As the final days count down until the Michigan football team opens the 2017 season against Florida in the AdvoCare Classic on Sept. 2 at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, the Daily breaks down each position group for the Wolverines this year. In this edition: running backs and fullbacks.
For a roster with lots of new faces, and even more unanswered questions, the running back squad might be the most certain. The Wolverines’ top rusher from 2016, De’Veon Smith, entered the NFL, and taking his place for the most downs this season will probably be sophomore Chris Evans. Though, you can expect a few others to get into the mix as well.
The fullback position is one that coach Jim Harbaugh emphasizes more than most other college coaches, and he has plenty of returning talent to utilize.
Here’s how the groups stack up this year:
Who’s back: Running backs: Chris Evans, Ty Isaac, Karan Higdon and Kareem Walker. Evans burst into the spotlight in 2016’s season opener against Hawaii with two speedy touchdown runs. He was the Wolverines’ second-leading rusher last year. Evans’ biggest asset is his pure speed and athleticism. He won Michigan’s spring football combine last March, running a 4.64-second 40-yard dash and jumping for a 36-inch vertical.
Isaac and Higdon worked their way into the rotation last year as well, and each bring a different skill set. Isaac has earned praise from running backs coach Jay Harbaugh for his blocking ability, and it’s easy to understand why — he’s huge. Isaac stands at 6-foot-3 and weighs around 230 pounds. Higdon, a junior, will also get a good amount of touches after scoring six touchdowns last year, including a pair each against Penn State and Rutgers.
Walker, a redshirt sophomore, was the top running back recruit nationwide in his class, but sat out last season for academic reasons. He’s a physical runner with a strong stiff-arm, and if he has the chance to contribute this season, he could have a major impact.
Fullback: Fifth-year seniors Khalid Hill and Henry Poggi and senior Jared Wangler. Hill, nicknamed the “hammering panda”, provided Michigan with 13 touchdowns in 2016. Harbaugh utilized him most during goal-line situations and will likely do the same again this year. His large frame is tough to stop, especially when he only needs to gain one or two yards for a touchdown.
Poggi started in seven games last year and also made a few catches, but has yet to score a touchdown for the Wolverines, which will certainly be one of his goals heading into this season. Poggi switched to fullback after two years as a defensive end under former coach Brady Hoke. Finally, Wangler used to play linebacker, but switched to the offense this season.
Who’s not: De’Veon Smith. The Wolverines go-to running back for the last two seasons tallied 10 touchdowns in 2016. He was known for his beast-like strength and ability to break tackles in seemingly unbreakable situations. Smith tallied181 carries last season, more than twice that of the next player in the depth chart (Evans, 88). Michigan loses a 228-pound rusher in Smith’s departure, and Isaac is probably the closest match in playing style.
Who’s new: Freshman fullback Ben Mason. Mason, like most of the other fullbacks, switched to the position from the defensive side of the ball. A linebacker turned fullback at Harbaugh’s recommendation, Mason has received praise for his strong ability to hit, a skill that will also serve him well on offense.
Stats in 2016:
Evans: 614 yards, 4 touchdowns
Isaac: 417 yards, 5 touchdowns
Higdon: 425 yards, 6 touchdowns
Hill: 39 rushing yards, 10 rushing touchdowns, 118 receiving yards, 3 receiving touchdowns
Poggi: 45 receiving yards
Outlook: Michigan will do just fine with this running back group. Like many other position groups, the running backs lost their starter. However, few other position groups have backups that had as much experience as the rushers did in 2016. Evans and Higdon are expected to transition well to the spotlight. Isaac has struggled with consistency since transferring to Michigan from Southern California, but he has also shown glimpses of why he was such a sought-after recruit.
The fullback group is also one of the Wolverines’ strongest. Hill and Poggi make a strong team and have been an integral part of Harbaugh’s offensive system in the past, and they should make just as strong an impact in 2017. Additionally, with Mason already garnering praise from coaches as a true freshman, Michigan seems well positioned for the future.
Edge/Prediction: At fullback, Hill will be used anywhere near the goal line and Poggi will start everywhere else. Another 10-touchdown season from Hill is well within reason.
At running back, Evans looks likely to be this year’s leading rusher. He proved himself worthy last season, and if Harbaugh gives him enough touches, Evans will definitely have the chance to hit 1,000-plus yards on the year.