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Shorthanded Michigan mulls its options for sharing the load against Alabama

By Matt Hinton | Blogger
Thomas Rawls in Michigan's spring game. (AP)

With Fitzgerald Touissant in the lineup, Michigan returned more than 80 percent of its total offense from 2011 and was the only team in the nation preparing for 2012 with not one, but two 1,000-yard rushers en tow. With Toussaint suspended indefinitely in the wake of a drunk driving arrest in July, Michigan… well, Michigan still has Denard Robinson, the more electrifying half of its millennial tandem, but no one else who has done anything to keep opposing defenses from keying on the quarterback. When the first defense on the schedule is arguably the best defense in college football, that's a problem.

So, offensive coordinator Al Borges, any innovative solutions after the first few days of practice for replacing Toussaint's All-Big Ten-caliber production, or otherwise generating a reliable running game that doesn't involve sending your meal ticket into the teeth of Alabama's ferocious front seven?

"We're just going to the next guy. We're not really changing anything," Borges said. "So, Thomas Rawls is that next guy, Vince (Smith) is going to do what he's done, and on we go. I think the key to these situations from game-plan perspective is to try to make it as seamless as you can and just go."

So there you go. As Borges suggested today, the next man in line in Toussaint's absence is relatively obscure sophomore Thomas Rawls, who has the benefit of size (5-foot-10, 218 pounds) and a running style that Borges approvingly describes as "reckless" and "aggressive" – "He looks like he's mad when he runs sometimes. …You are going to feel him. There are times he's just simply not interested in avoiding you." – if not the benefit of having actually taken a handoff in a game with the outcome still in doubt. Rawls was fourth or fifth on the depth chart last year as a true freshman, depending on the week, and only touched the ball once in the Wolverines' last eight games.

Smith, a regular starter under Rich Rodriguez in 2010, has seen the field considerably more often, especially on third downs and passing situations, but also saw his role gradually decrease last year with Toussaint's emergence down the stretch. After that – still assuming Toussaint is on ice for at least the opener against Alabama – there's 240-pound junior Stephen Hopkins, a short-yardage battering ram, and a handful of not especially touted freshmen.

Then, of course, there's Denard Robinson, whose presence even in normal conditions can tempt coaches to contemplate a one-man experiment in human endurance. Borges made some headway last year in cutting Robinson's carries from roughly 20 per game in 2010 to 17 per game, and in keeping him in one piece after the steady accumulation of aches, pains and sprains that plagued "Shoelace" as a sophomore. But Robinson still shouldered a heavy burden when the Wolverines were in no-nonsense mode, racking up 25 carries in a come-from-behind win at Northwestern, 18 in a tough loss at Michigan State, 23 in a romp over Nebraska and 26 in the season-defining win over Ohio State, and occasionally when they weren't: Before Toussaint wrested control of the tailback job, Robinson needlessly went over 20 carries in a pair of easy September wins over Eastern Michigan and San Diego State. Those hits are best saved for the thick of the Big Ten schedule.

Which brings us to the big question heading into opening night: If the defense succeeds in keeping the score within striking distance against Alabama, and therefore in keeping the offense from being forced to abandon the run altogether, to what extent is Borges willing to let the play-calling settle on "Denard Right, Denard Left, Denard Up the Middle"? The fewer balls Robinson and his erratic arm have to put in the air against a blue-chip, Nick Saban-coached secondary, the better. The fewer hits he has to take from a blue-chip, oversized front seven in the first game of the year, the better. But barring an improbable epiphany from one of Toussaint's understudies, or an even more improbable return by Toussaint himself, what other options are there?

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