Chris Evans had never heard the term ‘sophomore slump’ before Tuesday night.
But Jim Harbaugh was still worried the sophomore running back would have one.
After a freshman campaign that Harbaugh called “outstanding,” it wouldn’t be easy for Evans to top it his second time around. In 2016, Evans ran for 617 yards and four touchdowns. Over the offseason, fans and media speculated that he’d be Michigan’s top running back this year.
But as the first few games of the season came around, Evans lost the starting role. He rushed for just 123 yards in the first three games and fumbled during that stretch against Air Force. Fifth-year senior Ty Isaac surged, and junior Karan Higdon seemed to get the right blocks every time he had a play called for him.
“The plays weren’t blocked as well, and the assignments weren’t on point when (Evans) was in the game,” Harbaugh said Monday. “Then Karan would get in, and it was kind of the luck of the draw with the hand that he was dealt.”
Evans was just getting unlucky. He’d get a turn in the rotation to run, but the offensive line didn’t develop the blocks he needed.
It was frustrating, but he couldn’t predict how the blocks would pan out, so he didn’t let it get to him. It took more than a few games for Evans’ impact to really show.
“About game seven, eight, nine it started evening out,” Harbaugh said.
That it did. Evans began getting more carries, and the results began to show. Against Rutgers — game seven — he caught redshirt freshman quarterback Brandon Peters’ first touchdown. Against Minnesota, he rushed for two touchdowns and 191 yards. And this last weekend versus Maryland, he tallied another pair of rushing touchdowns in the Wolverines’ third straight win.
The running back’s production, as Harbaugh realized, was really just a matter of time. Harbaugh had watched the tape of Evans’ first few games, and the running back hadn’t really been doing anything wrong.
“Yeah, it’s frustrating, but as a running back, you can’t predict how (the blocks) are going to be,” Evans said. “You just got to go in there and trust it and go hard at the end.”
Evans gained momentum over the last couple of weeks, earning praise from Harbaugh for making plays out of situations where the blocks didn’t come together. Harbaugh said that he likes the way Evans is running, catching out of the backfield, getting yards after contact and blocking as well.
“I just went into the season giving everything I got,” Evans said.
Earning playing time on a running back rotation with three key players — and a fourth emerging with redshirt freshman Kareem Walker — would be no easy task.
Evans, who splits carries evenly with Isaac and Higdon, said that he can’t have a selfish mindset. He understands that he might not rush for a 1,000-yard season when he only gets a third of the carries.
His counterpart this weekend, though, can’t say the same.
Wisconsin running back Jonathon Taylor is having the freshman season a running back can only dream about.
With 1,525 yards through the first 10 games, Taylor leads the Big Ten. He has run for 12 touchdowns and averages seven yards per carry, and plays a critical part of the fifth-ranked Badgers’ offense.
He’s responsible for 46 percent of Wisconsin’s rushing attempts, and the other 54 percent is split between 14 different players. As the lead rusher, and a solid rusher at that, Taylor was bound to have a stellar season.
Evans admits that Taylor “is a great player,” but knows that his situation is different here in Ann Arbor than Taylor’s in Madison.
“We can’t be selfish,” Evans said of his teammates. “Like, ‘Man, I wish I got all the carries, and I wish I rushed for 1,500 just like (Taylor).’ ”
He doesn’t have the opportunity Taylor does. Evans has never been and probably won’t ever be the only running back that Michigan relies on. He’ll keep sharing carries, and there will undoubtedly be plays he takes where the blocks don’t arrive.
But on the plays where the blocks do arrive, it’s up to Evans to make the most of them.