By RICKY LINDSAY, Sports Editor
Fitzgerald Toussaint sits alone in Michigan’s locker room, beneath a wall that reads “42 Big Ten Championships”, at the start of the team’s media day on August 11.
The running back fields interviews from a few reporters, but is far from the center of attention, even in the midst of a competitive battle for the starting running back gig.
It’s been like this all offseason for Toussaint. The fifth-year senior broke his leg during a mid-November game against Iowa last season. Months later, five-star running back Derrick Green chose Michigan before signing day and was immediately considered an option at starter come fall.
A recovering Toussaint, who rushed for 1,041 yards in a breakout campaign just two years ago, was flying under the radar on his journey back to football.
That was the case, until a bold announcement after the team’s first fall practice.
“I’m going to be the starting running back August 31,” Toussaint said.
That statement captured the attention of fans, but his teammates weren’t surprised.
“I knew coming into camp, he’d [Toussaint] be ready,” redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner said. “He’s proved in these first six practices that he is the Fitzgerald Toussaint of old, and maybe even better.”
“Even better” would be a welcomed boost to the Wolverines in their transition to the pro-style offense. Five Michigan halfbacks combined for 725 rushing yards last season, with Toussaint accounting for 514 of those yards. Former Wolverine Denard Robinson nearly doubled that combined total with 1350 rushing yards of his own in 2012.
Although he’s locked in a tight competition for the bulk of the carries, it hasn’t kept Toussaint from letting his experience teach the younger tailbacks in camp.
“I have to be a leader and go in there and get those guys acclimated to this system,” Toussaint said. “Those guys work hard. They’re ready to learn. They’re ready to go out there and play.”
“Everyone is blocking well and I know it stems down from senior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint,” Gardner said. “It’s been amazing, and I’ve enjoyed watching the development of the young guys and Fitz.”
One key factor in Toussaint’s all-around development while recovering this offseason has originated away from the field.
After breaking his leg, the tailback opted to fine-tune his game, putting extra emphasis on the mental part. He’s worked on reading defenses and blitzes to the point where he feels confident and can better protect Gardner.
“His recognition and blocking in pass protection has been great, especially these last few days of full pads when these linebackers are really looking to see where Fitzgerald Toussaint is when they’re blitzing,” Gardner said. “That’s amazing for me; to have an offensive line that blocks well and then have a running back that can pick up the extra.”
Only 18 days separate Toussaint from a return to actual college football action. No one knows what kind of player he’ll be once that time comes on August 31 against Central Michigan, but don’t tell that to the man handing him the ball.
“He’s gonna have that impact [of old], for sure,” Gardner said.