Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis anticipates a position of inexperience a year ago will be a position of valuable experience, with a couple of wild cards — one veteran, one rookie.
When Gattis began his first season as the Wolverines’ offensive coordinator last season, he didn’t have an established running back with starting experience. Chris Evans, the heir apparent to Karan Higdon, a 1,000-yard rusher in 2018, was suspended for a year by the university, and it’s not that the others lacked talent, but there was an absence of experience.
Freshman Zach Charbonnet and redshirt freshman Hassan Haskins, who had arrived at Michigan as a running back but was switched to linebacker and then back to running back, emerged as the go-to backs, with Christian Turner and Tru Wilson also part of the mix. Wilson, a hard-nosed runner and tough in pass protection, has moved on, a graduate transfer to Northern Colorado.
Charbonnet, Haskins, Turner return, as does Evans, and then there’s speedy freshman Blake Corum. College sports are on hiatus with the COVID-19 pandemic, and Michigan did not get a chance to hold spring practice, but Gattis, who met with reporters Thursday on a Zoom calls, feels good about this group.
“Obviously, when you look at the room that we had there last year, we had a ton of inexperience,” Gattis said. “We had guys that didn’t have the opportunity to be a part of spring football practice. You look at Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins, both of those guys were out of all spring last year. They missed a huge chunk of physical development from January on to August. Even Hassan started the season banged up and then Zach went through some injuries, and then now you’re able to add Chris Evans into the mix.
"You get Christian Turner back healthy. Blake Corum is really, really exciting, brings a level of explosiveness at the running back position."
Gattis sees plenty of growth coming for the group, which made strides last season.
“I just think the amount of growth that you’re able to go from Year 1 to Year 2 is going to be exciting for those guys. Very rarely do you walk into a situation and have all completely new players at one position. The job that those guys did by the end of the year was really impressive, and I think Coach Jay (Harbaugh) did a really good job bringing those guys along and developing them, but it’s very hard to take on a position group and have no one returning having returning starting experience.
"You don’t go from having a senior running back (Higdon) who’s a really good player and rushed for 1,000 yards to someone who has never taken snaps in games. That was a challenge. We had some hiccups early on with some ball security type things, protection deals, but to see where our guys were by the end of the year, I’m excited about the growth in that room and the leadership and just being able to carry over the game experience. That’s going to allow those guys to elevate their game even more.”
Charbonnet, an early enrollee last year who had a knee procedure and missed spring practice, finished last season with 726 yards on 149 carries and had 11 touchdowns. Haskins had 622 yards rushing on 121 carries and four touchdowns, while Turner finished with 171 yards on 44 carries and had a touchdown.
Evans, 5-foot-11, 216 pounds, rushed for 423 yards and four touchdowns in 2018, but had 685 yards in 2017 and 614 in 2016. He has always been utilized as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, a skill he relishes. In three seasons he had 40 catches for 392 yards and two touchdowns.
"He's got a unique skill set because of his versatility," Gattis said, "not just as a runner, but his ball skills, which are pretty, pretty elite for a guy at his position. It’s our job to maximize as much out of the players that we can. And you know, I think his role is one that that provides versatility, a number of different ways and opportunities that you can get him out in space and get the ball in his hands.
"That's where it's gonna be exciting, is all the different ways that we can use them. And it fits right into what we do. We did a lot of similar things like that last year with (freshman receiver) Giles Jackson, all the different alignments that he aligned on the field and when you've got a guy now like Chris Evans, who has the ability to take those as actual handoffs and not just be in the backfield catching routes coming out of the backfield. Now you've got a guy that can do both.”
Evans worked several jobs during his suspension and worked out diligently to try to stay in shape. He was able to practice with the Wolverines last December before they left for the Citrus Bowl, but not having spring practice makes it tougher for him, especially because he didn't work in Gattis' offense last season.
“I was able to see a little bit of his skill-set (during bowl practices), but now we got to catch him back up in football,” Gattis said. “When you spend a year away from football, that's a long time. Conditioning, the physicality of it, that's what he's missing right now. He's missing the training but once we get them back and once we get all the kids back (strength) coach Herb (Ben Herbert) will do a good job preparing guys for Saturdays.”
Corum, rushed for 1,266 yards and 19 touchdowns as a high school senior and also had eight receptions for 152 yards and three touchdowns. During his junior season, he rushed for 1,415 yards and also had 280 yards receiving.
“Blake brings that same skill-set and then adding those guys to the mix of what we already have I just think when you look at the depth right there at that running back position, there’s some good choices,” Gattis said.
Utilizing the backs in the passing game is a big part of what Gattis likes to run in his pro-spread offense.
“You constantly saw the number of receivers that we had lined up in the backfield whether its Giles, whether it's Mikey (Sainristil), Ronnie Bell lined up in the backfield last year, all those positions are labeled as the ‘R’, so we just use our best personnel that was suited in those situations.
“But when you do have a guy like Chris Evans that can do that, then it also helps you because now you're not having to use a specific player to line them up in the backfield and throw to the running back — you're actually using a running back. Last year we leaned on the strengths of the guys that we had on our roster. I think that's what Chris Evans is going to be able to bring to the table to give us a strength there that we're going to be able to use because that is a big piece of the offense. Every place I've been, the running backs have all been successful, not only as runners but also catching the football.”
Gattis went from having little experience at running back last year to several pieces, and making everyone happy isn’t going to be easy, either. Certainly, it’s the type of situation he’d rather have.
“There's a level of having depth that you love, but then there's a level of having depth that creates problems,” Gattis said. “And the problem there is the balance of finding how to fit all the different pieces together. We've got a lot of good pieces, but it's going to be our job, and it's gonna be a challenge, to make all the pieces work together. Other ways we can complement that is with some two-back stuff, whether it's split backs, and trying to use your personnel as much as you can. But everything comes with a cost and reward. You got to decide the personnel, who you want one play in, where you want to pull off the field, where you want to put on the field.”
Corum is 5-8, 193 pounds and an intriguing prospect. He was timed in the spring at Michigan, Gattis said, in a “high 4.4 range.”
“Blake Corum is as fast as advertised,” Gattis said, with a laugh. “Just an exciting kid. Just a tough, physical kid. Excited about his maturity (and) leadership he already brings. He brings a toughness mentality. He's got great skills. He’s a physical runner. People look at him as an undersized guy because of his height, but the heart strength and the speed that he brings, he packs a punch, so we're really excited about him from that standpoint.”