Finding a running back to carry the load this fall is running backs coach Fred Jackson's responsibility, and it's one of the offense's biggest question marks. Jackson has been pleased with the progress through seven practices, due in large part to the emergence of freshmen Thomas Rawls and Justice Hayes.
Sophomore Stephen Hopkins, junior Vincent Smith and upperclassmen Michael Shaw and Michael Cox are all competing, but Jackson made it clear the freshmen aren't far behind - if they're behind at all. Any time they missed due to school earlier this fall has been made up for, and then some.
"I'm very, very happy right now with these guys. They are competing like a son of a gun," Jackson said of his group. "They know there's no heir apparent for the job, which creates competition. They are playing probably as physically as a group of guys I've ever had play together. That's obviously where it starts."
Padded practices brought out the best in the freshmen, he continued.
"The freshmen we recruited are two, tough, tough football players. They are very good football players," Jackson said. "That's what I found out that I didn't know about Rawls and Hayes. Those guys are going to be excellent football players at Michigan. They bothare. I'm telling you, don't be shocked if they both play here early this year. They are both real good.
"Rawls is going to have some [impact]. That kid is good. Thomas Rawls is an excellent football player."
Rawls' high school film sparked comparisons to another from his area, Alabama running back Mark Ingram. Jackson sees the similarities, adding Rawls is even better than he expected … and he expected him to be very good.
"They are similar out of high school. Obviously you can't say he's going to win the Heisman and be a first round pick, but out of high school - I saw Mark, and they are very similar football players. He is so powerful and fast and he's got great strength. He's just had a great camp so far.
"He has fear of nothing. He'll hit anything. That's what you look for in a kid like that. Hayes is not as big, but he's a tough sucker with great quickness, and he can see the field. I have not been that happy with two freshmen since I can't recall when.
"They are both very intelligent. We were looking at film a few minutes ago and watching some things Rawls picked up in blitz that usually a guy doesn't get until his sophomore year. They've caught up. They've made extra time, and they are ready to go. Those two guys are good football players."
Hopkins emerged from spring as one of the favorites to win the starting job. Jackson responded, "he's competing" when asked what kind of fall Hopkins has had.
"I've got freshmen on one side of the room, upperclassmen on the other side. They know every day they come to work they've got to bring their lunch pail because those freshmen are coming out there like they are sophomores," he said. "I don't know what was taught to Rawls and Hayes [in high school], but they have no fear of the guys who are here and no fear in hitting somebody. They are making the room a lot of fun.
"I love coaching and working with all of them. They are very intent in the meetings, and I just love being around them. It's a great group of guys … those upperclassmen are playing better, but I keep telling you, the freshmen are after them. It's not like the upperclassmen are in front of them. It's going to be interesting to see. I've very, very confident [in the future] because those two freshmen are good players. They are better than good. Both of them."
• Head coach Brady Hoke has brought a new toughness to the program, Jackson said, and it's rubbing off.
"He's a disciple of Lloyd [Carr], Bo [Schembechler], Gary [Moeller] - that kind of guy," he said. "He doesn't accept anything but being as tough as you can be, and he stresses it with the drill work and the type of practices we carry out.
"The one thing you're going to see defensively is guys going to the football and offensively guys going to the whistle. That's something that allows a running back to be good … it's making us a lot better in making us a good run team."
• Fulback John McColgan won't be among the best who has ever played at Michigan, but he's been good.
"He is what you're looking for right now. He's been here five years, and he's not Kevin Dudley, not Chris Floyd, but he's very, very intelligent," Jackson said. "He's 240 pounds, a guy who is going to be a lead blocker we need him to be in this offense."