Editor’s Note: With the Michigan football team’s 2016 regular season in the books, the Daily looks back at the performance of each unit this year and looks ahead to the future in 2017. In this edition: running backs.
Before the start of the Michigan football team’s 2016 season, fans wondered which running back would emerge from the pack. As it turned out, no one back consistently received the bulk of the carries through the first half of the season. Sophomore Karan Higdon led in rushing yards in some contests, but in others, freshman Chris Evans or senior De’Veon Smith came out on top.
That changed in the final stretch of the Wolverines’ season. Smith racked up more than 100 yards in three Big Ten games, becoming Michigan’s leading running back with 810 yards and 10 touchdowns. He rushed for the Wolverines’ only two touchdowns against Indiana and validated his position as the lead back.
Though Smith didn’t have a signature game against Ohio State and posted fewer than 30 yards in games against Iowa and Hawaii, he became the Wolverines’ go-to back in most dire situations.
Next season the Wolverines will need to replace Smith, but judging by the talent that Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has corralled in just two seasons, it’s easy to expect someone to emerge.
Though it took Smith a couple games to find his footing, Evans showed Michigan Stadium his potential in his first-ever collegiate game. He went off for 112 yards, averaging 14 yards per run and scoring two touchdowns against the Rainbow Warriors.
Smith saved his best performance for the Wolverines’ second-to-last game of the season. His 158 yards against the Hoosiers were a career best, and they also saved Michigan from losing two Saturdays in a row. As backup quarterback John O’Korn struggled to get things moving through the air, Smith accounted for the Wolverines’ only touchdowns. He ripped off a 39-yard run in the third quarter to put Michigan up 20-10, allowing the Wolverines to enjoy their senior day in the snow.
Collectively, Michigan’s best rushing effort came in late September. The Wolverines rushed 49 times for 326 yards against the Nittany Lions, scoring six rushing touchdowns in the process. Evans, Higdon, Isaac and Smith all made it into the end zone, helping Michigan to a 49-10 victory over Penn State.
After four running backs received more than five carries each against Hawaii, fans hoped to see a slimmed-down rotation against Central Florida. Instead, carries were distributed evenly again, but production wasn’t anywhere near as high as it was the week prior. The Knights controlled the Wolverines on the ground and held them to 119 rushing yards. Smith led Michigan in rushing yards, but this time, he ran for just 38 yards.
The Wolverines’ running game also screeched to a halt against Iowa, which was a bit more disastrous. They suffered their first loss of the season after Iowa held Michigan to double-digit rushing yards. The Wolverines averaged a lowly 2.8 yards per run in Kinnick Stadium, and they came up short, 14-13, as the receiving corps struggled, too.
Running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley has indicated that he prefers to use three to four backs throughout the season in order to keep his players’ legs fresh. If his past responses are at all indicative of what we’ll see in the future, a rotation will be used once more.
Though Smith will be lost to graduation, freshman Kareem Walker could get a chance to show what he’s made of after redshirting this year. Harbaugh kept Walker out this season, opting to have him focus on academics instead, but the highly touted recruit will be exciting to watch in 2017.
Evans, who mentioned that he wants to put on more weight so he can be a bruising back like Smith, showed flashes of greatness throughout his freshman year. He finished just behind Smith in rushing yards, and it wouldn’t be surprising to anyone if he ended up leading the unit next season.
Higdon and Isaac, who ran for 422 and 417 yards, respectively, will round out the group. The backs will be experienced in 2017, and it’s likely that they’ll be counted on heavily as Michigan loses its top three receivers (Amara Darboh, Jake Butt and Jehu Chesson) to graduation.