Michigan’s running backs want more.
They want bigger plays, bigger runs and, consequently, to become bigger difference makers in games.
It was a position of very little experience last season. Zach Charbonnet was an early-enrollee freshman who underwent a knee procedure that kept him out of spring practice. Hassan Haskins had flip-flopped from running back to linebacker to running back. Christian Turner and Tru Wilson returned with some game experience, and Chris Evans, expected to be the heir apparent to Karan Higdon, sat out a year suspended by the university.
With Charbonnet and Haskins getting the bulk of work last season, Michigan finished 77th nationally in rushing, averaging 150.7 yards a game. Charbonnet led the team with 726 yards on 149 carries and his 11 touchdowns set a freshman rushing record. Haskins was second with 626 yards on 121 carries and had four touchdowns.
In 2020, Evans returns for his final season, Turner also is back and speedy freshman Blake Corum joins the group. Wilson is playing his graduate year at Northern Colorado.
Michigan running backs coach Jay Harbaugh told reporters Friday that Haskins and Charbonnet have a long list of objectives toward improvement. Much of that would have been addressed during spring practice, but that was eliminated when on-campus activities were suspended in mid-March.
“I want to continue to have (Haskins) expand what he can do without the ball in his hand, become even more proficient,” Harbaugh said. “He was a pretty good pass protector, but there's things that he will be able to bring us as a blocker on the sweep game, on the perimeter, and possibly as a lead blocker in terms of some of the two-back stuff. Kind of acting like doing some of the jobs that a fullback would sometimes do. He's capable of all that.
“So I think he's going to be able to take another step and go from just being decent at that to being really dominant. The other thing with him is continuing to open up his hips, improve his stride length and turn some of those 7-15-yard runs into really big ones. I think that everybody respects the way that he plays and loved watching him run last year. Hassan will be the first one to tell you he wants to turn some of those into even bigger runs. So finding ways to make that hat miss and turn some of those medium runs into huge runs is going to be a big difference for him. For Zach, it's really not super different.”
Bottom line, Harbaugh is looking for the backs to deliver more game-changing runs. Charbonnet had a long run of 41 yards in the season opener against Middle Tennessee State and had runs of 35 and 22 against Notre Dame and Indiana, respectively. Haskins had a long of 49 yards against the Irish, and his next biggest runs were 29 against Indiana and 33 against Ohio State.
“We need to turn some of these medium, pretty good runs into explosive home runs that send the Big House into an eruption,” Harbaugh said. “Both of those guys have kind of the same focus and I really believe that with the experience, the confidence, continuing to understand the system, where the unblocked defenders are, they're both going to make a lot of improvements in that area.”
The run game also needs to be more consistent. Michigan had three games of 225 yards rushing or more – 222 against MTSU, 295 at Illinois and 303 against Notre Dame. The Wolverines finished the regular season with three consecutive games under 100 yards rushing as the passing yards swelled to 300 yards or more. Michigan ran for 83 against Michigan State, 87 at Indiana and 91 against Ohio State, while the offense averaged 351.6 yards passing.
Michigan rushed for 162 yards in the bowl game against Alabama, including Charbonnet’s 84.
Turner was thought to be in contention for considerable playing time entering last season. He was hampered by injuries and missed the Citrus Bowl. He is healthy now and ready to play.
“Just love him, love everything he's about,” Harbaugh said. “He's worked his butt off to get back and be healthy. It's a bummer he wasn't able to get the rust off in spring, but he's doing a great job of getting ready. Going into the season, just excited for him to be able to get on the field and do what he loves to do … impacting special teams, and then as a running back continuing to improve his feel, his patience, his footwork."
Evans has been away from the game for a year although he stayed in Ann Arbor working several jobs and worked out on his own. He has three years of playing experience but wasn’t there last fall when first-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis installed his offense.
He has utilized the time these last few months studying the playbook and asking questions to get up to speed.
“He's doing an awesome job getting himself familiarized with everything, learning the new system,” Harbaugh said. “Chris is really into the details of the game. He's into learning the bigger picture: What are the linemen doing? What's the defense trying to do? What do we call this? He's always asking me extra questions. I think his personality and his passion for learning has really suited him well during this time."
Then there’s the freshman, Blake Corum. Gattis said recently that Corum ran a 40-yard dash in the “high 4.4 range” during testing earlier this year, and his high school coach Biff Poggi of St. Frances Academy, told The Detroit News recently that Corum is fast, durable, a weight room devotee, and shifty.
“He’s legitimate speed,” Poggi said. “He can really run. He has very good top-end speed. He’s incredibly explosive. He’s very easy to block for. If you’re an offensive lineman, you don’t have to finish a lot of blocks with him because he’s going to turn shadow blocks into big gains.”
Harbaugh said Corum throws himself completely at whatever he’s doing.
“He just goes hard at every single thing he's presented with,” Harbaugh said. “I think that he got a 4.0 or close to it his first semester. He's on time for everything virtually, he turns everything in, he takes tremendous notes, he asks questions. He's just a junkie for football. He's all in, or not into it. So I think that will serve him really good in terms of getting through this without it being a setback for him.”
A year ago, Michigan was faced with a running back room low on experience. This year, Harbaugh has room full of backs, and they’ll all have a role.
“When it comes down to it, you need a few guys to be ready to play,” Harbaugh said. “Crazy things happen over the year, so you need a deep room. And one of the things we love about Coach Gattis is that he loves to play multiple backs, and two-back sets. He's done that in the past at other places. We did it a little bit last year. I think that we probably would have done a little bit more if we had just better luck with injuries. I think that's another thing that leaves the door open for more opportunity and is something our guys are excited about.”