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'Better, stronger': Healthy Zach Charbonnet aims to lead Michigan's promising running backs

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Zach Charbonnet enters his sophomore season knowing he is far from a finished product as a running back, but he is the Wolverines’ leading returning rusher and finally fully healthy.

As the Wolverines prepare to open this shortened Big Ten season at Minnesota on Saturday, running back is a position of strength, a big swing from last season when game experience was not the calling card of the group. Charbonnet, who last year set a school freshman record with 11 touchdowns, leads a room that includes Hassan Haskins, Christian Turner, freshman Blake Corum and veteran Chris Evans, who missed last season while he paid dues during a one-year suspension from the university.

Charbonnet, who arrived on campus last January and underwent a knee procedure for a pre-existing issue, rushed for 726 yards on 149 carries, has been all about taking that next leap in his career path this fall.

Zach Charbonnet

“From last season there was room for a lot of improvement,” Charbonnet said in a videoconference with reporters on Tuesday. “One of my things I keep working on is just trusting my reads, my holes and stuff like that, and just pass-pro, keeping my eyes disciplined, and seeing where the blitzes are coming from. And also making that second-level defender miss.”

That last part is a big deal among the running backs and harped on this offseason by offensive coordinator Josh Gattis and running backs coach Jay Harbaugh. Gattis and Harbaugh want to see explosive, home-run plays from the backs and the way to do that is perfecting second-level moves and breaking tackles in open space.

With Charbonnet fully healthy, showcasing those skills will be the objective.

“He’s running better, he’s running stronger, he’s seeing things better, his feet are better,” Jay Harbaugh said recently. “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 injured, 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.”

More: Nico Collins on why he left Michigan: 'I felt like I was in no-man's land'

Charbonnet can run the way he wants to run now because his knee feels strong. A byproduct he said of feeling fully healthy is a longer stride. He used this lengthy offseason to work on his body, his speed and strength – he is notorious as a gym rat.

“It’s just given me a little bit of an advantage to overall make me a better football player by having this offseason healthy,” he said.

Gattis said Charbonnet has been practicing at a high level.

“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 on focusing on his body,” Gattis said. “First and foremost, the dude is chiseled as can be. He takes such great care of his body and it’s really impressive. He’s always in the weight room. Kinda reminds me of myself, which is a joke.

“He’s so mature about his approach and his preparation to get this 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. He looks like a totally different player and everyone is going to see an even better player than what you saw last year.”

Charbonnet also has a better grasp and knowledge of the run schemes now entering Year 2 of Gattis’ system. It’s a crowded running back room playing in a shortened season. Gattis knows it’s hard to share the football among the backs, receivers and tight ends, but Charbonnet said he and the backs just want to win.

“Whatever role the coaches bring, I’m going to do the best I can at my job and execute," Charbonnet said. "Obviously, every other running back feels the same way, too. Whoever’s in, we’re just going to cheer on and execute whenever our number’s called.”