Tyrone Wheatley may have left Michigan’s coaching staff for the Jacksonville Jaguars, but very little has changed.
Now under the tutelage of Jay Harbaugh, Michigan’s running backs have been quick to point out how interactive their new position coach is. Stereotypes may suggest an authoritarian relationship between a coach and a player. Harbaugh doesn’t fit that stereotype.
“Because Coach Jay has never played the position, sometimes we see things that he may not see,” said sophomore Karan Higdon. “And sometimes it’s vice versa, which is really good because we’re able to converse about it and try and get each other to see and get to a mutual understanding. And it’s been great because it’s enabled us to reach our full potential.”
Added Harbaugh: “For me, they’re an extension of me on the field. So it’s invaluable to hear what they’re seeing and what they feel, and then try to use that to either make corrections or adjustments over the course of a practice (or) game. Good information from veteran guys that you can trust is really really crucial.”
The one thing that hasn’t changed, though, is that the Wolverines are sharing the responsibilities of the backfield once again. Granted, Chris Evans was the undisputed starter against then-No. 17 Florida, as the sophomore notched 22 carries to fifth-year senior Ty Isaac’s 11.
But when Harbaugh addressed the media Wednesday afternoon, he made it clear that the group will continue sharing carries, while also adding that he wants the trio — Evans, Isaac and Higdon — to virtually become interchangeable as the season progresses.
“I think it’s a great thing,” Harbaugh said. “They’re all different. They have unique skillsets. I think that makes it a little bit hard on the defense, when you’re getting different guys thrown at you and they have different styles and different types of moves and ways of hitting certain runs.
“It is what it is. They’re not the same so you can’t treat them all the same. Ideally, if they all have the same amount of competency then they are interchangeable, and they’re just gonna hit certain runs in their own way.”
Against the Gators, each back’s strengths were certainly on display. Isaac turned 11 carries into 114 yards and functioned as an effective — if unconventional — third-and-long weapon. Evans took the bulk of the carries for 78 yards and came just shy of a touchdown after tripping near the end zone on the opening drive.
And finally Higdon, though limited to just seven carries, managed to punch in the Wolverines’ lone rushing touchdown on two consecutive carries from Florida’s 10-yard line. Between the three, Michigan managed to rack up 221 yards on the ground.
Though it may only be one game, Michigan’s running game is shaping up to look eerily similar to last year’s combination of Evans, Higdon and De’Veon Smith. Realistically, it’s not very surprising.
The denomination as the starting back still undoubtedly matters, but each has been quick to give the company line: that the number of carries they receive is irrelevant. But — after all — there is still a majority of carries to be earned, and the trio is well aware of that.
“They’re certainly competitive,” Harbaugh said. “Every running back is gonna want the ball. They’ve done a great job being unselfish as a group — rooting for each other’s success and still taking advantage of their own opportunities. I expect them to want the ball more.
“As a coach, you’re just gonna assume that everyone’s gonna have a healthy discontent with their role, because they think that they’re ‘the guy’. And if you’re recruiting the right guys that’s gonna be the case. They’re done a really good job balancing that — that kind of natural selfish instinct as a back — with. ‘Hey I’m a team guy, this is a team within a team.’ ”