Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and Matt Charboneau preview the opening games of the college football season: Michigan vs. Middle Tennessee and Michigan State vs. Tulsa. The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — Michigan running backs Jay Harbaugh knew what reporters wanted him to say, but he wasn’t about to budge from the company line.
Not yet, at least.
There are five running backs the Wolverines are counting on as the season opener against Middle Tennessee State approaches, and new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis has been talking them up, as has coach Jim Harbaugh, and now, Jay Harbaugh.
Tru Wilson, the only back with more than a few handoffs of experience, entered camp as the No. 1 back. Christian Turner, who created some buzz late last season but was hampered by injuries in the spring, also returns, and Hassan Haskins and Ben VanSumeren were moved over from the defense. And then there’s freshman Zach Charbonnet, 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, and fully recovered from the minor knee procedure he underwent earlier this year that held him out of spring practice.
Jim Harbaugh earlier in camp said Charbonnet was coming on “like a freight train” and the consistent report from teammates and coaches is that even while he was out with the injury, Charbonnet made the weight room his second home and kept himself completely immersed in the playbook as the offense learned Gattis’ new scheme.
“He’s done really good. He’s practicing really well,” Jay Harbaugh said of Charbonnet on Wednesday. “All those guys are playing at a high level. We’ll see as the season goes on if anyone really separates themselves in the way you’re looking for me to say.”
But if there’s one back who’s been discussed more than any during preseason camp, it’s been Charbonnet, the southern Californian and Los Angeles Times running back of the year last year. Media and fans have been curious about his potential, and he continues to receive high marks from anybody involved with the team.
“Zach looks fantastic out there,” fullback-turned-defensive tackle Ben Mason said recently. “I can’t speak to where he is on the depth chart, because I’m not the coach, but he looks really good running the ball.”
He paused and then added a bit more about the freshman.
“Catching the ball, too,” Mason said. “Real natural hands.”
Jay Harbaugh was asked about Harbaugh’s description of Charbonnet as a freight train and explained that applies to all facets of the freshman’s game.
Michigan running backs coach Jay Harbaugh discusses his position group. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
“He is just really relentlessly consistent with his approach, every single day,” Harbaugh said. “He’s really eager to do well, he’s coachable. He likes to practice. He wants reps, he wants to play special teams. Very rarely does he make a mistake and not correct it. It’s very rare for him to repeat mistakes. So when you do that and you get between 220 to 275 team reps in a camp, you’re going to get pretty good if every time you screw something up it gets improved. That’s really been his hallmark so far.”
Charbonnet has stood out from other true freshmen Harbaugh has coached.
“He’s very special in a lot of ways, not just running back ability but in terms of the intangibles and everything,” Harbaugh said. “He’s more mature than most incoming freshmen at any position.”
That was noticeable to the coaches as soon as Charbonnet arrived. It was no secret when he was recruited that he would need the surgical procedure and would miss spring practice. But it was how he conducted himself that impressed.
“When you look at his work ethic, he’s always in the weight room, always in the coaches’ offices,” Gattis said during camp. “He’s a very smart, cerebral player.”
Harbaugh said Charbonnet has remained focused since the moment he arrived and especially while he was recovering.
“A guy like that, it’s not that difficult because of the fact when he was out, he was really mentally engaged, more so than most guys are,” Harbaugh said. “He took great notes, he asked a ton of questions. Even from April, May, he hadn’t been in the system very long, and neither had anybody else, he was at about the same level knowledge-wise as everybody, which speaks a lot to how much he loves the game and how engaged he was able to stay even though he wasn’t physically out there on the field.
“The great thing about Zach, you don’t ever need to ask him to do anything. He’s always eager to do more and ask questions.”
That meant even texting his position coach at 1 a.m. to ask about a practice situation he wasn’t involved in. That diligence paid off once Charbonnet was able to get on the field.
“He’s been looking really good,” linebacker Josh Ross said this week. “He’s definitely been excelling, playing really well, fast. Learning his plays. Impacting that offense a little bit. He’s going to be a heck of a player.”
Harbaugh said in the spring that despite the move to Gattis’ no-huddle pro-spread, the run game would still set the tone. He said Wednesday the nature of the offense will give the backs more space to work with because there will be fewer defenders in the box.
He was coy and would not reveal the starter in the season opener, instead saying they’ve all improved and helped each other.
“The guys we have haven’t played a ton,” Harbaugh said. “Tru’s played a lot, but in the grand scheme of things, really not that much. The interesting thing is they’re inexperienced, but they’re super, super mature. And if you watch those guys, the way they go through a meeting and the way they go through a walk-through in practice, it’s really impressive. There’s very little nonsense, they really support each other, they root for each other, they help each other and then they compete like crazy to outdo each other."