Michigan’s running game wasn’t supposed to look this way.
All offseason, coaches posited that it would be a three-headed committee. When running backs coach Jay Harbaugh spoke to the media three days before the start of the season, he listed five names in consideration for touches.
And for one week, reality bore that out. Then Saturday afternoon arrived. The final carry split: Zach Charbonnet, 33; Christian Turner, 3; Ben VanSumeren, 1.
That’s not to say that the Wolverines’ backfield will always look this way. After the game, Jim Harbaugh said that split was a product of circumstance. But the truth remains: two games into his college career, Charbonnet is Michigan’s workhorse.
“Full faith in Zach,” said senior guard Ben Bredeson. “He had a great fall camp, he’s doing a great job. Still is, as you can see from today. If he’s got the ball, we as an O-line are absolutely fine with that.”
At the heart of Charbonnet’s emergence have been performances that stand in direct contrast to everything a freshman running back is supposed to be.
He has run well, to the tune of 190 yards on 41 touches — 4.6 yards per carry. He has provided a threat in the passing game with four receptions. He has punched the ball into the end zone when asked to, scoring all three of Michigan’s touchdowns against Army on Saturday.
“You’ve gotta give the kid a lot of credit,” Harbaugh said Saturday. “He rose to the occasion. Had to be tired, but did a heck of a job, in my opinion.”
But Christian Turner — bar the touchdowns — has done that too, averaging 4.9 yards per carry and showing a dangerous burst to the outside. The difference between the two has been in pass protection, the one area where common sense dictates the freshman Charbonnet should be lacking.
In week one against Middle Tennessee State, all of Michigan’s presumed top three backs — Charbonnet, Turner and redshirt junior Tru Wilson — were perfect in pass protection, according to Harbaugh. And the carry split followed: 11 for Turner, eight for Charbonnet, two for Wilson before he hurt his hand on a blitz pickup.
Against Army, the plan seemed to follow a similar path through two drives. Wilson stood on the sideline, dressed but not fully healthy, while Charbonnet and Turner split the early carries. Then, on Michigan’s third drive, Turner failed to pick up a corner blitz, allowing Elijah Riley to force Shea Patterson into his second fumble of the game.
The rest of the way, Turner saw just one carry. Charbonnet had 28.
“I just felt like we had to really lean on Zach today,” Harbaugh said. “(VanSumeren) fumbled and we had another (Turner) that missed protection and we just felt like we just had to give it to Zach.”
But while Charbonnet converted his opportunities into 100 yards and three touchdowns, Harbaugh still wants to shy away from overburdening him.
“This next week, that’s going to be something that — next two weeks, really — getting that next back that we can get in there and really trust and play well,” Harbaugh said. “And we’ll evaluate this week to get another back in because that’s tough duty, going a whole game on a hot day.”
The issue then becomes which running backs can earn that trust. Through two games, Turner and sophomore Hassan Haskins have each missed a vital blitz pickup, while VanSumeren’s fumble led to an Army touchdown.
Maybe Wilson will fit the bill when he returns. His path to playing time a year ago was pass protection and the blitz pickup that he got injured on led to a touchdown. But for now, Harbaugh has a running back he knows he can trust to be a workhorse — if he needs one.