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Published: Thursday, 8/11/2011

Wolverines still in search of starting RB

Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, left, talks to offensive  coordinator Al Borges during practice. Borges top goal right now is to establish a running game for UM. Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, left, talks to offensive coordinator Al Borges during practice. Borges top goal right now is to establish a running game for UM.

ANN ARBOR -- Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges has a list of qualities he'd like to see in this year's starting running back.

"The ability to win in the open field, break tackles, make people miss, and understand our protection schemes," Borges said Wednesday.

There's a guy on Michigan's roster who exhibits every one of those traits -- but Denard Robinson plays quarterback.

Identifying a feature back to reduce the burden on Robinson never was checked off the to-do list this spring, so it remains an issue the coaching staff must address in fall camp.

"We've all made it clear to them we're looking for a guy now," Borges said. "The window of opportunity is starting to close."

Veterans Michael Shaw and Vincent Smith split repetitions with the first team offense Tuesday during the 20 minutes media members were permitted to watch practice. It's unknown if either has distanced himself from a group that includes Michael Cox, Fitzgerald Toussaint, and Stephen Hopkins.

Excluding Robinson's 1,702 rushing yards in 2010 -- a NCAA record among quarterbacks -- Michigan has not produced a rusher who has reached 1000 yards since Mike Hart turned the feat in 2007 and '08. Smith's 601 yards were most among the running backs last year, but his 4.4 yards per carry was uninspiring.

That Robinson averaged nearly 20 rushing attempts per game was not an ideal arrangement for a quarterback, particularly one in his first year as starter. Such a workload seemed to gnaw at Robinson over the course of the season, as minor injuries compounded and his production dropped off.

Borges is determined to not let history repeat itself, so therefore, finding a quality back capable of making first downs, and occasionally ripping off a 20-yard run is important.

Borges said the team's hierarchy at the position could begin to take shape Friday when the Wolverines practice in full pads for the first time. Soon, Borges and running backs coach Fred Jackson plan to identify two or three backs who appear to be the best among their peers. Then, from that group, a starter will be named in time for the Sept. 3 season opener against Western Michigan.

"I don't like rotating guys," Borges said. "With that being said, if two guys are on an equal plane, then we may do it. I'll never say never, but it's never been my preference."

Borges admitted true freshmen Justice Hayes and Thomas Rawls are at an obvious disadvantage because of their inexperience relative to their peers, but that won't prevent the coaching staff from playing either one if he's deserving.

Whichever back is in the game will share the backfield with fullback John McColgan, a fifth-year senior whom Borges said is among the most consistent offensive players on the team.

As for Robinson, Borges won't commit to any number of carries he plans to give the quarterback, except that it will be fewer than the 19.7 Robinson averaged a year ago.

"A lot of stuff you're going to see, you're going to say, oh, I've seen that before," Borges said.

Contact Ryan Autullo at: rautullo@theblade.com or 419-724-6160.

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