The question was about quarterbacks, so naturally, Jim Harbaugh wanted to talk about running backs.
The Michigan coach had already heaped praise on freshman Zach Charbonnet following Michigan’s win Saturday night, and before that, anointed him the starter in the backfield. The action spoke louder than the words could anyway.
None of that praise was ill-conceived — after an offseason of questions surrounding the position, Charbonnet gave Michigan some answers. He attacked the holes that opened up for 90 yards on eight carries, including a 41-yard gallop during which he blasted through the line, got into the open field and picked up a handful of extra yards once Middle Tennessee State’s defense caught up.
To some extent, that’s expected. A top-50 recruit is supposed to solve problems on the depth chart, or at least make himself heard. But perhaps not this soon, and perhaps not this emphatically. And for all he showed running the ball, it was his pass protection that Harbaugh heaped praise on Monday.
“Zach Charbonnet had nine pickups in protection, which, I don’t think we’ve had a back get nine pickups in a protection since we’ve been here, one single back,” Harbaugh said. “And to be 100 percent, nine out of nine, that’s like, wow. That’s really good.”
Charbonnet’s rushing ability is important. But pass protection is arguably more integral to his playing time. It’s how Tru Wilson got on the field as a walk-on last year, and it’s how Charbonnet could cement his place as the starter this year.
“He just was handling it, with not even a misstep,” Harbaugh said. “So, it’s rare. That’s rare. I’ve had pro guys that don’t understand the protections as well as the freshman back in this game.”
The Wolverines’ offense keeps it simple under, Sean McKeon said. They’re playing up-tempo, looking to the sideline for play calls via signals. That does not mean it’s easy, especially for a freshman.
“You gotta scan the whole field, basically, to figure out who’s blitzing,” said senior tight end Sean McKeon, explaining the job. “Gotta see the offensive line calls and points, so it’s definitely not easy as a freshman running back.”
McKeon said that Charbonnet’s focus towards football reminds him of defensive lineman Ben Mason, which in Schembechler Hall is akin to saying that your local congressman’s speaking ability reminds you of Barack Obama. Mason’s voice is loud and direct. He is often portrayed as every stereotype of a football player, holding a deep appreciation for football and seemingly nothing else.
It’s easy to understand why Harbaugh might like it if Charbonnet has the same disposition.
“It’s just, it’s eye-catching with Zach Charbonnet cause it just looks like it comes easy to him,” Harbaugh said. “It’s like, difficult math equations that guys just get. And so, it catches your attention.”
None of this is to say Charbonnet will suddenly become Michigan’s bell cow. Christian Turner and Wilson competed for the starting job throughout camp. Turner got the most carries of the three on Saturday. Harbaugh liked what he saw, highlighting a tightrope run on the boundary after the game, then again on Monday.
Eight different players carried the ball for the Wolverines, and even accounting for the inevitabilities of a blowout, it’s safe to say that Harbaugh and Gattis are comfortable with their depth. They flashed an array of option looks, jet sweeps and a two-quarterback package that probably needed work. Even if Charbonnet is the starter, that title is largely ceremonial.
But that reality doesn’t change what Charbonnet showed everyone on Saturday.
“He’s locked in,” McKeon said. “He’s really impressive for a freshman.”