Vincent Smith looks to emerge at RB

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Al Borges and Brady Hoke like having one running back. The Michigan offensive coordinator and head coach have never made it a secret that they'd prefer to have a featured guy instead of a running back by committee.

On Monday, for the first time this season, it sounded like they might have decided on one with at least a little bit of conviction: Vincent Smith.

"Vince probably right now has earned that right," Hoke said. "His performance, his production."

Smith gained 118 yards against Eastern Michigan in just nine carries. He has averaged 5.1 yards in his career in limited duties.

But as the rest of Michigan's running backs have been unproductive -- the Wolverines gained 10 yards on eight carries against Notre Dame -- Smith has provided a spark.

That isn't to say Smith will be Michigan's only runner. Hoke acknowledged the Wolverines are still somewhat of a running back by committee.

"It might be," Hoke said. "Neither one of us wants it that way. But I think we're there at this point in time."

He praised the running of Michigan's starter against Western Michigan, Fitzgerald Toussaint, who played after sitting out against Notre Dame with a shoulder injury.

Senior Michael Shaw is also still in play, as are bigger back Stephen Hopkins and potentially freshman Thomas Rawls, who saw the first snaps of his career in mop-up time against Eastern Michigan.

What Smith brings, though, is something unique to Michigan's running backs. While he isn't the fastest back on the team, Hoke raved about his vision and his pass-blocking ability.

The latter shows up in practice, when he'll often try to find the biggest blitzer and pick him up despite being almost a foot shorter and 100 pounds lighter than most of the Michigan offensive linemen.

"He's really tough. He likes to hit. He's such a strong guy," senior center David Molk said. "You'd think he'd shy away from that or cut block. But he will seek out, find the biggest guy on the defense, and just nail him."

Smith's pass blocking has always been a strength. Former Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez used to compliment that aspect of Smith's game and his toughness. Those are things Hoke also pointed out Monday.

And there's another key. Where some might see Smith's generously listed 5-foot-6 as an issue, it actually provides an advantage. He can almost play peek-a-boo with opposing defenses, who can't locate him behind the big line.

Smith has been Michigan's most productive tailback this season. He has only 12 carries this year but has gained 132 yards. Toussaint has 22 carries and 126 yards. Smith is also Michigan's only regular rotation rusher -- including Toussaint, Shaw and quarterback Denard Robinson -- who hasn't posted a rush for loss this season.

"He might be smaller, but he's pretty well together," Hoke said. "His mentality is that of a tough guy."

There are still questions surrounding Michigan's running game. Hoke said he wasn't sure what Smith's ideal amount of carries should be, and he wasn't sure if it would change how often Smith is on kick returns in the future.

Smith was not made available to the media Monday, but he said Saturday he would accept whatever role he was given. At the time, that was being the Wolverines' third-down back -- a role Hoke said Smith will keep -- and kick-return specialist.

On Monday, that role became a little bit larger.

Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at michaelrothsteinespn@gmail.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.