Dec. 19, 2011
Sugar Bowl Central
By Brad Rudner
The saying goes that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. That's not the case for U-M redshirt sophomore running back Fitzgerald Toussaint.
His first impression to the Michigan football community was made on Sept. 25, 2010, just another fall Saturday in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines were 3-0 and welcomed Bowling Green to the Big House. Up to that point, Toussaint's collegiate career hadn't amounted to much, but it wasn't for lack of trying. He was hurt.
Football is a violent game, and injuries are a part of it, but for a while it seemed Toussaint just couldn't catch a break. There was his troublesome knee, both shoulders, his neck, and even a hernia, which sidelined him all summer his first year. That knee injury caused him to miss the first three games of the season, putting him behind Vincent Smith and Michael Shaw on the depth chart. But on this day, he was finally healthy (enough) to see the field for the first time, if the score permitted.
The Wolverines had their way with Bowling Green, leading 51-21 in the fourth quarter when Toussaint and several of the other backups entered the game. It was second-and-seven from U-M's own 34-yard line when the play came in from the sidelines: zone read, Michigan's bread-and-butter play.
Devin Gardner was in at quarterback, with Toussaint lined up a few feet to his left. With any zone read, the quarterback has a decision to make -- keep the ball or hand it off. Gardner opted for the latter.
With a braced-up knee and all -- and thanks to a crushing block from Patrick Omameh -- Toussaint burst through the line of scrimmage and dashed up the middle of the field for a 61-yard run. The only problem was that he was caught from behind on the play, five yards short of the goal line.
To this day, Toussaint still gets grief about that one play.
"I'll say it was more of an angle," he said, trying to hold back a smile.
The next play was the same. Toussaint got his number called again and scored. Touchdown Michigan, the first score of his collegiate career.
Those two carries brought good news and bad news. The good news is that he finally got his chance to shine, and what better way to make your mark on the thousands of Michigan fans than by busting a huge run on your first collegiate carry and scoring a touchdown on your second?
The bad news? The injury bug stung him again, this time to his shoulder, something he suffered when he was tackled to the ground on that long run. It caused him to miss the next five games. He got only six carries the rest of the season.
One of the changes that head coach Brady Hoke implemented upon arriving back in Ann Arbor last winter was to re-establish the power running game, something that had been dormant in the three years prior under Rich Rodriguez's spread-dominated scheme. Toussaint admits that Rodriguez's offense helped him as a player in a lot of ways, but that the new offense -- that downhill, between-the-tackles running style -- fits his skill set better.
He may not be the biggest guy -- he's listed at 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds -- but he packs a punch, which is convenient, since his last name, Toussaint, is a powerful Haitian name. With the way he talks, you might have thought he's training to be a boxer.
"I'm an aggressive back. I like to hit people," Toussaint said. "I play the game with a level of intensity. If I have a chance to go for a knockout shot, that's what I go for. I may not be that big or powerful, but that's my mindset."
Redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Taylor Lewan, Toussaint's roommate his freshman year, may not be a defensive player, but he knows a buckled chinstrap is a good idea when Toussaint is coming.
"I'm anchoring down and hoping for the best," he said. "Fitz isn't one to shy away from contact lightly. Don't let the quietness fool you. He's a real tough guy and an unreal competitor."
Toussaint started the team's first game this season against Western Michigan after separating himself from the pack during spring workouts and summer camp. He ran 11 times for 80 yards and two touchdowns in a rain-shortened game against the Broncos, prompting many Michigan fans to ask the question, "Who is this guy?"
Sometimes the numbers don't always tell the story, but Toussaint's mystique only grew with each game. Following the Western Michigan game, Toussaint started five of the next six games, reaching the 100-yard mark only once (108 on Oct. 1 vs. Minnesota), missing only the Notre Dame "Under the Lights" game due to a lingering injury.
After a midseason lull, Toussaint turned it on during the second half, putting up video game-like numbers. He had at least 20 carries in the last five games, eclipsing the 100-yard mark in four of those. During that five-game stretch to close the season, Toussaint ran 112 times for 711 yards (a staggering 142.2 yards per game average -- all against Big Ten defenses) and five touchdowns.
More? He became Michigan's first tailback to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark in a season since Mike Hart did it in 2007. His 5.8 yards-per-carry average is second best in the Big Ten among starting running backs, trailing only Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball (Wisconsin). And, in Big Ten games, Toussaint outgained his own quarterback, Denard Robinson, by 217 yards despite having only two more carries.
"What I saw of him in high school was his ability to make guys miss in space," U-M assistant coach Fred Jackson said. "He can still do that, but this year, he's got a better understanding of what is involved in each play. It made him a better and quicker reader, and he improved on his cuts. That's what separated him."
Jackson knows a thing or two about running backs. He's spent the last 19 years coaching them, and has tutored some of the best in program history, men like Tyrone Wheatley, Tim Biakabutuka, Anthony Thomas, Chris Perry and Hart. Like Toussaint, all were 1,000-yard single-season rushers, but they all have something that Toussaint doesn't yet, and that's a spot on Jackson's infamous "wall."
Nearly a dozen names and portraits sit on the back wall of Jackson's Schembechler Hall office, symbolizing their place as one of the program's best. Every time Toussaint goes into Jackson's office, he sees this wall, hoping to one day see his picture up there. To get your face on it, you must have two things -- work ethic and mental toughness.
"Each of those guys built a culture, and it started with being great workers and tough guys," Jackson said. "They didn't quit at anything. They came to work and gave it their all every day. That's why those guys are up there."
The setbacks might have caused a lesser player to think of giving up the sport, but not Toussaint. He's had mental toughness from day one, something he says you need to be a Michigan football player.
"Sometimes when you're injured a lot, or sitting out, you give up," Toussaint said. "You have no hope. I felt that I had developed a hidden drive somewhere. People kept motivating me. I held the belief that if you keep going and keep pushing that one day you'll get your chance, and that's what happened."
For Toussaint, his prime source of motivation comes from his family -- from his hard-working mother, who raised Fitzgerald and his four older siblings in Youngstown, Ohio, to daughter, Martia, whose fifth birthday was this past Dec. 10. He has his daughter's initials tattooed on his right forearm, a reminder of what he plays for every day.
"She means the world to me, that's all I can say," he said. "Being away from her, I worry about her every night. That's my heart right there, my mother and my daughter."
As a kid, Toussaint didn't want to play football, opting to play with toys rather than a pigskin. That changed when he was six years old, and it quickly became a game he loved. He primarily played on the defensive side of the ball through middle school, but it wasn't until ninth grade that he noticed his penchant for running the football.
By the time he was a senior at Liberty High School in Youngstown, Toussaint had established himself as one of the best players not only in the state of Ohio, but in the nation. He ran for 4,690 yards during his high school career, with close to half of those yards coming in his last season (2,239 yards).
He had the rankings, the stats and the suitors. Many college coaches came to Toussaint's home hoping to leave with a verbal commitment, but when it came time to pick his future home, for this native Ohioan, it was always going to be Michigan.
He idolized former Michigan greats like Hart and Charles Woodson, longing for the day when he could wear the same jersey with the same swagger as those men did, but there was another reason. He wanted to get out of Ohio.
"I caught grief every time I went home," Toussaint said. He paused, and a big smile came across his face.
"But now, I can go back and feel right at home."
Before the season, you probably wouldn't have noticed Toussaint in public. Only the hardcore Michigan football fan could have picked him out of a crowd, especially without the winged helmet or his No. 28 jersey. It's becoming harder and harder to stay out of the spotlight, especially after the season he's had.
Still, he's perfectly content with being behind the scenes.
"I love that," he said. "I like being the sleeper. Sometimes I don't like people knowing I play football. I want them to look at me as a person first, to get to know me."
Don't attach the "sleeper" moniker to Toussaint's name anymore. If there was a Breakout Player of the Year Award given in the Big Ten, it would be difficult to find someone more deserving this year than Toussaint.
"Fitzgerald Toussaint has evolved from a linear track guy to a premier running back that blends great size, speed, vision and balance," said Big Ten Network analyst Chris Martin said. "His best football is still in front of him."
One primary benefactor to Toussaint's emergence has been Robinson, who last season accounted for 55 percent of the team's total rushing yards but was criticized for taking too many big hits on running plays. This year, that number that dipped to 41 percent. Coincidentally, the two prime running backs last season, Shaw and Smith, combined for roughly 33 percent of the team's rushing yards, a number that Toussaint met, and passed, this season by himself (36 percent).
Thanks to Toussaint, opposing defenses can no longer key in solely on Robinson; they need to take Toussaint as a threat, too. He's a big reason why the Wolverines are 10-2 and heading to the Allstate Sugar Bowl against Virginia Tech, which owns the nation's 17th-best rushing defense.
"It feels good," Toussaint said of the success. "At this point, I felt like we were prepared for it. We came in, worked hard, and did everything we needed to do. We stayed together as a team. That's what carried us to this point."
Not once does he mention individual accomplishments, but that's the kind of guy Toussaint is. He always puts the team first, the kind of mentality that Bo would be proud of.
"Never satisfied. I'm never satisfied," Toussaint repeats. "You always have to keep working. Anything and everything. You can never be too good, even if it means correcting the smallest thing."