Michigan Football RB Spring Preview: Will A True No. 1 Emerge?
For the third time in Jim Harbaugh's five seasons at Michigan, the Wolverines finished the season with two 600-yard rushers, rising sophomore Zach Charbonnet totaling 726 yards and 11 touchdowns and redshirt sophomore Hassan Haskins going for 622 yards and four scores.
The duo's 1,348 combined rushing yards represented the second-highest tally ever accumulated by a pair of freshman runners at U-M, trailing only the 1,587 yards that Mike Hart and Max Martin had in 2004.
For first-year rushers, the 2019 season was a great accomplishment.
However, Michigan's rushing attack, which overall ranked 77th with 150.7 yards per game, went dormant too many times, averaging 3.50 yards per carry or less in seven contests, including losses to Wisconsin (40 total rushing yards and 2.11 YPC) and Ohio State (91 yards, 3.50 YPC).
In contrast, those two teams ran for 359 yards and 264 yards, respectively. Of course, that's not solely on the running backs. In fact, most of it is not. It's a team game and in those defeats, every facet needed to be better.
Charbonnet in 2019 was an above-average blocker, while possessing good vision, and burst in a hole, even if he was lacking in breakaway speed. He followed his blockers and would generally creative positive yardage if it was there to be had.
The 6-1, 220-pounder had 100 yards or more in wins over Army and Illinois, and was also strong against Penn State (81 yards and two TDs, 5.40 YPC), Notre Dame (74 yards and two TDs, 4.93 YPC) and Alabama (84 yards and 6.46 YPC).
The emergence of Haskins, who had 125 yards at Illinois and 149 yards against the Fighting Irish, sparked both runners as they jockeyed to be the top dog.
Showing patience belying his experience, Haskins was strongest as he allowed his blockers to open an alley way, then accelerating with a downhill forward attack that usually resulted in another yard or two after contact.
Haskins had more "big plays" than Charbonnet, with seven rushes of 20 yards or more compared to his teammate's three, but he too was not a true home-run threat, a single run of 40+ yards on his resume among 121 carries.
The good news for Michigan is the Wolverines are set to welcome a pair of big-play threats, freshman Blake Corum and returning senior, Chris Evans, who was not enrolled in school for the 2019 season due to an academic violation. Evans seems intent on making good on his second chance.
Evans has had 17 rushes of 20 yards or more in his three-year career from 2016-18, including 11 of 30+ yards and seven of 40 yards or greater. At 5-11, 216 pounds, he has shown an ability to run between the tackles also, though his game is predicated on elusiveness and making defenders miss in tight spaces and less on barreling through a defender.
An average blocker, at best, Evans is a wildcard. Can he overtake Charbonnet and Haskins to be Michigan's true No. 1 ball carrier? Or will he just play a small part, Harbaugh and Co., once again divvying up the opportunities?
Where does Corum fit into this mix or sophomore wide receiver Giles Jackson, who saw some snaps (and touches) coming out of the backfield late in the year?
Michigan has a bevy of skill sets to work with, but with few exceptions, every great team seems to have one guy it relies on: three of the four playoff teams had a 1,400+ yard running back in 2019 and the fourth, Oklahoma, saw RB Kennedy Brooks rush 1,011 yards playing second fiddle to QB Jalen Hurts (1,298 yards rushing).
Prediction: At year's end, Michigan was still splitting carries, Haskins getting 16 rushes and Charbonnet handling 13 in the Wolverines' Citrus Bowl loss. There's no reason to believe U-M will lock in on a single runner in 2020, but that's also because there was not a complete back on the roster.
Evans was never a true lead rusher in the past, but in this offense, featuring inside and outside zone reads that allow a runner to pick a hole, and a desire to use that runner out of the backfield as a receiving target, Evans will have a chance to supplant his teammates.
What starts off as a smorgasbord in the first few weeks gets whittled down. Charbonnet and Haskins continue to have a role, but Evans emerges as Michigan's No. 1, providing a blueprint for Corum in 2021.
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