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Notebook: Coaches concede to backs-by-committee approach

Erin Kirkland/Daily
Redshirt sophomore running back Fitz Toussaint has run for 75 yards per game this season. Buy this photo

By Kevin Raftery, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 5, 2011

Five games into the season, the Michigan football coaches are waving a white flag — for now.

Throughout spring and fall camp, plenty of questions lingered. How would the team adjust to a new offense? A new defense? Who would be the starting kicker?

But for the coaches, one thing was certain: They would have a lead running back to take the majority of the carries.

Now, just over a month into the season, four different backs — redshirt sophomore Fitzgerald Toussaint, junior Vincent Smith, senior Michael Shaw and sophomore Stephen Hopkins — have had meaningful carries this year.

“I’d prefer the other way, where there’s a (main) guy,” said Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges on Wednesday. “But our combination of backs is working out. I may change my mind in three weeks, but I see no reason at this point to change how we’re going about it.”

Toussaint has tallied the most carries among the backs and also leads them with 75.2 yards per game — still more than 45 yards behind junior quarterback Denard Robinson.

“Fitz has come around,” Borges said. “Fitz is really running the ball hard and tough.”

Smith was originally set to be the third-down back, but in recent weeks he has given the coaching staff plenty of reason to put him on the field more often. In last week’s 58-0 rout over Minnesota, Smith rushed, received and threw a touchdown.

But Smith’s success came as no surprise to Borges.

“We’re using Vince Smith exactly the way I thought we were going to,” Borges said.

NEW FIELD, NEW CITY, NO PROBLEM: On Saturdays this season, the Wolverines have played on nothing but the Michigan Stadium turf so far. This weekend, they’ll get their first taste of real grass at Northwestern’s Ryan Field.

It shouldn’t be an issue for Michigan, or coach Brady Hoke.

“We’ve been practicing on grass all the way through,” Borges said. “Brady likes practicing on grass. It’s easier on the kids’ legs. As long as the field stays in decent shape, you can do that.”

There should be no issues with the field Saturday, as temperatures are forecasted to be in the mid-70s with clear skies for the 6 p.m. central time kickoff.

And chances are, a good majority of the people will be rooting for the Wolverines. Michigan has a huge alumni base in Chicago.

“It’s always nice to play in front of folks that are behind you,” Hoke said. “I know there’s a ton of alums who live in the area, so we welcome them all.”

WHERE’S TREE?: Last season, redshirt junior Roy Roundtree led the team in receiving. He snagged 72 passes for seven total touchdowns and 935 total yards.

In last season’s offense under former coach Rich Rodriguez, Roundtree played in the slot position. This year, he’s on the outside.

And he’s struggled to make his presence known so far. In five games, he’s had just five catches for 44 total yards and one touchdown, albeit the game-winner in the Notre Dame game.

Both Borges and Hoke insist Roundtree's numbers mean nothing.

“Just the way games have played out,” Hoke said.

Borges expanded on Hoke’s analysis.

“Within the game plan, we have X amount of balls that go to the split receiver,” he said. “If they go to him, they go to him. There’s going to be games you catch some balls, there’s going to be games you don’t catch any passes.”

WELCOME BACK, COACH: Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison will be back on his old stomping grounds this Saturday. Kind of.

Mattison was the defensive line coach at Northwestern from 1978-1980. He jokes it was so long ago that he barely remembers. With the Wildcats’ record in those two years, it’s probably for the best.

“All I remember is going out and recruiting and I would see a young man and they’d say, ‘Well, what’s your record?,’ ” Mattison recalled. “And I’d always go, ‘Oh … 10-1.’ And they’d go, ‘Good record!’

“No, it was 0-10-1.”

But in the 31 years since, Northwestern has come a long way. And Mattison knows it.

“This will be our biggest challenge by far,” he said. “We have our work cut out for us this week.”

INJURY UPDATE: Junior left guard Ricky Barnum, who hurt his leg two weeks ago in a 28-7 win over San Diego State, is questionable for the game against Northwestern.

Based on what Hoke said at his press conference before practice yesterday, his status for Saturday depends on what Barnum was able to do at practice Wednesday — the day of the week Hoke decides if injured players will be able to play in the Saturday game.

“I don’t think he’s out,” Hoke said. “He didn’t do much yesterday, but today’s Wednesday.”

Fifth-year senior receiver Junior Hemingway has been playing with a protective arm wrap, but Hoke said that shouldn’t be an issue.

“He’s alright,” Hoke said. “He’s got a little boo-boo on his elbow. We did punt yesterday and he’s one of our wings, and he did a great job protecting.”