Michigan’s starting running back? ‘We’ll see’

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Michigan running back Karan Higdon runs into the end zone for a touchdown in the third quarter against Florida.

Ann Arbor – In the absence of a depth chart, a coach’s response of “we’ll see” to a question regarding who will get a start has replaced the ever-present “or” that separates players in a hard-copy chart.

Michigan running backs coach Jay Harbaugh went with the “we’ll see” response several times during a media session Wednesday, drawing some laughs while making clear it covers multiple purposes.

He was asked if Ty Isaac, on the heels of his 114-yard rushing performance in the season opener, will start on Saturday in the home opener against Cincinnati.

“We’ll see,” Harbaugh said.

Later he was asked if the distribution of carries among Michigan’s three primary backs – Isaac, Chris Evans, who started last week, and Karan Higdon – will be determined week to week.

“We’ll see,” Harbaugh said.

And will redshirt freshman Kareem Walker play this week?

“We’ll see,” Harbaugh said.

He was much less evasive about his evaluation of the group’s performance in the season opener against Florida. The Wolverines had 215 rushing yards.

He was particularly pleased with Isaac’s performance.

“I loved that he was playing fast – he was playing at his full speed,” Harbaugh said. “He was decisive. He was great after contact. I think he had 80 yards after contact, which was huge. He played with the physical presence he has and we needed him to play with.”

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his will be a by-committee rushing attack, although there are no rules – the hot back could keep getting the handoffs, or Harbaugh will continue to rotate them because there’s no dropoff, despite the fact they’re all so different.

“It’s much more fluid than an outsider would imagine,” he said. “(It’s not), ‘Hey, 22 (Higdon) these are your runs, 12 (Evans) here are your runs, 32 (Isaac) here are yours.’ It’s a little more fluid and that’s because we have confidence in all of them. We don’t feel like there’s any runs Karan can’t go in for and same with Ty and same with Chris.”

Michigan running back Ty Isaac eludes the Florida defense.

By having the versatility with three backs – maybe four if there’s a run that Walker is best suited to handle – Harbaugh can keep the opponent guessing.

“I’d love them to be totally interchangeable, because then you can stay away from predictability in terms of, ‘Hey, when 22 comes in, expect this, when 12 is in expect this,’” he said. “That can be problematic when you go through a season. Interchangeable parts is really the goal. Inevitably certain guys are to be better at certain things. It’s all about putting guys in position to succeed.

“They’re all different. They all have unique skill sets. It makes it a little bit hard on a defense when you’re getting different guys thrown at you and they have different styles and different types of moves and different ways of hitting certain runs. They’re not the same, so you can’t treat them all the same.”

What Harbaugh doesn’t want is the running backs settling into roles. The way to keep the rushing attack going in a positive direction is to have them all wanting the starting job.

“Every running back is going to want the ball,” Harbaugh said. “They’ve done a great job being unselfish as a group, rooting for each other’s success and still taking advantage of their own opportunities. I expect them to want the ball more.

“As a coach, you’re going to assume that everyone’s going to have a healthy discontent with their role, because they think they’re the guy. If you’re recruiting the right guys, that’s going to be the case. They’ve done a really good job balancing that, that natural selfish instinct with, ‘Hey, I’m a team guy.’”

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Because there are swings in game and the discovery that some things work and others don’t against a defense, Harbaugh has the luxury of inserting any of his backs for a changeup. So ultimately, sure, they want to start, but it is about how they finish.

“In the big picture, who starts isn’t terribly important,” Harbaugh said.

So who will start Saturday?

You know the answer: We’ll see.

Don Brown's approach

Michigan safeties coach Brian Smith has known defensive coordinator Don Brown a long time, since he played for him at UMass and then joined the staff there.

Smith said Brown has not really changed, but certainly a different level of talent, like what he has now at Michigan, gives him room to shake things up scheme-wise.

“I think he kind of coaches each team a little differently depending on the guys, but he’s still the same coach,” Smith said Wednesday. “Still intense. The scheme has changed a little bit over time, but overall he’s still the same guy and he doesn’t treat everybody the same. That’s one of the great things about him – he knows how to treat certain players and get the most out of them, so he always adjusting and changing up his style.”

Brown’s scheme has evolved, Smith said.

“Back when I was playing, there was a lot more Cover-0,” he said. “We’d just bring the house with pressure. Now I think he tries to mix it up a little bit differently.”