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'Really, really tough to tackle': Michigan excited about talent in the backfield

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Great running backs have the ability to consistently read holes, shed tacklers and turn short gains into big, game-changing runs.

That’s what Michigan has lacked and what running-backs coach Jay Harbaugh said his group has worked on this offseason. Two of those backs, he said, veteran Chris Evans and newcomer Blake Corum, share that knack for the explosive play Michigan hopes is a regular occurrence this season, which opens Oct. 24 at Minnesota.

Chris Evans

Michigan went from a room of little experience last season to one with considerable options. Zach Charbonnet led the team with 726 yards on 149 carries and had a program freshman-record 11 touchdowns. Hassan Haskins had 622 yards on 121 carries on four touchdowns. Christian Turner originally opted out of the season when the Big Ten initially announced a postponement but is back and playing a bit of catch-up. Evans returns after missing last season while suspended one year by the university and has a multi-faceted game that also features his ability to catch out of the backfield. In three seasons, Evans rushed for 1,722 yards and 304 carries and scored 14 touchdowns. He also caught 40 passes for 392 yards and two touchdowns. And then there’s the 5-foot-8, 193 Corum, who quickly established himself because of his speed. Harbaugh said Corum will get carries this fall and will be featured on special teams, as well.

“The whole group has improved in terms of what we’re seeing on film of them being able to turn some of those medium runs that we all like into the explosives that we love,” Harbaugh said Wednesday in a video conference with reporters. “Naturally, based on who they are, Chris and Blake, they’re really geared to that because if they get a little bit of room, they’re really, really tough to tackle.

“I’ve seen Zach take a step forward in that regard. He’s even faster than he was before. He’s running great, he’s feeling great. I would expect him to take another step forward and Hassan, who is our toughest, hardest runner, most physical, unbelievably strong, he’s even improved and gotten more consistent with being able to put the ball where it’s supposed to be, and even when he gets contact made at him seven, eight yards down the field, a lot of times he’s able to get four or five more yards after that just because it’s so difficult to bring him down. I’ve seen improvements from every guy in that aspect, but Blake and Chris, in terms of their DNA, it comes most natural to them.”

With Charbonnet and Haskins getting the bulk of work last season, Michigan finished 77th nationally in rushing, averaging 150.7 yards a game.

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The lack of explosive runs was noticeable. 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 two biggest runs were 29 against Indiana and 33 against Ohio State. Evans during his career has had long runs of 57 yards in 2016, 67 in 2017 and 61 in 2018.

“We have really good backs, good ball-carriers that pretty consistently put the ball where it’s supposed to go,” Harbaugh said. “The way most defenses work, they’re going to send the ball to the free hitter, whoever that may be, a corner, a safety, whoever is designed to be the guy that’s going to tackle the ball. For us to take the step we need to as backs, we gotta be able to take care of that guy and be able to turn some of those 4-, 5-, 6-yard runs into 15-, 20-, 30-yard run runs.

“I love what we’ve seen so far in terms of working at that against our defense. You can do it against them and create explosive runs in live periods against our defense (so) it’s probably going to translate to the games, because those guys are pretty dang good.”

Harbaugh said there are plenty of ways to work on developing that big-play ability, and it starts with knowing what the defense is doing. The back has to sense and know the defense is drawing him to the free defender working to make the stop, so he can avoid that play disruption.

“Having that awareness is the first thing so the back can anticipate the situations he’s going to end up being in,” Harbaugh said “In practice you replicate those, whether it’s in (individual drills) or a game period. You’ve got to be able to take those situations and make them full speed, make them game-like where you have an overhang safety or a corner, the ball’s being spilled to him, everyone’s in their gaps sending that ball exactly where they want it to go, now do you have a move ready for that guy or not. You can do that in indi, you can do that in a team period, but practicing like a game is such a big thing for that.”

The backs can also work on balance, change of direction and speed to enable those moves to avoid getting brought down.

This is where the 5-11, 216-pound Evans could be the difference-maker. Not only can he run for big yardage, but he adds his pass-catching dimension.

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“Chris is just different than a standard back,” Harbaugh said. “A guy like Chris, who can beat the majority of linebackers or safeties he runs a route on and then who can make the play and catch the ball, that adds a little bit different element to where you can start including the running back in a progression for the quarterback of having that ball go to him first or second and be excited about it.

“That part is different and really being able to run different types of runs. He’s so comfortable in space that the different perimeter-type of stuff, he’s not the fastest guy ever, but he plays fast and he’s elusive in space. Being able to have a guy who excels outside the tackles helps balance out Zach and Hassan, who are good out there, but they’re special inside the box.”

Charbonnet is expected to be even more productive this season because he’s fully healthy. After arriving as an early enrollee in January 2019, he underwent a knee procedure.

“He’s running better, he’s running stronger, he’s seeing things better, his feet are better,” Harbaugh said. “Collectively, just a better player which is obviously a product of being able to practice and have more reps, but also he’s feeling good. He feels healthier. He feels right. He wasn’t full speed for a good amount of last year. He wasn’t inured but he didn’t feel the way he knew was possible. Excited to be able to see him be able to run the way he wants to run.”

Twitter: @chengelis