CMU running back Rawls making most of second chance

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Thomas Rawls still calls Michigan his "dream school" but feels now he is living his dream while playing football at Central Michigan.

Rawls entered Michigan earlier this decade as a three-star recruit, hoping one day to break Mike Hart's rushing record while performing at a high level at the Big House.

It never happened. Instead, Rawls transferred to CMU after three seasons at Michigan, where he appeared in 27 games, but had just 73 career carries for 333 yards and five touchdowns.

Sure, Rawls showed flashes of brilliance, including a 63-yard touchdown run his sophomore year against Purdue but never could be the premier ball carrier with Fitz Toussaint, Vincent Smith and Michael Shaw playing ahead of him.

Now Rawls is making a name for himself, showing his durability and talent as he help makes the Chippewas (4-3, 2-1 Mid-American Conference) a factor again in the MAC while Michigan has experienced more than its share of struggles.

"I couldn't tell you why," said Rawls when asked why he didn't get more playing time and carries for the Wolverines. "I just tried to control as much as I could and never gave up. I went to practice with a great attitude. It was out of my hands. I learned a lot from (running backs) Coach (Fred) Jackson, who was a great guy.

"Michigan was my dream school. You take great pride in going there. It has a lot of tradition. I played three years and earned my degree, but at the end of the day I had to take care of my own future and be my own man, so I transferred. When I was there I had long-term friendships and I talk to them to this day.

"I've had a great opportunity here, and the one thing about this team is the players play for each other and the coaches. We're like brothers, the way we play for each other. I get a different vibe from this team (than at Michigan). Even when we were losing we still stuck together harder."

Rawls, 5-foot-10 and 220 pounds, has showed his durability the past two weeks by carrying the ball 40 times in wins over Ohio (28-10) and Northern Illinois (34-17), rushing for 229 yards and two touchdowns against Ohio and a career-high 270 and two touchdowns to end Northern Illinois' 28-game home winning streak.

That's right … 80 carries the last two weeks, or seven more than his entire career at Michigan. Rawls ran for 194 yards on 24 carries during the second half of the Northern Illinois game and ranks third nationally with an average of 168 yards rushing per game, averaging 5.5 yards per carry.

"As Coach (Dan Enos) said, it's not in the game plan to hand me the ball 40 times," Rawls said, "but as the game goes on I get in a rhythm and I get stronger as the game goes on. I feel I'm a downhill runner with good speed and can break tackles. My vision is one of my strengths, and I can turn it on to get to another gear."

Sure, Rawls had a 155-yard (31 carries), two-touchdown game in a 38-17 win at Purdue earlier this season, but the win over Northern Illinois, the premier team in the MAC the last several years, has been his highlight.

"It was an exciting feeling to be a part of it," Rawls said. "It's only my first year here, but (most of) my teammates hadn't beaten them before and it was so great to see the seniors get the win against them. I gave the seniors hugs. I felt I owed every run, every sweat and tear to them."

Rawls almost didn't get the opportunity to finish the season. After helping CMU get off to a 2-0 start, he was suspended indefinitely for his part in a theft of a purse and credit cards from a woman at a Soaring Eagle Casino in Mount Pleasant this past spring. He was charged with felony larceny and credit card fraud but pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of attempted larceny. He was reinstated to the team after he made the plea deal.

"I had never got in trouble in my time at Michigan, never in trouble until I was part of that situation down here," Rawls said. "He (Enos) knows I'm a great guy and I'm blessed to get a second opportunity. They know I'll do the right thing. I would never take advantage of them."

CMU has a player in Rawls that Michigan lacks, a physical back who can move the chains with great regularity so his team keeps the ball while the defense rests.

The Chippewas have played a lot of football and a little keepaway the past couple of weeks, holding on to the ball for 42 minutes against Ohio and for 40 or a 2-to-1 advantage against Northern Illinois. Rawls has made the difference each time around.

Rawls has definitely made the most of his second chance and it could well find him playing for the Chippewas in the MAC championship game in early December or in a bowl game during the holiday season. The Chips are 4-1 with him in the lineup, 0-2 without him. They play host to Ball State (1-5, 0-2 MAC West) — a team which has given up an average of 317 yards rushing the last three weeks — Saturday.

And by the time the season comes to a close Rawls could break Brian Pruitt's 20-year old school record of 1,890 yards rushing.