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Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh discusses the running backs, particularly the play of freshman Zach Charbonnet. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News

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Ann Arbor — On paper, what Michigan freshman Zach Charbonnet did in his first game as the starting running back was impressive.

Charbonnet, the first freshman running back to start for the Wolverines since Sam McGuffie in 2008, rushed for a team-best 90 yards on eight carries in Michigan's win over Middle Tennessee. He also had a 9-yard reception.

But it’s what he did without the ball that Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh found more memorable. Harbaugh said the backs were perfect in pass protection but Charbonnet distinguished himself.

“Zach Charbonnet had nine pickups in protection which, I don’t think we’ve had a back get nine pickups in protection since we’ve been here, one single back,” Harbaugh said Monday at his weekly news conference. “And be 100 percent, nine out of nine, that’s like, wow. That’s really good.

“There were some sophisticated protections going on. There were some changes in the protection at the line of scrimmage. There were some protections changed right before the ball was snapped –by the quarterback or the center. It was just easy for him. He just handled it. Not even a misstep. That’s rare. I’ve been around pro backs that don’t understand the protections as well as the freshman back did in this game. That was a real positive.”

Being that proficient in pass protection for a freshman isn’t the norm. It’s part innate for him and also learned.

“I’ve got to give (running backs coach) Jay Harbaugh credit to get it taught to all the backs,” Jim Harbaugh said. “It’s eye-catching with Zach Charbonnet, because it looks like it comes easy to him. It’s like difficult math equations that guys just get it. It catches your attention. As far as running the ball I thought he was really good, too. When he decides to hit a hole, he hits it, he’s through it and out the other end. Catches the ball really well. It’s great to see.”

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Charbonnet, who rushed for 4,741 yards and 62 touchdowns at Oaks Christian in southern California, enrolled early but underwent a medical procedure in January that held him out of spring practice. He spent significant time in the weight room and started hanging around with Ben Mason, the fullback-turned-defensive-tackle noted for his weight-room allegiance.

“Him and Ben Mason remind me of each other,” tight end Sean McKeon said of Charbonnet. “They’re pretty similar, (and) they hang out a lot. Just really focused on football. Football guys, if you will. He’s locked in and really impressive.”

That Charbonnet has been so zoned in doesn’t come as a surprise. He was not much of a talker during the recruiting process, didn’t do many interviews and stayed to himself and worked on his game. That’s how he has handled his first year at Michigan.

“He’s prepared all summer, all camp,” McKeon said. “He’s prepared like he was the starter, like he was a veteran.”

The Charbonnet-Mason friendship might seem unconventional to some. As right tackle Jalen Mayfield described, Mason is a “different kind of guy” and Charbonnet is a “calm kid” who doesn’t say much.

“But he knows how to get his job done,” Mayfield said of Charbonnet, but he could have been talking about Mason. “Ben Mason is a different character, but he’s a good, resourceful tool for Zach.”

While meeting with reporters during camp, Mason shared that he went to dinner in Ann Arbor with Charbonnet and his mother. She asked Mason what they do for fun. Do they do things like go to the movies?

“And I was like, ‘Pretty much we just work out,’” Mason said, drawing laughs. “That’s the God’s honest truth. That’s what we do for fun.”

That doesn’t seem a stretch. Mayfield said he has seen Charbonnet studying on his own and working hard every opportunity.

“He wants to be the best,” Mayfield said. “To see his hard work pay off especially in the pass protection aspect of the game, just extremely impressive.”

Michigan vs. Army

Kickoff: Saturday, noon, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor

TV/radio: Fox/950 AM

Records: Both teams 1-0

Line: Michigan by 23

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis

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