ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan's regular season started with Fitzgerald Toussaint in Ann Arbor while the rest of his teammates traveled for a highly anticipated road game.
That time, of course, it was his own doing after being suspended. Now due to a season-ending injury Saturday against Iowa, Toussaint once again will be far away from his teammates for the last game of the regular season, against Ohio State.
"Thomas has improved a lot as the season went on and learned a little bit more about playing the position at this level," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "Some people, and I'm probably one of them sometimes … you've got a gifted guy you give the football to and he decides where to go.
"There's so much more to it when you're looking at backside reads on linebackers and looking at pass protections and all the things you have to do the most."
It is those other things besides just knowing where to go where Rawls has improved the most this season and why Michigan feels he'll be ready to replace Toussaint, who gained 1,041 yards last season and had 514 yards and five touchdowns this season.
Don't, though, expect to see a ton of Denard Robinson at running back. While the senior is seeing his role change from just quarterback to quarterback/running back/slot receiver, Hoke said Toussaint's injury doesn't necessarily change how they plan on using Robinson.
Instead, it'll mean more carries for Rawls and senior Vincent Smith.
"Thomas Rawls, this is a great time for him," Hoke said. "And Vince Smith."
Of course, whoever plays running back at Michigan could be aided by The Denard Effect. The attention paid to Robinson whenever he is on the field at quarterback, running back or slot receiver is big enough it could open up massive holes for running backs.
Toussaint, during the first drive Saturday, saw that as he had 31 yards on three carries, a small sample size but his best yards-per-carry output of the season. Gardner saw it, too, as he had more room to run whenever Robinson was on the field.
"The attention that he gets is amazing," Gardner said.
It is that attention that Michigan hopes might spring a fairly dormant running game this season. Besides Robinson, Michigan's next best yards per game rusher was Toussaint, with 51.4. Among the available running backs, Rawls is averaging 4.6 yards a carry, Justice Hayes 5.2 a carry, and Smith 2.8 yards a carry. Unless the Wolverines change their mind on Robinson, this is what they will have to work with.
Rawls seemed eager to be a potential featured back leading up to the season opener, but he never really received the opportunity. Alabama crushed any attempt at a run game Michigan mustered, and Toussaint returned the next week into a starting role.
Now, the position is Rawls' to lose.
"He has to be ready," Gardner said. "And I feel like he is. Vincent Smith is definitely ready, too. Everybody forgets about Vincent Smith, who is also a great running back. I can't wait for those guys to get an opportunity.
"Even Justice Hayes, those are three running backs that are really good."
Thus far, they have shown merely glimpses of what they could be. Now, with Ohio State less than a week away, they'll have to turn that potential into actual production.