Ann Arbor — Other players bring more hype and more height, are faster and flashier. This is nothing new to Tru Wilson, Michigan’s starting running back at the moment.
It’s not necessarily his job to lose, or even his job to keep. That it’s his job at all says a lot about the former walk-on, and maybe something about Michigan’s new offense. Touted freshman Zach Charbonnet is rising quickly in training camp, according to coaches and teammates. So is sophomore Christian Turner.
But the truth is, Wilson is the only back with appreciable experience, the leading returning rusher with 364 yards. He’s stout (5-foot-10) and determined and talks like the son of a Marine, which he is.
“Last year I was trying to earn a role,” said Wilson, a senior from Warren De La Salle. “This time, I’m also trying to earn a role, and trying to be the starting running back. I entered camp like it was my job to earn. I didn’t want to be given anything.”
Naturally, fans will clamor for the flashy freshman, and that’s fine. Observers will wonder how an overlooked back with modest speed can be the starter on a top-10 team. Maybe Michigan has an undervalued talent in Wilson, or legitimate questions about depth in the backfield.
If you listen to Wilson talk about how he’s reshaped his body and added speed, and listen to the coaches rave about his pass-blocking skills, and listen to his teammates gush about his wisdom, you might not bet against him.
“Tru’s doing a great job, just always in the right spot,” tight end Sean McKeon said. “He knows his job well, he knows what to do, he’s been making some really good cuts in the run game. He definitely seems more confident, because he’s kind of the leader of that group now, doing his best to help the younger guys come along.”
Charbonnet is the young guy people expect to break out, a four-star back from California. He has size (6-1), power and vision, and while he missed spring camp recovering from a knee procedure, he’s apparently rebounding nicely.
The weight is over
In Jim Harbaugh’s revamped offense, directed by Josh Gattis, no one is being given anything, except new assignments, new terminology and new techniques. Gattis is bringing the spread with lots of RPO (run-pass options), but the guess is, the Wolverines will still be a run-first team. Quarterback Shea Patterson might do more running, or at least the play-calling should be less predictable.
That’s where Wilson fits. He’s smart. He’s the best pass-blocker in the backfield. He runs straight ahead but with underrated cutting ability. He averaged a team-best 5.9 yards per carry last season, playing behind Karan Higdon and Chris Evans.
Higdon is in the NFL and Evans is on suspension, and while Gattis touts the depth of the backfield — Wilson, Charbonnet, Turner, Hassan Haskins, Ben VanSumeren — only one guy has done much. Michigan was sixth in the Big Ten in rushing last season and lacked explosiveness, and that has to change. With its stellar trio of receivers — Nico Collins, Tarik Black, Donovan Peoples-Jones — and big tight ends to spread the field, running lanes should be available.
Since the end of last season, Wilson said he’s dropped about 10 pounds, down to 200. He worked on his speed by running hills and doing extra resistance training with parachutes. He hasn’t been timed in the 40 yet but declared, “I feel faster, quicker, just a lot more confident in the way I move my body.”
And thanks to renewed discipline, he has less body fat to move. How difficult was that to pull off (or melt off)?
“There’s a Dairy Queen right over there, that probably hurt me the worst,” he said, pointing out the window at Schembechler Hall.
“I was carrying a lot of extra baggage. I needed to be more responsible with what I ate, inside and outside the building.”
If you use a bit of imagination, you can see some Mike Hart in Wilson, with the same choppy legs, shifting feet and smallish stature that belies the toughness. Wilson said he’s studied the former Michigan star and admired his style.
“I remember watching his highlight tape, and he was just a bowling ball,” Wilson said. “I really liked watching him play.”
So, are you a bowling ball?
“I’m trying to get to that, yeah,” he said with a grin.
Wilson said he closely follows the Denver Broncos’ Phillip Lindsay, who took a similar winding journey. He’s a 5-8 running back from Colorado who went undrafted, then rushed for 1,037 yards and made the Pro Bowl as a rookie last season.
It’s worth noting that touted prospects often don’t work out, and there’s plenty of room in college football for an occasional Tru(th). Michigan fans might recall, with a wince, the number of four- and five-star backs who didn’t produce much here — Derrick Green, Kareem Walker, Ty Isaac.
It’s a puzzling run of bad luck, poor development, miscalculation or all three. Charbonnet is the latest prize, and likely will be pushing for the starting job soon enough. Higdon was an absolute workhorse with 1,178 yards in Michigan’s slug-it-out offense. With Evans off the team, and Charbonnet and Turner missing most of spring ball, it’s fair to debate whether Michigan has enough backfield burst.
“They can overlook us all they want,” Wilson said. “We’re gonna come in the first game and prove everybody wrong, and also prove ourselves right.”
Hey, the guy has done it before. Coming out of Warren De La Salle, he received little Division I interest. He opted to walk-on at Michigan and began in the secondary, before asking Harbaugh if he could move to running back. His diligence earned him a scholarship last year, and he became the team’s No. 3 back.
Taking the tough path to get here, he learned lessons others might not.
“I wouldn’t say I was forced to work harder, because I’ve always worked hard,” Wilson said.
“I just had to adapt to the competition, start at a different level than some of the other guys. I worked to get where I’m at, and I’m happy where I’m at, and I’m always trying to get better. Coach Gattis said, don’t be surprised by success. I’m not surprised by anything.”
At this point, nobody else should be either.