'Chiseled' Zach Charbonnet leads promising Michigan running back group
Last season, Michigan’s first-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis not only installed a new offense, but he had to break in a group of mostly inexperienced running backs led by a freshman who earlier in the year underwent a knee procedure.
Chris Evans would have been the veteran in the room but a year-long suspension from the university held him out, leaving freshman Zach Charbonnet, converted linebacker Hassan Haskins, Christian Turner and tough-running Tru Wilson, the only back with more than a small dose of playing time, to handle the job.
Now, as the Wolverines prepare for the Big Ten eight-game season with the plus-one seeded cross-over game, Wilson has transferred, Turner has opted out, but Charbonnet, Haskins and Evans are back joined by speedy freshman Blake Corum.
“We should have the best running back room in the country for sure, no doubt,” Michigan linebacker Josh Ross said last week.
Gattis is running the offense for a second straight year and this time he has to deal with an offensive line with four new starters and a first-year starting quarterback expected to be Joe Milton.
He likes what he’s seeing in the backfield, especially from Charbonnet, who last season gained 726 yards on 149 carries and his 11 touchdowns, a Michigan freshman running back record. The 6-foot-1, 220-pound Charbonnet had the knee procedure after enrolling early last January to fix a pre-existing issue. He struggled at times during the season with injuries.
Among the goals for the offense this season, Gattis said, is an increase in “home-run” type plays from the running backs. The bar has been set high for this group.
“Zach is playing at such a high level,” Gattis said Wednesday during a Zoom call with reporters. “It’s great to see Zach out there being who he is. Everyone knows Zach’s tough. He battled through some injuries in high school, he came in a little banged up, needed to get cleaned up, then he battled through a number of different injuries last year.
“To see a guy that was a true freshman battle through adversity and injuries and still play the full season says a lot, but then he’s been able to spend this offseason focusing on his body. First and foremost, the dude his chiseled as can be. He takes such great (care) of his body and it’s really impressive. He’s always in the weight room. He’s so mature about his approach and his preparation to get his body feeling the best he can be and playing at the highest level, and now that he’s feeling great, now he reminds you of the player that he was in high school and such a great player.
“Just even going into Year 2 having a better feel for the run schemes, having a better feel for everything, he’s been impressive out there. He looks like a totally different player and everyone is going to see an even better player than what you saw last year.”
Ross said there are several “weapons” in the Michigan backfield and singled out Charbonnet’s work ethic and Haskins’ versatility, and as far as Evans, he said the entire team has deep respect for his climb back to the team.
“One thing about Zach, every day, every single day he’s going to work his butt off, every single day he’s going to bring it, and it shows on the field,” Ross said. “That’s one of the most hardest-working dudes I’ve been around. Him having a mediocre year, it’s not even a question it will happen. Hassan, great player, my boy as well, just his athleticism, versatility he brings to the game.”
Haskins had 622 yards on 121 carries and four touchdowns after a slow start to the season because of injuries. By the fifth game of the season, he was able to start playing more freely.
“You saw a room that was completely new last year have to learn a new offense, have to get first-time playing time but also everyone in that room had to face adversity,” Gattis said. “(Running backs) Coach Jay (Harbaugh) did a tremendous job bringing those guys along. We weren’t quite pleased with where they were to start the season, but when you look at that room at where we finished the season, I felt great about our running back room.
“And they’ve been able to pick up from where they left off and really take care of their bodies individually and so we’re very, very pleased with having the room that we have had that running back position.”
And then there’s Evans, who has experience and from all accounts has adjusted quickly to Gattis’ offense despite being away from the game for more than a year. He brings maturity to the position and also is a threat as a receiver out of the backfield. Evans’ story has been told many times, but after his suspension, he stayed in Ann Arbor, juggled three jobs and worked out on his own.
“Chris has been everything as advertised from a skill-set standpoint,” Gattis said. “Obviously, he’s a very, very smart football player and just a quiet leader. Very professional. There’s times out there where he surprises me, and then times I have to remind myself that this guy has played football for five years. Whether its a blitz pickup or whether it’s some nuances with a route, creating separation, he’s played a lot of football.
“He’s what you expect a senior running back to look like, act like, and approach each and every day. He’s done an amazing job learning the offense, because he had to start from scratch. He wasn’t around at any point last year, we had very little conversation with him last year, but we didn’t know necessarily if he was going to come back.
“He made it through adversity and I think that’s a credit to him and his character that for a lot of guys his age, they go through the blame game where they are blaming everyone else except for themselves, and for Chris, he accepted his punishment, he accepted responsibility, and really responded in such a positive way. I’ve been really, really pleased and really excited about his future moving forward as a football player.”
Corum is 5-8, 193 and has been described as similar in stature and style to Mike Hart, Michigan’s all-time leading rusher. Where he’s different than Hart is speed – he’s extremely quick.
“Blake’s a worker,” Gattis said. “I looked on his social media page the other night and he’s 9:30 at night on the track running. Those are the kinds of players we’re talking about, guys that are committed to developing themselves to be the best possible player they can be. Blake brings an explosive element to our offense at the running back position. He is fast. Obviously, that is one of the greatest skill sets people see early on. But he is so balanced. He’s another guy that can run routes like Chris Evans. He’s got great ball skills, he’s pretty stout.
”Really excited about that running back room and the depth that we have, so we have to figure out how to put all the pieces together. Obviously there are a ton of pieces. Sometimes with all the personnel packages that you have, that can create a problem. But that’s our job to put the pieces together and get them all involved.”