When Jay Harbaugh first saw Hassan Haskins, it took a moment to realize what he’d found.
The natural abilities were one thing. Everything the running back did, he did well, from his blocking, to his refusal to go down with the ball, to his unusual willingness to initiate contact as a back. At Eureka High School in Eureka, Mo., on top of also playing defensive end, he cleared 6-foot-7 in the high jump — good for second at the track and field State Championships — and led the basketball team in blocks and steals.
On talent alone, Haskins already had the makings of a classic Big Ten back.
But that was only half the story.
“I remember the way that people talked about him was, like, the most special thing,” Harbaugh said. “Because the tape said a lot in terms of his power, his vision, his balance, the strength, the physicality — that was all there.
“But then you start kind of piecing together the puzzle of, OK, what do his teammates think? What do his coaches think? What do coaches from other teams think? What do teachers (think)? As you gather all that, you kind of develop this story where everybody loves the guy. Everybody thinks that he’s, like, the best teammate ever.”
Stories of Haskins in high school go well beyond the typical coachspeak. When his teammates needed water, he got it for them. When they messed up, he pulled them aside and talked them through the play. Over time, he earned the trust from his teammates and coaches to become the team captain as a senior.
“He’s got one gear, and it’s go,” Jake Sumner, Haskins’ high school coach, told The Daily. “He is just one heck of a player, but on top of it, he’s just such a caring kid, and just a kind young man. … He’s all of those recipes — the way he plays on the field, how good of a kid he is, that amount of hard work that just makes him so special with his natural talents.”
Still, the offers didn’t come quickly for Haskins. Four games into his sophomore year — and well on pace to rush for over 2,000 yards — Haskins dislocated his toe, sidelining him for the rest of the season. While major programs got to work on their 2018 recruiting boards and keyed in on their top targets, Haskins could do nothing but cheer on his team from the sidelines.
By September 2017, Haskins had picked up only one Power-5 offer: Purdue. While Sumner continued to work the phones looking for potential suitors, Haskins sat near the bottom of the 247Sports recruiting rankings as the No. 49 running back and No. 975 overall player in the country.
Then, Jay Harbaugh — Michigan’s running backs coach at the time — called. After coming away from Haskins’ film impressed, Harbaugh decided he wanted to see more and drove down to Missouri to watch him work.
“He came to my practice one time to watch me practice and stuff like that,” Haskins told The Daily. “That had never happened to me before, so it was just a different feeling, like, ‘Finally, somebody’s looking at me.’ … It just opened my eyes.”
Harbaugh liked what he saw. Shortly after that trip, the Wolverines extended a scholarship offer, and after an official visit, Haskins committed to Michigan.
During Haskins’ senior season, it became easy to recognize what Harbaugh saw. On 255 carries, Haskins racked up 2,197 yards and 31 rushing touchdowns, plus a pair of receiving touchdowns for good measure. In one instance, with the quarterback dealing with an injury, Sumner had Haskins run the ball on 15 straight plays.
Haskins was the clear go-to player, and when he wasn’t, it was purely by accident. Near the goal line late in one crucial game, Sumner gave the quarterback the choice to either hand the ball off to Haskins or throw it to the endzone. When he chose the latter, Haskins came off the field glaring at his head coach.
“Hey, I told him to give it to you!”
When he arrived in Ann Arbor, Haskins knew he had something to prove. He was the 17th-ranked player in a 20-man recruiting class.
“I had the best opportunity to do what I do best, which is to play football,” Haskins said. “So I just had to prove myself, and prove to the coaches and everybody in that building that I can play — I can get the job done.”
At the same time, he recognized his place on the depth chart. Michigan already had a clear one-two punch at running back between senior Karan Higdon and junior Chris Evans. Below them, junior Tru Wilson was solid in pass protection, sophomore O’Maury Samuels seemed poised to get a shot as a former four-star recruit and freshman Christian Turner came in with greater credentials than Haskins.
Put simply, the running-back room was full. Wanting to find a spot for Haskins’ talent, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh moved Haskins to linebacker for his freshman season. That switch, of course, didn’t last long, but it did mean that Haskins had one less year developing in the offense.
Even so, Haskins doesn’t view that as time wasted.
“It just taught me what the linebacker is thinking,” Haskins said. “What they see on the defensive side, just what they had to read and things like that. … I’ll play long snapper if I can get on the field. It doesn’t matter what it is, I was just trying to help the team win.”
So, when Evans was suspended for the next season, Haskins was ready for the starting opportunity. The first four games were modest — he picked up just 14 carries for 67 yards — but in Week 5 against Iowa, he hit his stride, tallying 12 carries for 125 yards and a touchdown. Two weeks later, he reasserted himself rather enthusiastically, hurdling a Notre Dame defender:
In just his second season, Haskins had already begun to show off the qualities that Jay Harbaugh saw at that practice in Missouri. He’d jumped from sixth on the depth chart to (arguably) first, splitting carries with a high four-star freshman in Zach Charbonnet.
And still, there was more to come.
Entering the 2021 season, there wasn’t much left for Haskins to prove. He’d already solidified himself as a key contributor to Michigan’s offense, and despite still having two years of eligibility left after this season, he’s earned a reputation as a reliable veteran presence on the roster.
Unlike many athletes, that reputation isn’t built on his outwardness or volume. Despite his physical style of play and his electrifying ability to leap over defenders (he’s up to four career hurdles now, three of which have come this season), Haskins maintains a quiet demeanor in the locker room and with the media.
But that doesn’t make him less of a leader. At the start of the season, his teammates voted him as an alternate captain, and he’s assumed the responsibilities of a full captain since senior receiver Ronnie Bell’s season-ending injury.
“What makes him a great leader is the amount of respect that everybody has for him,” Jim Harbaugh said. “The way he approaches everything, the work ethic, the determination, the strength in which he does everything.”
Even without a vocal personality, Haskins still embraces the responsibilities that come naturally with his position. But instead of giving enthusiastic speeches or loudly calling out players, he leads in much of the same way he did at Eureka — pulling his teammates aside, building their confidence and, most of all, setting an example.