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Michigan football spring rundown: A history of Jim Harbaugh's running game success

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Jim Harbaugh was introduced to a power run game as a quarterback at Michigan, where Bo Schembechler led teams that dominated on the ground year after year. We take a look at how Coach Harbaugh has had success developing offenses ground games throughout his coaching career.

Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

Jim Harbaugh has been a head football coach for over a decade, and from the first day on the job he has molded his running game on the smash-mouth football style of Bo Schembechler's Michigan football teams.

During a Super Bowl press conference in 2013, Harbaugh spoke of a conversation he and Schembechler had when he was first hired as a head coach. "When I got my first coaching job at the University of San Diego I called my coach, Bo Schembechler and told him I was head coach at the University of San Diego, before he said ‘congratulations’ or anything he said, ‘Jimmy, tell me you’re going to have a tight end that puts his hand in the ground on every snap. Tell me that you will have a fullback that lines directly behind the quarterback and a halfback in the I-formation.’" Harbaugh replied, "‘Yes coach, we will have that.’" To which Schembechler said, "‘Good. Congratulations on getting the job."

The running backs are in good hands with Jim Harbaugh at the helm. Since his days at San Diego, Harbaugh has had tremendous success in the run game. Harbaugh has a power run scheme with wrinkles of a zone scheme in the offense. This allows defenses to be kept off balance and unsure of what look is coming at them next. Michigan will become a team praised for their intricate and successful run game. Harbaugh's track record at Stanford and for the San Francisco 49ers provides overwhelming evidence he can turn Michigan's running game into a juggernaut.

At Stanford

Year Rushing Attempts Rank Yards Rushing Rank Yards Per Carry Rank
2007 446 80 1,134 103 3.0 112
2008 490 42 2,385 31 4.9 20
2009 536 20 2,837 10 5.3 6
2010 535 24 2,779 18 5.2 16

- Harbaugh took over a Stanford team that had a record of 1-11 the year before his arrival. It only took one season until Stanford's rushing attack became feared in the PAC 10.

- The two most productive years in the run game under Harbaugh (2010 and 2011), Stanford also had an exceptional passing attack led by current Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. Even with Luck at QB, Stanford was a run heavy team that featured a Heisman runner-up in running back Toby Gerhart. In 2009, Gerhart rushed for 1,871 yards and 28 touchdowns.

- After Gerhart left for the NFL in 2009, the running game still was solid, with Stepfan Taylor rushing for 1,137 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2010. Stanford won the Orange Bowl that season.

- The distribution of carries wasn't even among running backs at any point during Harbaugh's time at Stanford. The starting back was the bell-cow, with the change of pace and short yardage backs accounting for around 100 carries each year.

- The run game was complex in scheme. Power run and zone schemes were both implemented, with traps, wham plays, jet sweeps, and any other run play under the sun featured in the offense.

At San Francisco

Year Rushing Attempts Rank Yards Rushing Rank Yards Per Carry Rank
2011 498 3 2,044 8 4.1 8
2012 492 7 2,491 3 5.1 4
2013 505 3 2,201 3 4.4 9
2014 470 9 2,176 4 4.6 4

- An improvement to the offensive line was made in mentality and production under offensive line coach Tim Drevno. The improved line play lead to the scheme Harbaugh had at Stanford to work at the pro level.

- The year prior, running back Frank Gore had his worst season in his career statistically and many questioned if he still had gas left in the tank. In Gore's first year with Harbaugh, he rushed for 1,211 yards, good for sixth in the NFL. The production was consistent by Gore throughout Harbaugh's time in San Francisco, rushing for over 1,100 yards each season.

- Change of pace backs were used that possessed the ability to break runs to the outside (Carlos Hyde and Kendall Hunter), while also able to run between the tackles and catch passes out of the backfield. The 49ers brought back a smash-mouth running game to the NFL when nearly every team in the league have started to run spread formations and become more pass-heavy than ever before.

What does Harbaugh's track record mean for Michigan?

Harbaugh has a body of work that is as solid as any coach in sports in terms of consistency. He wins in the areas he wants to most of the time, and that is the case with the running game.

Schematically, wrinkles from the Bo Schembechler era will be installed, with a zone scheme and schematics that have expanded in 21st century football. This is a hybrid Bo offense. Old ideas, old principles, with new plays added in to create a more diverse running game. The diversity of the running attack will make the Wolverines hard to game-plan against.

The success in the run game goes beyond stats that can be measured. It physically wore out opponents, leading to shear domination in the run and pass game. To beat Ohio State, that type of approach will be needed, and Michigan has the right coach to go head to head against the Buckeyes. At Stanford, Harbaugh's squad handed USC and Peter Carrol their worst defeat in program history. Stanford beat USC 55-21, rushing for 325 yards as a team. This was USC's homecoming game. Ouch.

Looking ahead to the 2015, Michigan running backs Derrick Green and Ty Issac will be competing for the starting job. They will battle for the top spot on the depth chart, while the other will be a nice complimentary back. Green has more experience as a starter, but watching Issac's tape when he played at USC in 2013 leads me to believe the 6-3 240 lb bruiser will have a successful career for the Maize and Blue.

The productive run game will take pressure off whoever is the starting quarterback in 2015, he won't be asked to throw 40 times per game. The quarterback position will be asked to run some option looks and will be part of the run game in that manner. Even receivers will be asked to contribute in the run game on jet and fly sweeps. The run game will be as tough and diverse as any teams in college football before long.

Running backs are in good hands with Jim Harbaugh and Tim Drevno. Michigan football is known for its run game, for its toughness, for its blue-collar approach on the gridiron. The old familiar sight of Michigan running backs wearing defenses down like a boxer going 12 rounds are going to return. When it comes to scheme, mentality, efficiency, I see the Wolverines running attack being in the top 20 by 2016.

- For further reading, MaizenBrews Ricky Lindsay put together a couple great previews for the running back position. Click here for the running back preview, and click here for an article about Ty Issac and his potential to become a starter.