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October 9, 2013Entering the season, Michigan coach Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges pledged to commit to a more power-running pro-style offensive attack.
Through five games, the results have been mixed. The Wolverines rank 63rd nationally in rushing with 178.0 yards per game and 4.1 yards per rush.
Through the first four games of the season, fifth-year senior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint took the responsibility of the Wolverines' rushing attack squarely on his shoulders.
He ranks second in the Big Ten and 18th nationally in rushing attempts, already touting the rock 96 times, including 24 rushes for 120 yards against Connecticut and 22 times for 71 yards against Notre Dame.
"Fitz is in fabulous condition, but at the end of the UConn game, he was starting to run out of gas, like anyone would," Borges said.
In order to take some of the load off Toussaint, the Wolverines spread the carries out in their 42-13 win over Minnesota last weekend.
Toussaint rushed 17 times for a team-high 78 yards and two touchdowns against the Golden Gophers. True freshman running back Derrick Green was mixed in early and often, rushing 10 times for 23 yards and a touchdown.
"We said, 'We have to get Derrick in the game, and we have to get him in early,'" Borges said. "If the game gets tight, you might get scared to put him in, because maybe he doesn't understand a blitz pickup or maybe he'd make a mistake that any young guy would. So we put him in early, got him some pops. If it went smoothly, we were going to keep going with it, and it did. That worked out pretty much the way we wanted, because we committed to it."
In today's football, even traditional power-run teams like Wisconsin, which deploys the two-headed monster of Melvin Gordon and James White at tailback, have moved away from the featured-back model.
Although the Wolverines have full confidence in Toussaint, it will pay dividends to develop another reliable weapon at running back, especially in Novembers, when the wear and tear of a season can effect a player.
"Fitz is fully to capable to do whatever we need him to do, but it's good that we can keep him fresh and make sure that we can either of them perform when we need them," redshirt sophomore center Graham Glasgow said.
After Green rushed 11 times for 58 yards and a touchdown in Michigan's season-opening 59-9 win over Central Michigan, he totaled just two carries for two yards over the next three games.
Although Borges likes to employ a No. 1 tailback, he knew he wanted to get someone else in the mix. And Green, 5-11, 235, has done enough behind the scenes to earn some playing time on Saturdays.
"He is a load," Borges said. "He's a big, strapping kid who can run. He has great feet for his size, and he's not easy to tackle. He's a powerful guy who is a good athlete. He's big and he's a good athlete. You have not seen the best of him yet. The more he carries the ball and the more comfortable he gets, you're going to see why we recruited him more and more. I think you've seen flashes of it already. He is a highly skilled kid."
During the bye week, Hoke said that one of the younger backs could earn more carries with solid outings in practice leading up to last Saturday's game.
And that's just what he did, and it showed on Saturday.
"As he does more and understands our offense better and makes less mistakes, you feel more comfortable putting him out there in any situation, rather than just situations where he's going to carry the ball," Borges said. "One time, we ran a pass, and he did a great job. We lost a guy at the point of attack, and he stopped and picked him up. He saw a flash of color and picked him up. A lot of young guys would think, 'I've got this specific guy, and if he doesn't come, I'm going to slip out for a pass.' He didn't do that. That's awareness, and I'd bet he wouldn't have done that in the first game. It's all a matter of getting experience and getting your feet underneath you."
Against the Gophers, Green averaged 2.3 yards per rush, but he did rip off a few nice one.
He showed cutting ability on 14- and nine-yard carries, and powered through the middle on a two-yard touchdown run.
But, as Borges pointed out, he's still a work in progress.
Excluding those three carries mentioned above, Green rushed seven more times for minus-two yards: one carry for a yard, three carries that were stopped at the line of scrimmage and three carries that each went for minus-one yards.
"The first thing with a running back when they get here - every guy, not just Derrick - they think they can do something they got away with in high school that they can't get away with here," Borges said. They start trying to cut back prematurely or race to the sideline. Those are the two most common things a young back will do, because in high school, the could outrun the defense, or they could get the defense to flinch and take it back the other way. College defenses are much more disciplined. If you don't give the point of attack a chance and see how the cracks develop and then hit the crack, you're not going to succeed. People are going to get you. As he is learning how to do that, he is getting better and better. And he will, because he has great vision. He can see where to run with the ball."
Even so, the coaches saw enough to be encouraged about his progress.
Moving forward, Borges doesn't want to set a specific number of carries for Green per game. If he gets rolling, the coaches may feed him more and see what he can do. If he's not running well against an opponent, the coaches will stick with their proven option in Toussaint.
"He didn't have big numbers, but he had a couple of nice run," Borges said. "He powered one in there from the two-yard line, which was good. It was a good starting point against a Big Ten opponent where he got a few carries. In this game, there was pressure, and we will continue to build on it."