Shoved to the back-burner in all the discussion about Michigan’s new offense — a no-huddle, hurry-up installed by new coordinator Josh Gattis — is the lack of experience at running back.
While the focus has been on the quarterbacks and receivers — they made for an explosive combination at Alabama last season where Gattis was co-offensive coordinator — running backs coach Jay Harbaugh assured during the spring that the running backs will play a vital role in how this offense operates.
“We’re still a run-first team and the runs that we’re running aren’t that much different,” Harbaugh said in April.
Michigan is without considerable experience at the position, however. Karan Higdon, who rushed for 1,178 yards and 10 touchdowns in 11 games last season, is gone, and Chris Evans, who had 423 yards and four touchdowns in 10 games, was suspended for a year by the university.
Tru Wilson, formerly a walk-on, is the most experienced returning back entering preseason camp, which opens Friday. Wilson rushed for 364 yards on 62 carries last year and had one score. Christian Turner was being talked up late last season and during bowl week but was slowed this spring by a few injuries. He had 95 yards on 20 carries last season.
And then there’s freshman Zach Charbonnet, who missed spring practice while recovering from knee surgery Michigan knew he required when he was signed. The 6-foot-1, 222-pound Charbonnet rushed for 4,741 yards and 62 touchdowns during his high school career in California. He has received high praise from coaches and teammates for the work he’s done in the weight room since he arrived as an early enrollee.
“I really like the running back, Zach,” viper Khaleke Hudson said recently at Big Ten media days when asked about freshmen who have impressed him. “He’s looking real good in the weight room. You could just tell when a guy wants it, when a guy is serious about his business. He’s one of them guys.”
Senior left guard Ben Bredeson also has been impressed by Charbonnet.
“He had the injury throughout spring ball (and) now he’s come back, he’s been working really hard, really busting his butt to get back,” Bredeson said. “He’s been doing really well, doing a lot of great things. I’ve seen him make a lot of big strides. He looks great. Haven’t seen him play yet, obviously, but looking forward to that in August.”
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was upbeat during media days when offering his assessment of the team's running backs. He described Wilson’s play during the spring and the work he’s done in the summer as “rock solid," said Turner was having a good summer of work and, like Hudson, is impressed by Charbonnet’s presence in the weight room. Charbonnet has been grouped with fullback-turned-defensive tackle Ben Mason in terms of how much they both enjoy weight room work.
“Strength coaches are saying that he's a stalker,” Harbaugh said. “He's stalks them. He's in the weight room all the time living (there). They're both (Mason and Charbonnet) right up there at the top of that list.”
Harbaugh insists there’s talent at running back. Turner, he hopes, can stay healthy.
“He’s had bad luck,” Harbaugh said. “He’s had some real bad luck with a broken bone in his hand and then an ankle injury and then a hamstring in the spring. But at each juncture it's always been about Christian is about to go, he's looked great in practice, here we go. And then it’s been bad luck or bad timing.”
Ben VanSumeren moved from defense to running back to shore up the position, and Hassan Haskins, who missed the spring because of a meniscus tear, also is at running back after working at viper on defense. Harbaugh said if injuries become a problem, Hudson and linebacker Jordan Anthony were high school running backs and could step into that role.
An advantage for the run game is the return of four starters on the offensive line. Bredeson said the line will pick up any slack and mask the growing pains among the backs.
“We know that we don’t have the most experienced running backs in the country, but if we do enough, it really should be fine,” Bredeson said. “We want to make it simple enough, anybody can run through the hole.
"If you have such an experienced offensive line that can move people around, that can make enough holes, it should be able to compensate for not having the most experienced running backs. It’s going to happen over time. You can only get experience by doing things. The more reps we can get those guys and with us and see the holes and see how they’re going to develop, it’s only going to be better for everybody.”