Candidates line up behind Toussaint

Hopkins, Rawls, redshirt freshman Hayes vying for action in backfield

Updated: April 3, 2012, 2:06 PM ET
By Chantel Jennings | WolverineNation

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- It took the Michigan football team a significant portion of last season to find the featured running back that Brady Hoke and Al Borges wanted.

Once they found Fitzgerald Toussaint, he helped fuel Michigan's offense, rushing for 1,041 yards on 187 carries, second only to quarterback Denard Robinson.

[+] EnlargeFitzgerald Toussaint
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireFitzgerald Toussaint looks entrenched at No. 1, but there are carries to be had behind him.
And now that the staff knows what Toussaint can do, it is able to spend spring practices -- a season later -- experimenting with other backs.

"We don't have to overuse Fitz in the spring, yet still try to improve him," Borges said. "I'm not talking, sit him on the sideline and let him watch, he's still playing now. But that being said, it isn't like last spring, where we have to run him and run him and find out what he can do. We kind of know what he can do."

The coaching staff won't ever say the starting job already has gone to Toussaint, but this spring the coaches are getting a taste of who could be backing up last season's featured back.

Some of the names that have come to the forefront are redshirt freshman Justice Hayes, sophomore Thomas Rawls and junior Stephen Hopkins.

Hopkins was used sparingly last season, rushing for 43 yards on 11 carries. Hoke said he likes the maturity he has seen out of Hopkins during this offseason, but that the coaching staff has noticed the 6-foot, 228-pound fullback has put on some bad weight.

Hoke said he was impressed with Rawls, who appeared in 10 games last season.

"We're playing [Rawls] a little bit at fullback, not a lot," Hoke said. "He's a pretty tough guy running the football. He's got to take care of the football a little better."

However, a name to watch is Hayes, whom Borges seemed pretty high on. Hayes, a Michigan native, rushed for more than 2,500 yards in his high school career but also worked a bit as a receiver on his varsity team, which is already helping him stand out among the other backs this spring.

"[We] give Justice a chance to carry that ball, tote it a few times, get him in some pass-protection situations," Borges said. "He's got some great receiving skills [to] see if he can do that, but, this is a big spring for him."

Yet, even with the success and improvement of other players, Toussaint is the frontrunner in the running back race.

But Borges, too, pointed out areas of Toussaint's game that need work during this offseason, including becoming a better blocker and improving his hands.

The main improvement in Toussaint's game a season ago was his on-field vision, finding the holes and then exploiting them. Coaches said that this still is a part of Toussaint's game that needs work, but that it's much improved.

"The more we learn with Fitz, the more he plays, the faster he learns and the issues go away with him," Borges said. "Some backs they never go away. ... He just needed the time, and I think that's going to be the case with the other things we're talking about."