Position review: running backs

Wednesday, January 30, 2019 - 6:10pm

Freshman Christian Turner figures to take on a bigger role next season with the departure of Karan Higdon.

Freshman Christian Turner figures to take on a bigger role next season with the departure of Karan Higdon. Buy this photo
Alexis Rankin/Daily

With the Michigan football team’s 2018 regular season in the books, The Daily looks back at the performance of each unit this year and peers ahead to the future in 2019. In this edition: running backs

In the two weeks leading up to Michigan’s 41-15 Peach Bowl loss against Florida, with Karan Higdon having announced he would skip the game to focus on preparation for the NFL Draft, the program kept an air of calmness about the running back position. The thinking went: Freshman Christian Turner would get a chance to showcase his ability and placate any concerns for 2019.

On the Wolverines’ opening drive, as Turner took a jet sweep for a 41-yard score, that optimism seemed proven correct. Then, after a review, it turned out Turner stepped out of bounds right after the line of scrimmage. The touchdown was wiped out, and with it, any momentum Michigan’s running game had.

Turner finished that game with 32 yards rushing, nine fewer than he appeared to accrue on that first play. As a team, the Wolverines finished with 77 yards on the ground, their worst mark since the season opener at Notre Dame — leaving a slew of questions to be answered.

HIGH POINT: All week, Michigan heard nothing but how Wisconsin would be a different kind of test — one that could determine whether five straight wins after that loss to the Irish was a mirage or the start of something real.

By that point, offensive line coach Ed Warinner’s grip had already taken hold on the run game, a move from the power-heavy game that defined Jim Harbaugh’s first three years in charge to a zone-blocking game in full swing. The early results looked good, but the Badgers — a team that stifled Harbaugh’s run game in Madison the season prior — were on a different level.

Not only did the Wolverines blow the doors off Wisconsin in a 38-13 win that catapulted them to sixth in the rankings, but they did so behind a revitalized run game.

Not only did Higdon notch 105 yards and a touchdown, but junior quarterback Shea Patterson came up with 90 and a touchdown of his own, including an 81-yard run to set up Higdon’s score.

The zone read had, emphatically, made its way to Ann Arbor.

“A lot of people have a lot of questions about who we are as a team, our offensive line, our run game, we don’t show up in big games,” Higdon said that night. “I think we laid that to rest today.”

Higdon went on to say that Michigan’s offensive line, heavily criticized after a poor performance at Notre Dame weeks earlier, was the best in the country. As much an overstatement as that was, it served to highlight a massive improvement that took place in a short span of time.

This is an article about the running back position, but it’s hard to run the ball without an offensive line and a sound philosophy. The Wolverines found both against Wisconsin.

“If a team is playing undisciplined, we’re going to use that to our advantage,” junior safety Josh Metellus said after the win over the Badgers. “The edges were squeezing in too hard on the inside zone, so Shea felt like he had a chance to pull it and he did. They kept being undisciplined, so Shea just kept taking advantage of that.”

LOW POINT: It would be easy to draw back to that night in South Bend here when the Wolverines ran for 58 yards, the offensive line looked like a season-killing disaster and there was no solution in sight.

But what happened next — a run game finding itself, then becoming a key cog in a 10-game win streak — makes it hard to describe the Notre Dame game as a low point as opposed to a launching pad.

The Peach Bowl, well, that’s another story.

Against the Gators, and more importantly, without Higdon, the Wolverines had no answer in the running game. That game served as a preview for what the position will look like in 2019, and it didn’t look pretty.

It turns out that Higdon, a leader who rushed for a combined 2,172 yards in the last two seasons — 1,178 of which came in 2018 — will be pretty tough to replace.

“We’re going to be a dominant force (next season),” Turner said. “We’re going to be hard to stop. We’re going to be really good. All we can do is just improve off of what we have so far. I’m not going to downplay anybody’s skills or downplay anybody’s ability, because we have the skills to be great. Just need to tune it up and keep going.”

Despite an offensive line that returns four of five starters with the highly-touted Jalen Mayfield stepping in at tackle, it’s hard to project optimism after a performance like the one Michigan had in Atlanta.

The same, of course, could have been said on Sept. 2 — and the Wolverines proved anyone who did echo those sentiments wrong. Perhaps they’ll do so again, but a month after the Peach Bowl, it’s hard to say the low point has really ended.

THE FUTURE: With Higdon gone, the starting job next year is up for grabs.

After all the hype leading into the Peach Bowl and a performance that, albeit disappointing, was an inch away from exciting the fanbase, Turner will likely come into spring ball with a chance to take the job. Competition, however, will be tight.

Chris Evans will come in as a senior, and with some pedigree — making him the favorite. It’s easy to forget, but before Evans missed three games with injury this season, he got nearly as many carries as Higdon in a win over Western Michigan. Even with the injury — and over 50 fewer carries than he had in 2017 — Evans averaged a rock solid 5.2 yards per carry.

Elsewhere, four-star recruit Zach Charbonnet figures to get a chance for playing time. A product of Oaks Christian Schoool and a top-50 overall recruit whose rating has bordered on five-star territory, Charbonnet ran for 4,741 yards in four years of high school and his tape is as good as the numbers suggest.

Tru Wilson, who earned 62 carries as a walk-on last year, will figure into the rotation as well. Harbaugh complimented Wilson’s ability in pass protection multiple times last season, and the junior threw multiple pancake blocks throughout the season. If he keeps that up, it will be enough to continue earning playing time.

As for the position as a whole, the Wolverines come into 2019 with more questions than answers.