Among the confounding trends from Michigan’s first four games, one stands out.
In week two against Army, freshman running back Zach Charbonnet ascended into the spotlight, rushing 33 times for 100 yards and three touchdowns.
In the Wolverines’ two games since, Charbonnet — “limited” by injury, according to Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh — has seven carries. Sophomores Christian Turner and Hassan Haskins have 17 and 10, respectively. Senior Tru Wilson, in his return from a broken hand, joined the mix with four carries against Rutgers on Saturday.
Confusing, right? Turns out, that’s just how Michigan wants it.
“I liked the fact that you can split it up, maybe 20, 20, 20, maybe a few for a fourth guy,” Harbaugh said. “But Zach played really well. Christian Turner played really well in this game, had some really fine runs. And Hassan Haskins really played well.”
Look past Harbaugh suggesting the Wolverines run the ball 60-plus times in a game — even in a run-heavy game-script against Rutgers, they ran 41 times — and you’ll see what he wants this running back group to be.
Charbonnet, as talented as he is, isn’t supposed to run the ball 33 times. “It’s just kinda common sense,” said running backs coach Jay Harbaugh. “As a running back, you don’t want that. But there’s times in a game where you can get in a situation where it’s a little bit unavoidable.”
The key to avoiding those situations lies in establishing depth at running back — something Michigan didn’t anticipate struggling with before the season.
Then, less than halfway into the season opener, Wilson broke his hand on a blitz pickup. Turner has struggled with poor pass protection. Behind them, Haskins and sophomore Ben VanSumeren — fourth and fifth on the preseason depth chart, according to Jay Harbaugh — weren’t quite ready yet.
Now? Saturday’s carry distribution says it all.
“Those guys really just (got) back to work,” Jay Harbaugh said. “There were certain things that they needed to focus on and get more mental reps, actual physical reps, making sure that they’re ready to see in the game.
“I think a lot of it’s just the nature of young, inexperienced players that’s it sometimes happens like that. None of those guys have played very many snaps in live action so it probably is a little less surprising to us than maybe it is to the outside that something like that can happen.”
While Jim Harbaugh didn’t explicitly announce who his top three backs were when he called for a three-way split, the indication soon became obvious. Charbonnet and Turner were givens and Harbaugh’s next two sentences were, in fact, about those backs.
The third spot, though, left some momentary intrigue. Haskins got nine carries against Rutgers, but that was the first game back for Wilson, part of the top trio before the season.
Then, Harbaugh answered the question he himself had prompted.
“Hassan Haskins really played well,” Harbaugh said “We’re watching Hassan now really make great strides in practice, see him play that well in the game. There are some examples of him dropping his hips and getting through the hole like some of the really special backs can do. So, redshirt freshman Hassan Haskins has really come on.”
According to Jay Harbaugh, the keys for Haskins to establish his playing time were to fall forward at the end of runs and improve his blitz pickups. “All that is kind of the vision we had for him, which is great,” he said Wednesday.
Now, the vision for the running back room as a whole is starting to fall in place with it.