RB Thomas Rawls pressed into starting role, and appears ready for it
ANN ARBOR -- Thomas Rawls has had a quiet season, after making major noise in the preseason.
His chance to shine appears to have arrived.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke said Monday that Rawls will be the primary tailback Saturday against No. 4 Ohio State (11-0, 7-0) after starter Fitz Toussaint sustained a season-ending leg injury over the weekend.
Rawls has received sporadic action this year, ranging from not getting a carry in four games to getting a career-high 16 against Minnesota. He has more than 43 yards just once this season, gaining 90 against Illinois.
He has 52 carries for 240 yards (4.6 per attempt) and four touchdowns overall.
The biggest thing holding Rawls back were the mental aspects of the position, Hoke said. And he's fixed many of them.
“Thomas, I think, has imrpoved a lot as the season went on," Hoke said. "I think he learned a little more about playing the position at this level. And some people, and I probably am one of them sometimes, think you’ve got a gifted guy, you give the football to him, and then he decides where to go.
"But there’s so much more to it when you’re looking at back-side reads on linebackers, you’re looking at pass protections, all the things that you have to do as a back. I think that’s where Thomas has grown the most.”
Rawls is known for being an enforcer in the backfield, preferring to lower his shoulder into a defender and running over him instead of around him.
Running backs coach Fred Jackson says Rawls runs "angry."
"I mean, when he runs, he’s tryin’ to hurt the guy," Jackson said during fall camp. "Anybody who tries to tackle him will know they’ve been hit.
"He don’t take many blows, he gives blows -- and that’s what you’re looking for in a running back."
That physicality has made Rawls effective in short-yardage situations, including the goal line, where he's played a more pronounced role in recent weeks. He has four touchdowns in his past five games, three of which came at the goal line.
Rawls won't be made available for comment this week, but said in the preseason he was ready to contribute this season.
"I’m ready," he said then. "No Michigan running back is scared of anyone or anything."
Senior Vincent Smith and redshirt freshman Justice Hayes could factor into the rotation as well, and so could quarterback Denard Robinson, who started at tailback last week as he heals his throwing elbow.
Hoke said Robinson's role in the backfield won't be altered by Toussaint's absence. But Rawls' will.
He appears ready to gun for the unbeaten Buckeyes.
"He has to -- he has to be ready, and I think he is," quarterback Devin Gardner said. "Vincent Smith is definitely ready too. Everybody forgets about Vincent Smith, who also is a great running back. I just can't wait for those guys to get an opportunity. Even Justice Hayes is ready to play."