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June 25, 2013Since the Rivals.com era commenced with the 2002 recruiting class, Michigan has signed 267 recruits to letters of intent. Some recruitments have been more memorable than others, and today we begin a countdown of the top 20, beginning with Thomas Rawls.
No. 20 - Thomas Rawls - 2011
Following the departure of Mike Hart in 2007, running back had become a bit of a black hole for the Wolverines. From 2008-10, Michigan's tailbacks and fullbacks had rushed for 4,346 yards or just 1,448 yards per season. That represented a sharp decline from the 2,001 yards running backs averaged the previous four seasons.
Certainly, using quarterback Denard Robinson as a runner skews the data somewhat, but at the conclusion of the 2010 season, and with the arrival of Brady Hoke in Jan. 2011, U-M's outlook at the running back position the following fall was not promising; the Maize and Blue needed a pro-style ball carrier in the mold of Tyrone Wheatley, Anthony Thomas and Chris Perry. They didn't have one on the roster.
Problem was, the best backs were largely off the board by the time Hoke settled in or were not interested in the Wolverines. But running backs coach Fred Jackson had an ace up his sleeve. Less than 60 miles north of Ann Arbor, in Flint, under the auspices of Jackson's son (the coach at Northern High School), a 5-10, 214-pound behemoth was bowling over linebackers and outrunning defensive backs.
As a senior, Thomas Rawls rushed for 1,585 yards and 19 touchdowns on 150 carries (10.6 yards per rush) yet he went largely unnoticed, ranking as only the 19th-best player in the state according to Rivals.com and the No. 39 player according to The Detroit News.
At the time Hoke took over, Rawls had offers from just three schools - Central Michigan, Cincinnati and Toledo. Why? Why was he so far under the radar? There were rumors Rawls wouldn't qualify academically, a ruse thought to be orchestrated by the Northern coaching staff, allowing U-M to swoop in.
"I think he's a diamond in the rough because a lot of people still don't know who he is," said Jackson, who laughed a little when asked about those academic reports for our 2011 Football Preview. "But I saw him gain 200 yards in a half on one leg. One bad ankle. 211 yards.
"This kid is special. You want to talk about a physical guy who can run, a physical guy that has a passion for football. I've known him for three years and he has something to him."
Jackson has built an incredible resume, coaching some of the greatest players that have worn the winged helmet over the past 25 years, and he was convinced that when Rawls committed and signed with the Maize and Blue, Michigan had just scored a game-changer.
"I saw [former Alabama tailback] Mark Ingram, who was also from Flint, as a senior in high school and I saw Rawls and it's almost like they're identical," Jackson told The Wolverine back then.
"You cannot knock what Mark did in college - the Heisman Trophy winner and a first-round pick - but at the same level, at the same age, in the same city, they're parallel out of high school, except I think Rawls is faster."
Robinson led U-M in rushing again in 2011, and Fitzgerald Toussaint emerged as the No. 2 ball carrier, going for 1,041 yards in his redshirt sophomore season. Rawls saw some action, toting the ball 13 times for 79 yards, but injuries and the demands of being a freshman handicapped his learning curve.
He would take a stab at more playing time in 2012, but with Toussaint emerging the season before, Rawls saw his window of opportunity already closing. However, neither Jackson nor the sophomore was ready to give up, and both believed there was a role for the then 219-pounder.
"He is going to truck some people in games," Jackson said before the 2012 campaign. "If he hadn't gotten hurt last year, he would have had an excellent year, but we had a few things that slowed him up.
"He just has to get more repetitions. He has to see things, and the more he sees them, the better he'll get."
With Toussaint out for the season opener, due to a suspension, Rawls seized the chance to win the starting job, opening up against Alabama. Unfortunately, his first start was not a memorable one - or at least not the memory he wanted; UA crushed the Wolverines as Rawls finished with nine yards on six carries (1.5-yard average).
A week later, he didn't even see the field. Two weeks later, in a win over Massachusetts, he had 42 yards on six carries, but in big games, the coaches went with Robinson, Toussaint and others - Rawls did not record a carry against Nebraska, Notre Dame, South Carolina and Michigan State while gaining three yards on eight combined touches against Ohio State and Northwestern.
This is a new year and another opportunity, though, and with Toussaint coming off injury, and no other proven performer in his way, Rawls could vie for the starting job this fall. Of course, the competition will be fierce.
Jackson still believes in the junior, but Rawls has to practice and play with confidence after losing it against Alabama and never fully gaining it back in 2012.