September 27, 2012

Borton's Blog: Backs in business

Michigan enters its bye weekend seeking ways to smooth over the rough spots in its game, heading into Big Ten play. It clearly wants more out of its running backs, but maybe there is more than one way to get there.

Through four games, redshirt junior Fitzgerald Toussaint had carried 36 times for 150 yards and one touchdown. Granted, he didn't play in the opener, but anyone expecting him to hang 100-plus on the Alabama defense wasn't watching very carefully.

His current pace projects to 450 yards in the regular season, a precipitous plummet from last year's 1,041 yards on the ground. While it would be surprising if his slow start continued into the Big Ten season, there's no guarantee the U-M offensive line will coalesce like last year's did.

Meanwhile, there hasn't been a lot of production behind Toussaint - 53 rushing yards out of senior Vincent Smith, 51 from the talk of fall camp, sophomore Thomas Rawls, along with 19 and 14 by redshirt freshman Justice Hayes and true freshman Dennis Norfleet, respectively.

While U-M's offense will continue emphasize running the ball with weapons beyond Denard Robinson (66 carries, 441 yards and four touchdowns), there's more than one way to skin a Boilermaker, etc. Whenever Michigan backs release and catch the football, they do significant damage.

Smith slipped out three times so far this year, making a trio of receptions for 30 yards. An average of a first down per grab isn't anything to overlook, when you're Xing and Oing your way through a prep week.

Toussaint secured one grab out of the backfield thus far in 2012, good for 17 yards.

And that's it. Four throws, all positive plays, two of them for 15 yards or more. With Robinson experiencing some issues reading and throwing downfield, some shorter work between him and the backs might create what is essentially a boost to the running game and Robinson's confidence, all in one.

A year ago, Smith caught 11 passes, including a pair of TD tosses, and averaged 13.5 yards each time he released out for a reception. Toussaint didn't fare as well, averaging 4.7 yards on six catches, but any time a running play garners nearly half the length of the first-down markers, nobody's complaining.

Fullback Stephen Hopkins caught one ball in 2011, for 28 yards, fullback John McColgan one for 15, and tailback Michael Shaw one for 12 yards. In other words, the Wolverines didn't throw to their backs extensively last season, but when they did, it worked.

Certainly, there could be a law of diminishing returns in throwing to the backs, since the more U-M did it, the more opponents would be looking for it. But it might be worthwhile to make somebody stop it, before it's curtailed.

Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges doesn't need any advice on getting the Wolverines going - and if he did, he could simply flip on the radio or scan the Internet and glean all he could ever want … and more.

But with Robinson looking for makeable throws, and the Wolverines seeking to get its backs into open areas, a little more pitch and catch with the usual pass protectors might help everybody.

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