Wolverines deep in backfield

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Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — The Michigan depth chart won’t be finalized until the start of football season — even that might be a stretch — and while it’s unclear who might emerge as the starting running back, there is considerable depth at the position.

Brandon Minor, Carlos Brown and Kevin Grady, seniors last season, are gone, and it appears a handful of backs will be the main contenders to handle the bulk of the carries this fall.

Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said this week Fitzgerald Toussaint, Mike Shaw and Mike Cox have had solid spring practices and appear to be the strongest grouping of backs.

“The guys that have a little more experience have done pretty well,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez had called this a critical spring for Cox and “so far he’s shown us good stuff.”

Toussaint has grasped the offense better each practice and is bigger and stronger, and Shaw has had a few practices where he was on his game and a few he was off, Rodriguez said.

Two freshmen tailbacks, Stephen Hopkins and Austin White, enrolled early and have been practicing. White, according to Rodriguez, has been “banged up.”

“But I think he’s got enough talent to help us there in the future once he learns what’s going on,” he said.

Hopkins is a bigger, physical back at 6-foot, 236 pounds and could fill the void left by Minor.

Kelvin Grady and Terrence Robinson, both slot receivers, also have worked at running back.

Saturday scrimmage

The Wolverines have three remaining practices this week, but Saturday’s full-scale scrimmage will be “one of the most important scrimmages we have,” Rodriguez said.

“We still have some areas of concern,” he said. “I think our guys are playing pretty fast. I think some of the position moves we’ve looked at are working out pretty well.”

Just for kicks

Rodriguez said this week the kicking game has not made significant strides.

The Wolverines must replace punter Zoltan Mesko , a Ray Guy Award finalist last season, and kicker Jason Olesnavage .

“Some days we’ve kicked really well, some days we’ve not kicked well,” Rodriguez said. “There some talent there, but (it’s) certainly not a comfortable situation where we’re at punting or placekicking right now.

“The kicking game is a concern simply because we’ve been inconsistent in practice. I couldn’t tell you who our starting kicker is. It changes in 15 minutes. I don’t know if that’s going to be resolved until the fall.”

Freshman punter Will Hagerup will compete for that job in the fall and it was thought Brendan Gibbons would be a main contender as the kicker.

“(Gibbons) has a strong leg, but he’s been back and forth,” Rodriguez said.

No safety net

The competition at safety is ongoing, although Cam Gordon , who switched from receiver, has been a surprise.

“There’s no question (that) has been one of the better moves we’ve made,” Rodriguez said. “He’s a natural there and has had an outstanding spring.”

Early spring injuries to Vlad Emilien and Jared Van Slyke have made depth an issue.

“We have concerns at the safety position,” Rodriguez said. “Some of them are injured and some may be coming in the fall, but it’s not a position we feel solid at in the two-deep. Hopefully the (final) practices will settle some of that.”

For a good cause

Several current and former Michigan football players have formed “The Football Family” team to participate in the “Relay for Life,” an American Cancer Society fund-raiser Saturday at Palmer Field (near the Central Campus Recreational Building).

Their inspiration is former Michigan kicker Phil Brabbs , who has multiple myeloma (cancer of the plasma cell) and will undergo a stem-cell transplant Saturday.

“The Football Family” team, led by former walk-on Nick Koenigsknecht , will walk 24 consecutive hours beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday. Rodriguez and athletic director Dave Brandon will sign autographs, and there are several items up for auction.

The auction will include spring game field passes and team signed footballs.

For more information, go to mrelay.org (team name: “The Football Family”).

Those interested in making a donation may do so through the Web site. All proceeds go right to the American Cancer Society and are tax-deductible.

Last Updated: April 08. 2010 1:00AM