Michigan running backs coach Jay Harbaugh shares his thoughts on how the backs filled in without Karan Higdon last week. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Ann Arbor – Michigan’s top running backs Karan Higdon and Chris Evans are expected to play in the Big Ten opener Saturday against Nebraska, according to running backs coach Jay Harbaugh.
Higdon did not play in last week’s game against SMU, while Evans, who started, endured an unspecified muscle strain.
“That’s what we expect, yeah,” Harbaugh said Wednesday when asked if they’ll both be available.
Higdon leads the team in rushing with 228 yards on 34 carries and has scored two touchdowns. Evans is second-leading rusher with 172 yards on 30 carries. He has two touchdowns. Tru Wilson has been the third back in and has 107 yards on 17 carries and one touchdown.
"Karan has practiced fully and Chris has practiced fully for what we’ve asked him to do,” Harbaugh said. “He’s been going, maybe not the same amount. He did a little bit yesterday and then we’re building up as we go as he comes off that tweak.”
Does he anticipate Evans will be limited?
“I wouldn’t expect (so),” Harbaugh said. “We’ll see.”
Harbaugh was asked if Evans endured muscle cramping late in the SMU game.
“Just a little, I don’t know the medical term, a tweak, strain-ish type of thing,” he said.
Harbaugh has said he has a 1-1 punch in Higdon and Evans, and he likes the production they have provided the early part of this season.
“I love it just because it’s two guys who have a ton of experience,” Harbaugh said. “You have a guy back there with either of them that you can trust. They’ve seen a lot of things. A lot of times in games, unusual things will happen. You’ll get a defensive look that you’re not accustomed to or we didn’t necessarily expect to prepare for, maybe the team hadn’t shown it, those guys keep their cool. Mentally they can adapt and adjust pretty quickly, so that’s nice.
“You know they’re going to take care of the ball pretty well. That’s certainly something that puts you at ease. The great thing is, as Tru accumulates game reps, you start to build that type of trust in him. Inevitably with that position, you have to play with the second and third guy or the third and fourth guy, so if you have those accumulated reps and that trust, it’s a really nice thing as a coaching staff.”
Wilson, a former walk-on, has distinguished himself as a fearless pass-blocker.
“It’s a little bit reckless, and there’s certainly courage to it, contact courage,” Harbaugh said. “He’s a tough guy, has got some wrestling background. He’s (in) a family of boys. I think they roughhouse quite a bit, so he’s certainly fearless, and that’s to his benefit on the field.”
O’Maury Samuels also played against SMU and had two carries for 22 yards. He has three carries for 26 yards this season.
“I thought the other guys did a great job filling in,” Harbaugh said before adding what Higdon adds that’s tough to replace. “The way he hits holes, the aggressiveness he runs with is a little bit different. I don’t think any of our guys play at that same speed and violence. Chris and Tru and O’Maury bring something special to the table that maybe Karan doesn’t have. Either way you’re going to get a nice balance.”
Cleaning up penalties
Michigan safeties coach Chris Partridge said the play of his group has been up and down through the first three games.
“Inconsistent,” Partridge said Wednesday. “We’ve got to always strive to be better and more consistent. I thought when we were good, we were really, really good. We had some mistakes in the first game, cleaned them up and played really well in the second game and played pretty good in the third game overall.
“They’re playing hard, practicing hard, they’re in tune to the game plan. I’m really excited about their trajectory and their consistency.”
Michigan has had issues with penalties on the defense this season. There were critical calls early in the opener at Notre Dame, and of the 13 penalties called against Michigan in the SMU game last Saturday, 11 were on the defense, including a targeting on Khaleke Hudson. Michigan has had two targeting calls in the first three games.
“You can't have penalties," Partridge said. "The message is, we look at the penalty when it's called, we review the film and we try to learn what we could do better to avoid that. Whether you agree or disagree it doesn't matter – it was called. You’ve got to be able to adapt your game to make sure you don't get those calls at all. That’s got to be cleaned up.”
Partridge used the example of the targeting call against Josh Metellus in the Notre Dame game.
“Did he hit him with his head? No, but did he play through the football?” Partridge said. “It's hard to make a split-second decision, when you're coming off the hash, you’re sprinting full speed, the ball is in the air. Obviously, you don't lead with your head, but at the same time, if he would've exploded through the football rather than through the man, there would've been no issues.”
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and several players this week weighed in on targeting. Jay Harbaugh offered his take, as well.
“It’s very difficult for a player, when he’s trying to run the ball or tackle the ball carrier, that’s really hard to be aggressive and play a game the way it’s meant to be played and keep your head out of it,” he said.
“The spirit of the rule is to make the game safer and penalize people for endangering other players unnecessarily and I think there are situations in the game that need to be addressed in terms of times guys are being hit when they truly don’t need to be. It’s hard but it’s important to look at what was the intent. Did he really have an opportunity to avoid that type of collision? I feel that part of it really needs to be considered.”