In wake of injuries, Jay Harbaugh expresses confidence in running backs

Wednesday, September 19, 2018 - 1:58pm

Junior running back Chris Evans suffered an injury in Michigan's win over SMU.

Junior running back Chris Evans suffered an injury in Michigan's win over SMU. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

After the game against Western Michigan, junior running back Chris Evans said the running lanes created by Michigan’s offensive line were so big you could drive a car through them.

Against SMU, you could hardly fit a bicycle most of the day.

The Wolverines rushed the ball 41 times for 197 yards against the Mustangs. On paper, those numbers are solid. But 11 of those carries and 109 of those yards came in two garbage-time drives, while the rest — which produced a measly 2.9 yards-per-carry average — came within a two-possession game.

Starting running back Karan Higdon was fully dressed for Saturday’s contest, but ultimately sat out due to an undisclosed injury. Instead, it was the No. 2 back Evans who handled ball-carrying responsibilities, and he proved to be less than stellar compared to the ground show — 308 yards — from a game ago as he struggled in short-yardage situations.

After a 35-yard run late, Evans came up limping, grabbing his hamstring. Originally, Evans’ apparent injury cast doubt on both Higdon and Evans’ availability against Nebraska this weekend.

“Karan was a game-time decision, didn't feel like he could go. Chris, we'll see what his situation is exactly, whether it's a strain or a cramp,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh on Monday. “We'll see (for next week).

But on Wednesday, running backs coach Jay Harbaugh cleared the air and anticipates both to see the field.

“That’s what we expect,” Jay said. “Karan has practiced fully, and Chris has practiced fully for what we expect him to do. (Chris had) been going, it’s just maybe not the same amount. He did a little bit yesterday, and we’re building up as we go as he comes off that tweak.”

Even without the two on the field, Jay expressed satisfaction in the depth of his unit and their play on Saturday. That depth includes sophomore fullback Ben Mason, and third and fourth-string running backs Tru Wilson and O’Maury Samuels. Mason vultured a goal-line touchdown for the first score of the game, Wilson toted the ball 11 times for 53 yards and a late-game touchdown, while Samuels gashed an 18-yard run on that same drive.

Wilson has been a hot topic to start the season. The former walk-on also had six carries for 54 yards against the Broncos, and has proved to be a viable backfield option in pass protection.

“He’s approached everything with pretty remarkable consistency, fixing mistakes, improving techniques, playing with great effort and physicality,” Jay said. “… Whenever you challenge him with something to improve on and an area to grow, inevitably you see it show up. If you do that over months or years, the results are gonna be pretty good and everyone’s gonna see that now.

“He’s a tough guy, got some wrestling background. He’s got a family of boys, roughhouse quite a bit, so certainly fearless to his benefit on the field.”

That hard-nosed sentiment was expressed again with Mason, as Jay praised his “smash everything attitude.”

The Wolverines have had success with a power-running style this season, but this approach also been criticized amid sustained concern about the offensive line’s ability to open holes through the middle. This uncertainty has placed an unusually public amount of emphasis on the running backs’ pass protection abilities. With Mason’s desire to “bludgeon people and do it really fast,” according to Jay, his role is defined. As for the others, it’s an innate instinct that still appears to be a work in progress in the simplified offensive playbook.

“Because we do a little less schematically, we’re probably more proficient across the board,” Jay said. “There’s some trust there. They build rapport with the o-line in terms of understanding how a look is gonna be blocked up and a little of what to expect — ‘Okay, I see this defensive line in this look. I expect the ball to go in this place or that place.’ A level of trust that builds in that regard, because we have a little more consistency in scheme.”

In Big Ten play, the order is taller. But with apparent depth in the running back room, the coaching staff can rest easy.