Michigan running back Tru Wilson describes playing with a broken right hand. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — Just when it looked like Michigan freshman running back Zach Charbonnet would be relied on as the lead back, his workload was scaled back considerably two weeks after carrying the ball 33 times.
Now, part of that was because Michigan was playing catch-up from a deep hole at Wisconsin, but Jim Harbaugh made clear after that loss that the freshman back was being “limited.”
In the opener, Charbonnet had eight carries for 90 yards and had a catch, and then against Army in the second game, he rushed 33 times for 100 yards. Two weeks later — Michigan was off the week before Wisconsin — Charbonnet had two carries for six yards as the Wolverines gained only 40 rushing yards in the 35-14 loss to the Badgers. But last week against Rutgers, six backs had carries in the 52-0 rout. Charbonnet had five for 22 yards.
The way Harbaugh explained it Monday at his weekly news conference, the objective is to reduce Charbonnet’s workload and it seems the running-back-by-committee approach is the way the Wolverines will work going forward.
“We’re kind of limiting his carries,” Harbaugh said. “How many carries, not really, but how many plays he’s actually in there because you don’t know if it’s a run or a throw depending on the play. I like the fact you can split it up 20, 20, 20, maybe a fourth guy (gets carries). Zach played really well, Christian Turner played well, Hassan Haskins has really played well. Excited about the way he played. The other backs as well played really good, too (against Rutgers).”
But Charbonnet leads the team in rushing with 218 yards on 48 carries and has three touchdowns, and he has averaged 4.5 yards a carry, while Turner, who led the team with 48 yards on 11 carries against Rutgers, is averaging 4.3 a carry.
So why has Charbonnet been limited?
“He looks good moving, looks good running,” Harbaugh said. “He look good to you?”
Well, yeah, when he’s played.
The theory behind the by-committee approach is a sound one, considering the schedule is only going to get tougher.
Michigan faces Iowa and its stingy defense on Saturday at Michigan Stadium. The Hawkeyes are ranked fifth nationally in total defense (251 yards) and 10th against the run, holding teams to an average 77 yards per game. The Wolverines need Charbonnet, an early enrollee freshman who had previously scheduled knee surgery earlier this year and missed spring practice, to be rested.
Meanwhile, Iowa also has a running back by committee with three backs average more than 50 yards a game — Mekhi Sargent (74.8), Toren Young (62.8) and Tyler Goodson (50.5).
Harbaugh revisited comments he made shortly after the Army game when he said Charbonnet had too much work. But that was the first game Tru Wilson, perhaps the Wolverines’ best back in pass protection, had to sit out because of a broken right hand. Wilson returned for the Rutgers game.
Turner wasn’t holding up in pass protection in the Army game, and Ben VanSumeren fumbled, so Charbonnet was not only the most productive of the backs, but also the most trustworthy in a game the Wolverines kept close because of turnovers.
“I thought the 33 carries was too many,” Harbaugh said, explaining the reason Charbonnet’s carries have been scaled back since the Army game. “Wanted to limit that from one back carrying the ball 33 carries.”
Last week, offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said they’re “managing” Charbonnet like any other player and said many of them have bumps and bruises.
“It’s nothing severe or nothing that can become dangerous to their health,” he said, “just thinks we have to manage to make sure we get guys to Saturday, but they also have the right amount of reps throughout the week to be able to play Saturday at a high level.”
This doesn’t mean Charbonnet won’t have games in which demands will be more substantive, but that’s not what the coaching staff will set out to game plan.
“In totality that’s not something we want to strive for with our running backs,” Harbaugh said of a heavy workload. “Occasionally that may occur. That’s something you don’t want to consistently do with running backs.”