As the offseason dwindled down and the predictions for the 2021 season started to pour in, it didn’t take long for the comparisons to start.
Blake Corum — the Michigan football team’s athletic 5-foot-8 sophomore running back — bore a strikingly similar figure to Mike Hart, the legendary 5-foot-9 former rusher who returned this season as the Wolverines’ running backs coach. Writers, of course, happily pointed out that similarity.
Hart, though, was quick to dismiss the narrative.
“He works a lot harder,” Hart said on Aug. 19. “… He’s a lot faster than me, a lot quicker than me. If I was that fast, I’d probably still be in the NFL.”
One of the main questions facing the Michigan offense entering the season was how it would divide up carries within its talented, albeit shallow, running-backs room. Would it rely on senior Hassan Haskins — the program’s most experienced runner and the leading rusher in 2020 — as a de facto workhorse back or use the Hart-like talents of Corum and elite athleticism of freshman Donovan Edwards for a more dynamic rushing attack?
Saturday’s 47-14 win over Western Michigan began to answer that question.
Corum’s performance — which featured 111 rushing yards on 14 attempts, two receptions for 22 yards, two total touchdowns and an electrifying 79-yard kick return — showed just how effective he can be when used properly. When placed alongside Haskins’s 70 yards on 13 carries, it highlighted the coaching staff’s intent to use the two backs as virtual co-starters.
Even more, it showed that Corum deserved his place in that one-two punch.
“Both (are) standout players,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters Monday. “We’ve been saying they’re both the starting running back. Said we were gonna lean on them and ride them. That’s the plan.”
For Corum, that step into a starting job marks an upgrade from last season, where Haskins more than doubled Corum’s workload and production. Many of the play designs were similar to last year — lots of swing routes, runs around the edge and plays designed to get the ball into space — but Corum’s role in the offense visibly grew in that first game.
In that starting role, he flourished. The stats communicate that Corum had a strong game, but they don’t even tell the full story. They don’t show how, on his swing-pass touchdown, Corum waited for junior wide receiver Mike Sainristil’s block before bursting into the gap. Nor do they say how — on his 30-yard rushing touchdown later on — he knew exactly where to cut back to find the most space.
The film doesn’t just display a sophomore back with some exciting athleticism; it tells the story of a smart player gaining more confidence in his abilities with every rush.
“I feel like I was more patient today,” Corum said Saturday. “But when you’re playing, you can’t really tell how patient you actually are. I feel like I took what I did in the offseason and applied it today.”
That doesn’t take anything away from Haskins, either. Much of the discrepancy in yardage between the two backs can be attributed to how they were used. In three different scenarios, Haskins was brought in on third-and-one to pick up the first down. Although one of those plays resulted in a 22-yard touchdown run, the use of Haskins in third-and-short situations demonstrates how the coaches see him more as a short-yardage back because of his physicality. Corum’s only third-down runs, conversely, came on third-and-five and third-and-15.
“(Haskins), he’s a strong dude,” Corum said. “It’s hard to tackle him, so he might run through you. Me, I’m more of a finesse guy, so I might make you fall. With a one-two punch with both of us that can make people miss at the second level, it’s hard to stop that.
“It’s kind of like thunder and lightning.”