A year ago, Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins combined for 1,348 yards and 15 touchdowns on 270 carries. For Michigan, it was a promising revelation. Two players who had never played a college snap proved they could be trusted to take over the backfield from Karan Higdon.
And yet, as a whole, the Wolverines produced their least effective rushing offense of the Jim Harbaugh era. In his first four years, Michigan averaged 188.3 rushing yards per game on 4.5 yards per carry. Last year, those numbers dropped to 151.2 and 4.0.
The problem, as running backs coach Jay Harbaugh alludes to now, may have been a lack of versatility.
Jay Harbaugh won’t come out and say as much. Charbonnet and Haskins were both objectively good last year. Criticizing them for having similar skill sets would be both unfair and unhelpful.
But in Jay Harbaugh’s praise of Chris Evans, who is returning from a year-long academic suspension, his recognition of the pair’s flaws is evident.
“Being able to have a guy who excels outside the tackles,” Jay Harbaugh said, “helps balance out Zach and Hassan who are good out there, but they’re special inside the box.”
This year, Evans and freshman Blake Corum will provide just that. But while Corum — the 12th-ranked 2020 running back, per 247Sports — will have to adapt to the college game as Charbonnet did a year ago, Evans will need no such adjustment. In three seasons at Michigan, he’s rushed for 1,722 yards on 304 carries, good for 5.7 yards per attempt.
“As far as where I see myself at, I’m wherever they need me at,” Evans said on Sept. 11. “Whatever’s gonna put the team in the best situation.”
Evans’ stats through three seasons are a testament to his explosiveness — something Jay Harbaugh referenced repeatedly last week. But the 101 carries per season are also a testament to what Evans isn’t. Two inches shorter than Charbonnet and Haskins, Evans was reared as a high school wide receiver. His frame, even now, isn’t designed to take 224 carries, as Higdon did in 2018.
In other words, his skill set should comport perfectly with those of Charbonnet and Haskins. That extends beyond the running game, too. A year ago, Michigan’s top four backs combined for 20 receptions. In 2018, Evans notched 18 on his own.
“Chris, he’s just different than a standard back,” Jay Harbaugh said. “… Last year, you would say a lot of times, the guys we had on the field, they’d get out on check downs where they weren’t really a factor in the quarterback’s thought process, in his progression.
“A guy like Chris, who can beat the majority of linebackers or safeties he runs a route on and then he can make the play and catch the ball, that adds an element where you can include the running back in the progression.”
For the Wolverines to bolster their running game, though, Evans alone can’t be responsible. In 2018, when Michigan gained 203.8 yards per game on the ground, Higdon paced the team with 5.3 yards per carry.
Last season, Charbonnet and Haskins managed just 4.9 and 5.1, respectively. The gap between those numbers and Higdon’s might not seem substantial on balance, but over the course of 270 carries, it cost the Wolverines over 100 yards a year ago.
To bridge that gap, Jay Harbaugh says, Michigan needs to transform more pedestrian five-yard gains into 20-yard chunk plays.
That’s where months of Zoom meetings came into play, back before the Wolverines were even able to resume small group workouts in June. Admittedly, speed, balance and change of direction all play a role in the ability to break off explosive plays. More important, though, is the mental aspect.
Michigan’s running backs need to be able to identify opposing defensive schemes so that they can see where the defense is trying to funnel them and do the opposite. But simply identifying the defense’s direction isn’t sufficient. In concert with the offensive line, running backs have to know which defenders are supposed to be in which gaps, allowing them to spot holes before they open and avoid the opponent’s free hitter — the unblocked cornerback or safety designated to make the tackle.
Explaining this in a Zoom call with local media, though, won’t transform the Wolverines’ running game. Jay Harbaugh’s message, so sound in theory, now lies in the hands of his players.
“I would love to hear you ask those guys that,” he said when asked how to manufacture explosive plays. “Just to see how much they’ve been focusing on it and if they’ve internalized stuff.”
In two weeks, he’ll find out.
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