In crowded running backs room, Michigan strives to find balance
When Jay Harbaugh meets virtually with Chris Evans, he is tasked with teaching Evans — who is coming off a one-year academic suspension — the new playbook. Evans last played for Michigan during the 2018 season, when the Wolverines had an offensive coordinator by committee. Now, under Josh Gattis, there’s a whole new playbook.
That’s not to say it’s totally unfamiliar to Evans. Many of the concepts are similar, just under different names, and that’s where Evans’ previous experience comes in handy.
“He’s able to say, ‘OK, this play, we used to call this blank,’” Harbaugh, the running backs coach, said in a Zoom call with reporters Friday. “ … Sometimes he won’t get something and then he’ll be like, ‘Oh, this is what we did back against Florida State (in the 2016 Orange Bowl),’ and I’ll be like, ‘Man, you were a freshman then,’ so it’s pretty impressive how he’s been able to do that.”
Evans was cleared to return to Michigan in 2020 — even participating in Citrus Bowl practices in December — but the running backs room he will join is very different from the one he left.
Had Evans not been suspended, he would have been by far the most veteran running back on the 2019 team and right in the thick of the battle for the starting spot. Instead, the Wolverines turned to their youth.
Last season, Zach Charbonnet broke the program record for rushing touchdowns by a freshman with 11 while not even being the lone option. Instead, he split time with then-redshirt freshman Hassan Haskins, who led Michigan’s running backs with 5.1 yards per carry. The Wolverines also return junior Christian Turner, the starter in the 2018 Peach Bowl, and bring in four-star freshman Blake Corum. With that much competition, every running back will have to be at his very best to win playing time.
It’s a good problem for the Wolverines can have — as long as they can figure out how to best utilize all their talent.
“When you look at the depth right there at that running back position, we’ve got some good choices,” Gattis said on May 14. “Obviously, it’s always tough to balance all the playing time and all the touches. There’s a level of having depth that you love and there’s a level of having depth that creates problems, and the problem there is the balance of finding how to fit all the different pieces together. … There are ways we can complement that with some two-back stuff, whether it’s split backs and trying to use your personnel as much as you can.”
According to Gattis, the biggest challenge that comes with the lack of spring ball for the running backs is that the coaches are missing out on the opportunity to assess everyone’s skill set, see which backs work well together and what packages could optimize Michigan’s depth.
That’s not to say Harbaugh and Gattis are in the dark on how to utilize their players. Both expounded on the role they saw for each during their press conferences. The coaches see Charbonnet as a workhorse but want him to turn his medium-length runs into explosive ones. They want Haskins to improve as a blocker so they can use him in a fullback-like role in two-back packages while also increasing his stride length for more big plays. Evans is versatile and can catch passes out of the backfield or take handoffs, and Gattis sees the same skillset in Corum. Meanwhile, Turner, who struggled with injuries in 2019, is fully healthy and hopes to make a bigger impact, both at running back and on special teams.
Without Evans, last year’s roster wasn’t conducive to using running backs in the passing game — the most frequent backfield target was wide receiver Giles Jackson — but now that Evans is back in the fold and Corum is coming in, the possibilities grow.
“Throwing to the running back is a very important piece in our offense,” Gattis said. “And we did that quite a bit, it’s just numbers may not reflect that out of the running back position because of all the different pieces that we do within our offense. … That’s what Chris Evans is going to be able to bring to the table, give us a strength there that we’re going to be able to use. Because that is a big piece of the offense. And every place I’ve been, the running backs have all been successful, not only as runners, but also catching the football.”
In the past, Michigan has lacked depth at running back. Not anymore. Now, the key is figuring out how to use all the tools it has at its disposal. It might take a bit of getting creative, but Harbaugh and Gattis are confident they can do just that.