Heading into his fifth season of college football in Ann Arbor — and his second under Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh — fifth-year senior running back Drake Johnson knows what he’s getting into.
With few worries of his own when fall camp began last week, Johnson couldn’t help but tease the nearest target: his roommate, freshman Chris Evans, a four-star running back from Indianapolis.
Evans wasn’t showing any signs of first-camp jitters either, telling his new teammate, “Yeah, dog, I’m so ready!”
“No, you’re not!” Johnson said. “You think you’re ready, but you’re not!”
According to his teammates Wednesday evening, though, Evans might be more ready than Johnson thought.
Playing mostly at running back with the potential to get looks as a wide receiver — some sources simply listed his position as “athlete” on signing day — Evans has impressed the veteran running backs with his explosiveness and speed. Though the Wolverines are just ten days into camp, Evans has already been mentioned along with defensive end Rashan Gary and offensive lineman Ben Bredeson as a freshman who could contribute immediately this season.
When asked about the freshman class in his press conference Monday, Harbaugh said Evans might be “one of the most outstanding of them all,” and that players like him have “heated the competitive waters” among positions with established returning players.
“He is an impressive athlete,” said senior running back De’Veon Smith. “I haven’t seen anybody like him in a while. I’m gonna be excited to see what he does this season.”
Added redshirt junior running back Ty Isaac: “He’s real, real shifty. You know he’s fast, but he’s still deceptive — I haven’t quite figured that one out yet myself. I think he’s gonna be a really good player.”
Despite being part of a much-hyped recruiting class that also includes fellow running back Kareem Walker and versatile wide receiver Ahmir Mitchell, Evans has put his name in the conversation by exhibiting skills the rest of his position group doesn’t have. Smith and Isaac both weigh around 230 pounds and have gained reputations as bruisers in the backfield. Johnson has a little more speed — he joined the Wolverines’ track and field team in the spring — but plays a very physical style as well.
The 5-foot-11 Evans, though, was listed as low as 180 pounds as a recruit. Though he has bulked up to 200 pounds, Evans’ pure speed and quickness — Johnson called his moves “butter smooth” — gives him a unique advantage over the rest of the group.
According to the veteran backs, the main challenge for Evans and the rest of the freshmen will be acclimating to a new offense and all of what Johnson calls “Harbaugh-isms.” Harbaugh has already proven that it’s not impossible for even under-the-radar freshmen to gain playing time — then-true freshman running back and former three-star recruit Karan Higdon received eight carries in just the Wolverines’ sixth game of the season last year.
“It’s always gonna be hard to learn your first playbook,” Smith said. “In high school, you don’t really need to … unless you’re at a top school. The next couple weeks is when you start understanding stuff more and more.
“As the season goes on, (Evans) is gonna contribute more.”