Coaching college football players during a quarantine is an unprecedented challenge for Jay Harbaugh, but the Michigan running backs coach and special teams coordinator remarked on how much more difficult his job would be had this been the case in 2019.
“If this were to be last year, we’d still make the best of it, but it would be a lot more challenging,” Harbaugh said. “It is a huge, huge advantage to have guys who have played and have really gone through and done it.”
Last year, Michigan entered the season with a fresh, green backfield as Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins emerged as the top two ball carriers. Neither player had a single carry entering the season, but Harbaugh prepared them for the rigors of a Big Ten schedule.
Harbaugh was able to ready his players thanks to an instruction-packed pre-season where he was able to install offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ offense in person. This close contact and guidance helped both Charbonnet and Haskins gain footing within the offense.
“A lot of our guys learn best by physically doing it,” Harbaugh said. “They need walkthroughs. They need practice, then the game reps as we all know, those are priceless. So, that is definitely a big thing. Knowing that all those guys have played, all the way down to Christian Turner, that’s huge.”
While Charbonnet and Haskins combined for 15 touchdowns on the ground in 2019, Michigan will have Chris Evans back to serve as an experienced, dynamic offensive weapon. As Harbaugh mentioned, Turner played a bit last year with over 40 carries and four receptions, and even newcomers such as Blake Corum could contribute this fall.
“The guy who hasn’t played, Blake Corum, the good thing about him is he was an early enrollee, so he did practice with us,” Harbaugh said. “So, he has just a little bit at least and even though we missed spring, he’s a guy who will walk through things on his own. He played against great competition in high school, so I would expect it to translate and transition well in terms of the speed of game and everything.”
As a recruit, Corum was ranked as a four-star prospect by Rivals, falling just outside of the top 100 overall recruits in his class. Corum attended St. Frances Academy, which is a perennial powerhouse in the Baltimore (Md.) area, so Corum is used to performing at a high level.
"The main thing about him is he just goes all out at everything he does," Harbaugh said. "He just goes hard in every single thing that he’s presented with. I think he got a 4.0 or close to it his first semester. He’s on time for everything. Virtually, he turns everything in. He takes tremendous notes. He asks questions, and he’s a junkie for football but also for everything. He is very binary. It’s all-in or he’s not into it. I think that will serve him really good in terms of getting through this without it being a setback for him."
Simply put, the Michigan backfield is filled with accomplished playmakers all the way from Corum to Evans or Haskins. As for the latter, Harbaugh spoke about what Haskins needs to do in order to secure a large share of the carries this season.
“I want to continue to have him expand what he can do without the ball in his hands, become even more proficient,” Harbaugh said. “He was a pretty good pass protector, but there will be things that he will be able to bring us as a blocker in the sweep game, on the perimeter, possibly as a lead blocker in terms of some of the two-back stuff. [He’s] kind of doing some of the jobs that a fullback would sometimes do. He is capable of all that, so I think he’s going to be able to take another step in terms of going from just being decent at that to being really dominant.
“The other thing for him is continuing to open up his hips, improve his stride length and turn some of those seven to 15-yard runs into really big ones,” Harbaugh said.
Harbaugh mentioned how Haskins is committed to turning a few of his medium-length runs into larger chunk plays, and this is an area of focus for Charbonnet as well.
“We need to turn some of these medium, pretty good runs into explosive, homerun ones that send the Big House into an eruption,” Harbaugh said. “Both those guys are kind of the same. I really believe with the experience, the confidence and continuing to understand the system, where the unblocked defenders are and just running with more confidence, they are both going to make a lot of improvements in that area.”
Last season, Michigan was sorely lacking in experience at the running back position, but U-M has the luxury of choosing between three players that have logged considerable time in the Big Ten. What was a weakness a year ago has become a strength for this year’s offense, and Harbaugh is anxious to see which players separate themselves.
Who do you think will rack up the most carries this fall? Will Evans have a pronounced return to the Wolverines offense? Let us know!