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'We’re gonna need everybody': Loaded Michigan backfield set for 'plug and play' attack

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — While Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum handled the bulk of the running back responsibilities last season for Michigan, along with freshman Donovan Edwards becoming a factor deeper in the schedule, Tavierre Dunlap and Leon Franklin were always among the happiest for their successes.

Dunlap and Franklin are backup running backs working just as hard in the offseason and practices. They both had solid spring camps, but they are more than aware Corum and Edwards are Michigan’s top backs. And they’re just fine with that.

Michigan running back Blake Corum works in the first quarter of the Michigan Spring Game

“Everybody knows their role on the team,” Dunlap said recently. “If you’re not starting, you’re gonna know why. (Running backs) Coach (Mike) Hart lets us know, this is why you’re not starting, so you’re gonna know why you’re not playing. You’re gonna know what the person in front of you does better than you do.”

With everything out in the open in the running backs room, there is no chance for miscommunication.

“We’re all brothers,” Dunlap said. “We’re watching each other play, we’re cheering each other on. We’re on the sidelines with chairs in our hands celebrating. There’s no hatred, no jealousy between us. I love all my guys. It’s football, it’s competition, and we all know that.”

Sherrone Moore, Michigan’s co-offensive coordinator, during the spring said he likes the mix of players in the running back room, each with his own style. But clearly, two of them are at the very top.

“Blake and Donovan, they’re as electric of a combo as you can get in college football,” Moore said. “Excited to have those guys back and keep progressing with them. Plug and play different guys — Tavierre Dunlap has done a really good job. So just keep plugging guys in to see where we need to go with the next step.”

Michigan running back Donovan Edwards works behind the offensive line during the first half of the Michigan Spring Game

As they look toward preseason camp and the upcoming season, Dunlap and Franklin said Corum is the one to watch. Corum, who missed nearly three games because of a high ankle sprain late in the season, finished the season second in rushing with 952 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Corum is known for his blazing speed, while Haskins was the tough runner who also gained those extra, yard-after-contact yards. He had had five rushing touchdowns in the win against Ohio State and led the team with 1,327 yards and 20 rushing touchdowns, a program single-season record.

Replacing Haskins won't be easy. And that's probably not the right approach, either. It's all about who can take the run game to the next level this fall, and right now that's falling on Corum and Edwards.

“The next man up is obviously Blake Corum right now,” Franklin said. “Blake went crazy last year. We’ve also got Dono, and we’ve also got me and Tavi getting in the mix, too. It’s a long season, a lot of things happen in the season, we’re gonna need everybody.

“Like Coach Hart said last year, even when Hassan was here, we’re gonna need everybody. God forbid, anybody goes down -- we want everybody be healthy -- but we’re gonna need everybody in the running back room to all go crazy and all have fun supporting each other.”

Corum has always been noted for his affinity for working out and his strong physique. Dunlap and Franklin joked that while they want to build similar strength, it's impossible to match Corum in the weight room.

“I have never seen anybody work as hard as Blake does,” Dunlap said. “He’s the first person I’ve seen who actually lives in the weight room. We have to tell Blake to relax. It’s awesome, it’s inspiring. He really brings us together, makes sure we’re all working out, makes sure we’re all watching film. He’s really the leader. He’s showing us he’s a leader on the team but also in our group.”

Michigan running back Tavierre Dunlap breaks a tackle and heads up field in the second half  of the Michigan Spring Game.

Dunlap and Franklin like the entire running back room, including freshman CJ Stokes who has been going through summer workouts. Linebacker Kalel Mullings worked at running back during the spring, and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has said receiver AJ Henning could also get snaps at running back this fall. It is unclear how or if Mullings and Henning will be used in the run game.

“We’re gonna have the best running back group in the nation again,” Dunlap said, smiling. “It’s gonna be even better this year. We’ve got a good group coming in. We’re gonna need everybody. Blake and Dono know, Coach Hart knows, the next man is gonna be producing just as much.”

And that’s the thing. The next-man-up approach is one taken at every position. But running backs take plenty of hits during games, and while it was clear it was the Haskins-Corum Show with some Edwards sprinkled in last season, all the backs are prepared as if they’re the starters.

That’s why Dunlap and Franklin, who are lower on the depth chart, understand the need to work just as Corum does. Anything can happen, after all.

“You have to think about how the game is evolving,” Dunlap said. “It’s not like 20 years ago where one running back always played. Nowadays, there’s one back, but there’s also one and two backs. A lot of teams have combo backs, a lot of teams have a three-back rotation.

“That’s how it was with Hassan and Blake, a one and two back with different styles. They complemented each other well. Hassan was quick but he was strong. Blake is strong is well, but Blake is the dude who can take it. They were Thunder and Lightning for a reason.”

That was the nickname Haskins and Corum coined last season.

"We’re gonna find out who our thunder and lighting are this year come this fall camp,” Franklin said, smiling.

Michigan running back Leon Franklin works up field in the first half of the Michigan Spring Game.

Dunlap and Franklin had their own nickname during a recent youth football camp held by TUFF, The Uniform Funding Foundation, created by former Michigan linebacker Adam Shibley. The group raises money to distribute uniforms to young athletes in underserved areas and has a series of camps this summer.

Several current Michigan players, including Dunlap and Franklin, volunteered their time to help coach the running backs. Dunlap kept things light for the kids, while Franklin kept them in line.

“You need a good cop, bad cop type thing,” Dunlap said, laughing.

That was how they described themselves while working with the young players.

“You’ve got to have that dynamic,” Franklin said. “When Tavi took that role, I had to be the strict dude. During this time when you’re playing football, it’s the best time to play football because you’ve got no worries. When they all are going crazy, they’re all having fun, you’ve gotta hold it down because we’ve all been there. We’ve all been kids and do whatever you want to do. Sometimes you ‘ve just got to hold it down.”

And that’s what they’ll try to do as a Michigan running back group this fall.