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John Niyo and Angelique Chengelis are joined by Chris Howard and Matt Charboneau to talk about Michigan's issues and Michigan State's 6-1 season.

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Ann Arbor — Michigan running-backs coach Jay Harbaugh sees similarities in the way starting tailback Karan Higdon and redshirt freshman Kareem Walker play the position.

Higdon leads the team in rushing with 446 yards and six rushing touchdowns, while Walker has surfaced only briefly this season with two carries for 15 yards. Harbaugh said he anticipates getting Walker more playing time Saturday when the Wolverines (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) face Rutgers at Michigan Stadium.

“Like everybody else, the amount a guy plays is going to be determined by the quality of his reps in practice or his reliability in practice,” Harbaugh said, referring to Walker. “Moving forward, all things are kind of on the table for him and the other three guys that did get more carries.

“He’s coming along and he’s run the ball well. Like Karan, he runs hard. There’s very little indecision. Even if necessarily the ball doesn't go maybe where it should, it goes there fast and it goes there pretty aggressively, which a lot of time works out in his favor. He’s coming along, doing a lot of nice things, and I expect him to contribute on Saturday.”

Harbaugh said Walker has good vision and even if he doesn’t see a hole, that’s not an issue.

“It doesn't slow him down,” Harbaugh said. “He’ll cram his way into something and find tough yards. It’s not a knock on him necessarily. It’s more of a plus, if that makes sense.”

While Higdon has emerged as the starter the last four games, it has been tailback by committee for the Wolverines. Ty Isaac (439 yards) and Chris Evans (269) join Higdon in that rotation. What earns more playing time is what Harbaugh sees as reliability in assignments.

More: UM's Tim Drevno says offense is 'so close'

“Running the plays where they’re supposed to be run, reading the runs the proper way,” Harbaugh said. “Pass protection-wise, being reliable, understanding where the protection is going, who they’re responsible for, then executing the actual physical part of the block. It’s not necessarily, ‘This guy practiced best so he’ll play the most.’ Guys that practiced well, let’s figure out how to get them in situations where they can succeed.

“We'll go as the week goes and have plays specific for certain guys. As the season has gone on, certain guys are more reliable and trustworthy on third down as protection backs or receiving backs.”

PASS PROTECTION AN ISSUE

That John O’Korn took seven sacks last Saturday at Penn State wasn’t all on the offensive line. The running backs have had challenges in pass protection this season, and that game was not excluded.

Harbaugh said he is confident the backs will improve in that important facet.

“They can definitely get there,” Harbaugh said. “We still have a ways to go because they’re chasing perfection when we can stack game after game where the quarterback isn’t getting touched, or he doesn’t get touched but we still weren’t perfect assignment-wise. We’ve still got to grow in terms of being disciplined with our reads, 100-percent perfect on assignments. The guys understand that’s what the standard is.

“They’re just grinding at that every single day. Will we ever get there? Maybe, maybe not. If we get close to that and keep the quarterback clean, we’re going to be pretty good as an offense.”

STEADY BUT ONE SLIP

Redshirt freshman kicker Quinn Nordin was booed by what seemed the entire Beaver Stadium when he lined up for his first extra-point attempt. Nordin, ranked the nation’s No. 1 kicker, had been a Penn State commit before flipping to Michigan.

More: Pay grade -- UM's Harbaugh third in the nation

He missed that extra point, his only miss of the season. He is 18-of-19 on extra-point attempts and is 14-of-16 on field goals and has made 10 straight — although he did not have an attempt against Penn State.

“That’s unacceptable,” said Chris Partridge, who coaches special teams and linebackers. “That can’t happen. He knows that. He let his emotions get carried away and kinda kicked the ground a little bit and pushed it. That’s gotta be fixed immediately from a mental standpoint. Can’t have that ever happen again.”

MAKING A MOVE

Freshman Brad Hawkins has moved from receiver to safety and now to viper, and that’s just fine by him.

Partridge has seen Hawkins take quickly to his new role.

“Brad’s a great kid. I’ve known him a long time now,” Partridge said. “Always in my mind saw him as a really good capable safety even when he was back as a sophomore in high school So kind of kept it in his mind even though through the recruiting, it was kind of a dual deal where, ‘Hey, they want you at receiver but don’t forget about defense. You’re a heck of a player.’

“His path took him just playing offense his last two years of school, but he always had that defensive mentality, big, physical receiver. When coach approached him, he was all for it. He came in as a safety and we just saw a bigger, physical kid that’s not afraid of contact and mix it up. We asked him if he wanted to start learning the viper as well as safety, and he was all for it. His eyes lit up and he was excited about it. He’s taken to it, and I can honestly say he’s getting better every single day. He’s a pretty darn good cover guy, but in-the-box stuff is where he has to get his feel and he’s getting better every day there.”

RUTGERS AT MICHIGAN

Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor

TV/radio: BTN/950

Records: Rutgers 3-4, 2-2 Big Ten; Michigan 5-2, 2-2

Line: Michigan by 23

achengelis@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/chengelis

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