Yes, Mike Hart was small, but he had strength in his thighs, legs, and upper body whereas if a LB or CB didn't wrap him up he could burst through them.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 6:15 p.m.

@Mick52 - "but fast is the most important." This is a favorite beer and buddies conversation of mine. I contend there's a difference between "quick" and "fast." Denard is very fast, but his first step, while good, is not that quick. If gets two or three steps under him and he has some room ... well, then look out cuz he's gone. But a defensive back that's good at containing in space can keep Denard bottled up. Further, I think the best running backs have a kind of sixth sense about holes and potential running lanes. I think Vincent Smith is pretty good at this. Not great, but pretty good. Stephen Hopkins apparently isn't.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 5:18 p.m.

How do you explain Mike Hart's success then? He was small and not that fast. Huge and fast is best but fast is the most important. Get through the holes and then its up to the speed of the LBs and DBs to catch a back coming through the line


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 12:46 p.m.

Hoke is complaining about their production, but honestly, what does he expect when he only gives them 10 total carries for the whole game??? And in those 10 carries they avg 4.4 a clip, that is a good average to hang your hat on, not great, but not something to complain about. I would be more worried about their play calling than the production...that is the issue when you only have 10 carries out of your RB's.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 11:27 p.m.

I agree with Dana - you can't be productive if you don't stick with the RBs. Yes the production wasn't great but when the D stacks the line because they expect DROB to run it doesn't open thing up for the RBs. I also agree that you need to be more effective in the pass game to help open things up.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 3:38 p.m.

10 carries, 44 yards = 4.4 yards/carry. But one of those was for 26 yards. Which means... 9 carries, 18 yards = 2 yards/carry = ineffective.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 12:37 p.m.

It is easy to blame the backs but I believe there are at least two other areas of concern that have a real impact: The offensive line is not moving the opponents down field nor are they opening holes up with any regularity. Our passing game is such that the defense does not have to defend the entire field. The hybrid offense Michigan is running can be effective but it needs a little more balance, short passes and some early passing success will open the field up a bit. I suspect we have decent talent at running back?


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 12:20 p.m.

simple u recruit some real t.b.'s or D Rob becomes a hybrid back.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 2:56 p.m.

That's why the brought in Rawls and Souma for next year. But the line still can't block north/south, especially in short yardage situations.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 11:32 a.m.

No use looking back at what Rich Rod did or didn't do. This is the Hole/Borges/Mattison era. It must actually be extremely frustrating for Hoke and Borges to still be searching for the one running back they can count on. They probably haven't seen anything during the practice days to think otherwise. Thus far, we have seen glimpses of a decent running game, other than Denard. Each one of them has had one or two very good production days but none of them are consistent. Achieving that in the final five games will be the task at hand. Let Thomas Rawls get meaningful snaps. I see only two teams, Purdue and IL ,that are the weakest defensive teams that we will face. That means there may not be many opportunities for any of these tailbacks to be consistent over this final stretch. I am hoping. We have not been close to a featured tailback since Mike Hart.


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 4:52 a.m.

@Mick Hart was a stud. Period.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 6:44 p.m.

Even if Brady only wins two more games this season, he will finish the season with 8 wins. That is pretty good record for his first season. The talent on this current Michigan team is only about middle of the pack B1G talent. Even though on paper when recruited many 4 stars and a few 5 stars are not currently playing to their potential. I think you can blame that on the last coaching staff. Overall, the team will improve and with new 4 and 5 star recruits who can now be coached up, you will see this team dramatically improve after 2 years.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 5:15 p.m.

Was Hart that good or was his O line that good?


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 2:29 p.m.

Rawls seems to have more power than Fritz or Smith.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 11:29 a.m.

I'm a little worried about these last 5 games. Brady Hoke has a terrible career record. Richrod had a great career record and he failed so you can see why I am worried... The GOAT (greatest of all time)


Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 4:50 a.m.

RR's first year- 3 wins. Hoke's first year- already far better. We seen what RR did for UM in three years. I guarantee Hoke's three record will look far better than RR's.. You complain about Hoke's career record, when its already looking better than RR's.. Hoke is going to have more B1G wins by early next year (at the latest) than RR had in three.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 6:46 p.m.

Even if Brady only wins two more games this season, he will finish the season with 8 wins. That is pretty good record for his first season. The talent on this current Michigan team is only about middle of the pack B1G talent. Even though on paper when recruited many 4 stars and a few 5 stars are not currently playing to their potential. I think you can blame that on the last coaching staff. Overall, the team will improve and with new 4 and 5 star recruits who can now be coached up, you will see this team dramatically improve after 2 years.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 6:21 p.m.

Mick, nobody would be on RR's back if people stopped mentioning him for no reason. No one really cares about him, he's gone and that's good enough for most of us. People only get on his back when someone brings him up as if we'd be doing better with him (like our #8 defense up from #108). Regardless, if someone is truly interested in RR, you can always watch his show on CBS Sports college football channel. He doesn't coach anymore.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 5:14 p.m.

You know, at some point you have to get off the coach's back and look at the players. The players need to have the mindset that on every play, they are not going to get beat, they are not going to miss a tackle and they are going to win each play. It's toughness. And sometimes, just one play can be the difference. As a former athlete, I know that it was me making mistakes not my coaches.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 10:25 a.m.

Our offense was much better last year (500 yards per game) if Rodrigeuz would have stayed we would have broken all offensive reords in the Big Ten (6oo yards per game) easily Rodriguez is considered a pioneer of a no huddle, run-oriented version of the spread offense, although a pass-first version was already being implemented by others. He first developed this offensive approach at Glenville State and refined it during his stops at Tulane with Shaun King, at Clemson with Woodrow Dantzler, and at West Virginia most notably with dual-threat quarterback Pat White. This strategy features frequent use of the shotgun formation. Rodriguez is also credited for inventing the zone read play run out of the shotgun formation.

Matt Patercsak

Thu, Oct 27, 2011 : 2:58 p.m.

I don't understand what many of you people aren't grasping. those record setting performances were against no one. you could tell in games like Iowa and Wisconsin RR knew his offense wouldn't cut it so he tried running some I formation to match the toughness B1G defenses can bring to a game (watch the game film). the spread and shred is great for Big East, ACC and lower tier SEC style of play. but October and November in the B1G 10 you need to put your hand in the dirt and blow people off the ball. you cannot rinkie dink your way around a defense like OSU, Iowa, Wisconsin. you need to out tough, out physical, and out last them. speed kills, but toughness and technique win championships. utilization of a fullback is what tough football is all about. look at Stampley at LSU, they punish people (quality teams) off the ball. so don't tell ME that RR's "record setting offense" which put up 7 points against OSU and 17 against MSU is the way to go. i cant wait until we restore the beef machine at Michigan. I'll be looking for Thomas Rawls to get work Saturday


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 6 p.m.

Your posts are irrational 57-44-6 and Mick! Based on reality they are not accurate! Michigan average 9.8 points per 1st half last year against big ten teams (minus Illinois which brings it up to 12.5). By this point in most big ten games last year Michigan was losing by double digits. So we can conclude that this record setting offense against big ten teams (which it was not!) mostly scored against second team Defenses. Michigan averaged 30.6 points per game with a triple overtime win against Illin., with just 4 quarters of the Ill game it was 28.1 per game and they lost 5 big ten games. In 06' Michigan averaged 26.6 per game and won all but one! 07' 25.3, 05' 27.3, 04' 30.7(oops I guess its not record setting!), 03' 35.75 (oops its really not record setting!), 02' 28. ARE OFFENSE WAS NOT MUCH BETTER LAST YEAR! Michigan would be averaging the same points per and giving up even more points against this year which equals 7-5 or 6-6. Bottom line is that RR had an average offense that put up lots of yards and minimal points. His D was one of the worst in the nation after being one of the best and having a full cupboard! I will give that he can coach offenses in very very poor leagues like the Big East or Conf. USA. He has a ability to pull a very good athlete that can beat teams that are really bad. When that athlete goes against good D's that key on him the Offense breaks down. HE SIMPLY IS A BAD COACH in big time conferences!!!


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 5:31 p.m.

Richity Rich Rod sat on a wall, Richity Rich Rod had a great fall, All the KINGS horses and all the KINGS men, Couldn't put Richity Rich Rod together again!


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 5:10 p.m.

Amazes me how many people put RR down. You don't have to be a RR fan to point out facts. 57 is right. Last year's offense was record setting. Also people complain about it's production vs Big Ten teams. All Michigan teams going back decades have alway scored poorly vs good Big 10 defenses scoring low. You add the horrible defense and it gets worse because good field position is rare. RR's problem was the defense and a very young inexperienced team. Greg Robinson's defense was worthless. This year I think the team would do better with the current defense but last years offense. One reason I will toss out is that DRob's passing has been bad this year. Last year I was relieved that he passed well in his first year as a starter. The MSU game should have been a win. That 4th and short inside the ten was the most puzzling call I have ever seen in Michigan stadium. I think that play lost that game.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 3:36 p.m.

He failed to win, he failed to play by the rules, and he was fired. If any team thought he was a great coach, he'd be coaching right now instead of stinking it up behind a microphone. Get over it.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 3:18 p.m.

Pretty much irrelevant comment, and ancient history. I like Rich but had he stayed Notre Dame would have put up 49 points and Northwestern the same.

Matt Patercsak

Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 12:08 p.m.

except for the fact that this offense you speak of blows against big 10 defenses. it is not a tough brand of football, and in this conference you need to be tough on both sides of the ball.


Wed, Oct 26, 2011 : 11:07 a.m.

If you want to be a RichRod fan, quit reading about Michigan. Go find out what he's doing and follow him. RichRod did nothing good for the University of Michigan except set us back about 5 years. Amazingly, the current staff has done wonders with what was left behind. Go Blue! and Go Brady Hoke! (even though you screwed up the 4th and inches call against MSU)