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“(Fitzgerald Toussaint) is a kid who has been hurt so much he didn’t have any confidence in what he can do,” explained Michigan running backs coach Fred Jackson. “He would get hurt, and go out and try to practice, and get reinjured. In his mind he’s saying to himself ‘if I had stayed off a little longer, I might have been ok.” That’s how he was for the first couple years. His first year, he had no shot. He broke his shoulder blade, so he had no shot. The next year he got an injury on his thigh, then next time he got one on his ankle. He tried to come back on it, and I give him credit for that.”
Healthy and determined to do whatever it took to win the job in 2011. Toussaint began flashing some of the explosive quickness he showed as a high school standout. While he still fought the injury bug during the season (missing the Notre Dame game), he showed greater durability en route to 187 carries for 1,041 yards and nine touchdowns.
“I think the number one thing he did was he gained the confidence in his reads,” said Jackson. “He was being too impatient. He was making the first cut on the first thing he saw. That sometimes put you up guys’ backs or it puts you out to wide when you should be in tight on cuts… so he developed a patience. We talked about it enough – now I’m talking about every day that’s all I was screaming in practice. We talked about it so much that he developed a patience that allowed him to see the defense unfold before he made his first and second cuts based on his reads. He (grew in that part of the game) better than anybody in one season that I’ve been around a long time.”
Now that he has proven he can be an effective Big Ten back the Maize & Blue brass is pushing him to take his game to the next level.
“(We want him to) improve his pass receiving skills because he has good hands,” Borges said. “We used Vince (Smith) too much in that capacity. I’d like for Fitz to be equal to what Vince did so we don’t have to take him out all the time. Pass protection still could improve. We ask our backs to block, and that can always get better. Refining more of the little things about his game. A year ago there were some huge factors, vision being at the top of the list. But we’ve learned with Fitz that the more he plays, the faster he learns and those issues go away with him. Some backs… they never go away, they never get good. They simply just don’t have very good vision. He does. He just needed the time. I think that’s going to be the case with these other things we’re talking about.”
Toussaint worked in earnest to hone those skills during the spring, but his workload was considerably lighter than the year prior when he had much more to prove. With a greater knowledge of who the number one tailback is, the staff was more focused on finding #2. While competition for the spot is ongoing, there is definitely a leader in the clubhouse.
“We had some nice surprises, namely Thomas Rawls,” said Borges. “Thomas Rawls had a very good spring. We featured him. We wanted to find out what he could do. Thomas Rawls ran hard and visually improved. He’s a tremendous, tough inside runner who showed he can catch the ball some, has the power and durability to carry the ball a lot of times and I think at some point in time can be a feature back here. So we’re excited about Thomas.”
“He's a different kind of runner than Fitz and a different kind of runner than Vince and Justice Hayes too,” added Michigan headman, Brady Hoke. “He's a battering ram type guy. He goes in there and when Thomas hits you you're going to feel him. He makes no concessions to the defense. His game is running through people and falling forward. “
For Fred Jackson, Rawls’ spring emergence was validation of the belief he formed during the youngster’s recruitment that he has a chance to be an impact player in Ann Arbor. The former Flint (MI) Northern star showed flashes of brilliance during fall camp last year before injuries derailed his rapid progress. By the end of the season he had amassed only 79 yards on 13 carries. The disappointed but determined tailback went about the business of getting back on track heading during winter conditioning.
“I would say he had a tremendous spring,” said Jackson. “I’ll say it right now -- that kid should do some things that are very special for us. That kid is a badass. He just had some freak injuries. I talked to Tyrone Wheatley about it – when you hurt your shoulder as a running back and you can’t lower (it) to where you normally want to lower it, it changes how you run. That’s what happened to Thomas last year. When he hurt his shoulder I use to tell Thomas, ‘who in the hell is this running? I don’t even know who you are. You don’t even look like yourself right now.’ Then after the season ended and we got into bowl preparation, he got back to the way he was last spring. He’s going to be very good.”
To view this feature in its entirety, the rest of the offensive preview, our basketball season review, our chat with John Beilein, and much much more, check out the next issue of GoBlueWolverine