Before running backs coach Jay Harbaugh could even situate himself in the middle of his first media availability of the season, the inevitable question came: Has Zach Charbonnet separated himself from Michigan’s other running backs?
It’s the inescapable — if understandable — question surrounding Michigan’s run game. Charbonnet carries the sexiness of the unknown and the promise of a four-star, top-50 recruit.
But as Jay Harbaugh began to reply, he cracked a knowing smile.
“All those guys are playing at a high level,” Jay Harbaugh said. “So we’ll see as the season goes on if anyone really separates themselves in the way that you’re looking for me to say.”
Seconds later, he confirmed what Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said two days earlier and the assumption that has floated around Schembechler Hall all offseason. Michigan doesn’t have a singular starting running back set to fill the void left by Karan Higdon’s 224 carries and 1,178 rushing yards.
For the Wolverines, finding a running back has been an ongoing process since last December, when Higdon announced he would skip that month’s Peach Bowl. The Wolverines’ backfield was headed by Chris Evans and Christian Turner, both spelled by Tru Wilson in what seemed to be a preview of this year’s running game.
Instead, very little remains from that afternoon in Atlanta. Evans was kicked off the team, Charbonnet arrived on campus and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis was hired with the promise of revolutionizing Michigan’s offense.
Turner’s breakthrough nearly came in the Peach Bowl, with a 46-yard jet sweep touchdown momentarily providing a glimpse into the Wolverines’ future before it was overturned.
“Obviously I feel like I can do better,” Turner said at the time, an expressionless look glued to his face after Michigan’s eventual 41-15 loss. “I’m gonna watch film and see what things I can improve on. There’s always chances to do better. I’m not gonna say that I played good enough cause that’ll make me complacent and that’s not what I’m trying to be cause we need to win these big games.”
Eight months later, Turner and the rest of the Wolverines’ running backs have used both spring and fall camp to do exactly that, working into Gattis’ offense and attempting to fill the void left by Higdon.
Still, just three days before the season opener, he, Wilson and Charbonnet remain in a three-headed committee, with sophomores Ben Vansumeren and Hassan Haskins occupying the next two spots on the depth chart.
“It allows you to put multiple guys on the field at once,” Jay Harbaugh said of Michigan’s running back depth. “Then it also just lets you survive a season because it’s hard to keep a guy healthy — one or two guys healthy — for 13 games, that’s pretty tough. So you’ve really got to have three, four, five guys that are legitimate contributors for you to make it through a season and we believe we have that.”
The Wolverines get an added benefit to their depth at the position thanks to the mix of skill-sets among their top three backs. Wilson earned the most playing time of any returners last year with his pass-blocking ability, while Turner’s speed gives him big-play potential.
Charbonnet possesses a mix of the two, according to Jay Harbaugh, giving him the opportunity to contribute immediately in Gattis’ spread offense.
“As a running back, we have more space to work with now because there are going to be less people in the box typically when we’re running the ball,” Jay Harbaugh said. “So just being tough to tackle is probably the main thing because you’re going to get more opportunities where there’s one guy that’s going to make this either a six-yard gain or a 20, 30 yard gain. And being able to win that battle is a huge thing.”
With 220 to 275 reps each in camp, all three running backs have begun to familiarize themselves with Gattis’ offense. Now, all three will have the chance to show they can translate those reps into game touches.