At a slight 5-foot-10 and 189 pounds, Karan Higdon doesn’t fit the picture of an old-school Big Ten running back. But Saturday, as he raced down the left sideline for a 40-yard touchdown — the longest run of his career — the sophomore proved he was right where he belonged.
The touchdown wasn’t of vital importance to the Wolverines (1-0 Big Ten, 4-0 overall), who were already up by 25 points and would ultimately rout Penn State, 49-10, but it proved to be the exclamation point on a nine-carry, 81-yard game for Higdon.
Last season, he barely saw the field. In his biggest game of 2015, he carried the ball eight times for 16 yards against Northwestern. Other than that, he didn’t have any standout games, and his less-than-ideal freshman season closed with a grand total of 19 yards.
He was knocked down another peg when he couldn’t compete in most of spring and summer conditioning due to a bout of mononucleosis and a knee injury. After he sat out all of fall camp, he admitted it was “mentally challenging” to watch his teammates get better while he sat back and watched.
But he surprised everyone when he got back to practice just a week before the Hawaii game and showed a glimpse of what he could do. Maybe this season would be different.
“Aw man, it has been a hectic freshman campaign, but to roll over from that adversity and just to keep moving and keep striving and having guys like Coach Wheatley and Coach Harbaugh constantly in my ear, pushing me, pushing me, pushing me, it just leads to great things,” Higdon said.
“I didn’t go at all during fall camp. I got back last week before the Hawaii game. To get back and have the season that I’m having, I’m feeling pretty good.”
So on Saturday, when redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight handed him the ball just past midfield in the fourth quarter, he shook off any remaining demons from the past year. He cut toward the left sideline, slipped through the arms of a Penn State defender and burst forward, with no one within reach of him. The touchdown was his second of the game and just the third of his career.
“Really, I think, that was a Tyrone Wheatley feel,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “He got Karan in there early and saw some real explosive runs, and I think that’s just something that coach Wheatley had seen and got him in there. He reeled off some impressive runs early. I mean, physical, hitting-the-hole fast, explosive-type of runs.
“Same on the touchdown. That was an exciting run, a very explosive run. I thought he was just shot out like he was coming out of the starting blocks. A heck of a good run.”
And really, he started shaking off last year in the very first game of the season. Against Hawaii, he carried the ball six times, turning one of those opportunities into his first-ever touchdown.
“It feels great to see my hard work paying off, but that goes credit to my work and everybody in the running back room pushing each other and competing with each other,” Higdon said. “We got some great backs in the running backs room, and as they continue to increase their skill, I do the same.”
Higdon is just one of many running backs that Harbaugh has used in 2016 — freshman Chris Evans, senior De’Veon Smith and redshirt junior Ty Isaac have all contributed significantly this season. With the number of backs being used, Wheatley had to make the unit competitive yet cohesive. Earlier this week, he said that what happens in the running backs room is like Vegas: What’s discussed there stays there. For players like Higdon, that just helps them even more.
“You see one guy who makes a heck of a play during practice, turn around, and you make a heck of a play, then the next guy,” Higdon said. “It’s like, ‘Whoa,’ you’re always excited to see those guys produce, as well as yourself, so I would say that’s what Vegas is like.”
No one told him that he’d be seeing an increase in opportunities on Saturday. That’s just the way the team operates. The same amount of preparation goes into each game.
Still, Higdon was able to emerge from the pack and seize some of the spotlight, a move he credited to his hard work and faith. After Saturday’s game, he met with reporters wearing a golden chain that featured both a cross and a football. He bought it on his birthday earlier this month. “It just reminds me each and every day who I’m doing it for and what I’m doing it for,” he said.
Asked if Saturday was his breakout game, though, Higdon wasn’t ready to go that far.
“No,” he said, “I just consider it a productive day.”