Stiff competition emerges between trio of running backs
Jay Harbaugh was almost 1,300 miles away from Ann Arbor when he found out about his new job.
At about 11 p.m. in Houston in January, Harbaugh was sitting in his hotel room when he received a phone call from his father, Jim. The elder Harbaugh delivered the news — Jay would be the new running backs coach next season.
While some might have been surprised by the decision given that the younger Harbaugh had never played or coached the position, Jay went to bed excited to take on a new role in his father’s program.
Between his time spent with the tight ends for the Michigan football team last year and with the quarterbacks for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens a few years back — where his uncle, John, is the head coach — Jay seems equipped to handle the challenge.
“The way that coaching works is — if you’re doing it right — you’re kind of absorbing everything,” Harbaugh said. “… There’s a totality in coaching, whether it’s offense or defense, of seeing the big picture.”
In his experience, quarterbacks focus on pass protections and tight ends focus on route running and run game blocking, so the main difference with running backs is carrying the ball — a skill Michigan’s talented backfield crop already possesses in spades.
Though they must recover from the loss of senior De’Veon Smith, the Wolverines still return key contributors from last season’s squad, namely rising sophomore Chris Evans, junior Karan Higdon and fifth-year senior Ty Isaac.
The trio combined for 1,495 yards on 234 carries with 15 touchdowns while splitting time behind Smith. Clearly the feature back, Smith gained 901 yards on 181 carries and scored 10 touchdowns on his own.
Without a clear number one this season, Evans, Higdon and Isaac all have an opportunity to emerge as major facets of Michigan’s run game.
“You’d like to be able to trust your whole group,” Harbaugh said after spring practice Thursday. “I’ve never liked thinking about running backs like that, assuming that two or three guys aren’t going to be good. I want everyone to be good.”
Added Higdon: “I definitely think we’ll have multiple guys in there, considering everybody brings something different and every guy is different and can attack the game in different ways. We’ve got a lot of weapons, so it’ll be fun.”
While all three will likely earn their fair share of playing time, that doesn’t mean they aren’t fighting for carries.
Just like at seemingly every other position for the Wolverines this year, Evans, Higdon and Isaac have been locked in a tight battle over the course of spring camp. That spirit of competition has been exemplified by the posting of depth charts in the meeting room of each respective position group.
A visual display of productivity, these depth charts shed light on both the good and bad areas of each player’s performance in comparison to his teammates. Listing dropped balls and missed assignments as much as yards and carries, these depth charts serve the purpose of keeping Michigan on its toes.
“It’s a meritocracy around here, so it just makes sense for everyone to understand and to have it out in the open,” Harbaugh said.
More than just a simple motivational tool, the depth charts amp up the level of intensity between the Wolverines, who understand how much effort they have to put in to bypass the players ahead of them or maintain their edge over the players behind them.
“It’s definitely a stiff competition,” Higdon said. “Each and every day, you gotta bring it. Each and every day, you see someone do something that makes you go, ‘Wow.’ ”
Added Isaac: “I’m going into practice every day trying to be the starter. If you’re ahead of me, I’m trying to beat you out. If you’re behind me, I’m trying to put some distance in between us.”
The way Harbaugh sees it, the spring game will be a turning point in the competition between his trio of backs. Besides quarterback, running back is the one position where the tempo of live competition can make a sizable difference in the relative performance of a player.
Isaac, part of the Maize team, and Evans and Higdon, members of the Blue team, will face off head-to-head with the chance to separate themselves in the competition. Saturday, any one of them could take the first step toward earning more playing time on Saturdays in the fall.
“It starts now,” Higdon said. “Spring is what sets you up for the fall. Spring is where you make your statement.”