It only took one game for running back Zach Charbonnet to draw lofty comparisons.
Last August, the most impressive statistic from Charbonnet’s college debut wasn’t his 90 rushing yards. Rather, in Michigan’s 40-21 win over Middle Tennessee State, it was the true freshman’s pass blocking that stood out most. He picked up nine blitzes in as many tries, showing strength in an area of the game that often keeps highly-touted freshmen off the field.
He became the program’s fourth true freshman to start at running back in the season opener since 1944, and he left a lasting impression in doing so.
“I don’t think we’ve had a back get nine pickups in a protection since we’ve been here, one single back,” coach Jim Harbaugh said at the time. “And to be 100 percent, nine out of nine, that’s like, ‘Wow.’ That’s really good. … He just was handling it, with not even a misstep. That’s rare.
“I’ve had pro guys that don’t understand the protections as well as (Charbonnet) in this game.”
When tight ends coach Sherrone Moore touched on it later that week, he likened Charbonnet to a former college teammate of his own.
“I’ve only seen one other freshman back block like that, and that’s a guy I played with,” Moore said. “That was really impressive to watch, nine-for-nine in pickups, just go up and strike people and never back down and know who to block with all the exotic pressures (Middle Tennessee State) brought.”
The other freshman back? That would be future NFL Hall-of-Famer Adrian Peterson, who played alongside Moore at Oklahoma 15 years ago.
For Charbonnet, pass blocking was only one bullet point on a long list of tests he aced as a true freshman. After rehabbing a surgically-repaired meniscus last spring, his 11 rushing touchdowns set a new program record among freshman running backs. On his way, he also showed glimpses as a receiver and an ability to get it done in short down-and-distance situations.
Just days after being the subject of praise from Harbaugh and Moore, Charbonnet followed through with another big game. In week two, he posted 100 rushing yards and three touchdowns, the last of which helped Michigan escape unranked Army in double-overtime.
The performance earned him a Big Ten Freshman of the Week nod, but the 33-carry workload took a clear toll on his recently-repaired knee, deviating from the Wolverines’ preferred running back by committee approach. Charbonnet carried the ball more than 15 times just once over Michigan’s remaining 11 games, even though the Wolverines’ coaching staff insisted he was in good health.
While Charbonnet’s ideal career trajectory would include a major bump in usage this fall, it’s difficult to see that coming to fruition. He proved himself as a capable workhorse back while at his best last season, but the improvement of converted-linebacker Hassan Haskins and the return of suspended running back Chris Evans could put a dent in Charbonnet’s workload.
Over Michigan’s last five games in 2019, Haskins logged 62 carries compared to Charbonnet’s 40. And with the stakes at their highest against top-ranked Ohio State, it was Haskins (12 rushes) who emerged as the go-to guy — not Charbonnet (four rushes).
In offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ up-tempo system, having multiple starting-caliber running backs works in the Wolverines’ favor. Even if his carry totals dip, Charbonnet’s efficiency stands to benefit from another offseason in the weight room, the experience of starting as a freshman and additional time to recover from last year’s knee surgery.
“You could just tell by the way Zach carries himself,” Moore said last September. “He’s all about his business, very mature for his age. And, obviously, he’s a special talent.”
In Charbonnet’s case, it’s the little things that can keep him on the field. And in 2020, all it might take is an extra blitz pickup.