Michigan football’s running game has long been a staple of the program’s success in its storied history. But it has been awhile since the Wolverines have been able to dictate the tempo of a game and impose their will consistently on the ground.
Jim Harbaugh’s hiring at Michigan signaled a return to the way things are supposed to be in Ann Arbor with the team running a pro-style offense led by a vicious rushing attack.
The run game took a step in the right direction in 2015, but injuries and inconsistency plagued the position and they were unable to sustain much of anything when the Wolverines matched up with the best teams on their schedule.
Michigan finished the season as the 83rd-ranked team in the country in total rush yards at 158.2 per game. The offensive line struggled at times to open up many holes, which was a definite reason for the pedestrian numbers.
It was in the bowl game against Florida where things really seemed to click across the board, both up front and with the backs. Michigan stomped the Florida Gators 41-7 while racking up 225 rushing yards in the process.
That performance against one of the better defenses in college football last season has inspired confidence among fans and those inside Schembechler Hall and the Wolverines are looking to build off of that heading into 2016.
This year’s group of running backs features more of the same faces with some new blood that could push for time as well.
Here are the players that Michigan will be looking to in seeing the run game take the next step:
#8 | Senior | 5-11, 228 pounds | Warren, Ohio
2015 statistics: 13 games (10 starts) | 180 rushes, 753 yards (4.2 ypc) | 6 TDs
Several players received carries for the Wolverines last season, but Smith was the team’s leading rusher and the bell cow of the group when healthy.
Smith, a former four-star prospect coming out of high school, is the team’s toughest runner and should be able to pick up from where he left off last season. He welcomes contact and keeps his legs churning after it comes his way.
He is not a player that is going to blow defenders away in the open field, but he is a battering ram that can tire out defenses and help the Wolverines to impose their will as the game goes on.
Michigan has not had a 1,000 yard rusher since Denard Robinson in 2012 and have not had a running back do that since Fitzgerald Toussaint in 2011. It may be tough for Smith to eclipse that number with as much as the ball is spread around, but he has a real chance to get close to it provided he stays on the field and the offensive line continues to develop.
#32 | Redshirt Junior | 6-3, 230 pounds | Shorewood, Illinois
2015 statistics: 7 games (1 start) | 30 rushes, 205 yards (6.8 ypc) | 1 TD
It has not always been an easy college career for Isaac. He was one of the top running back recruits in the 2013 class and began his career at USC before transferring after his freshman year to Michigan.
Isaac is one of the most physically-impressive running backs there is when you see him in person, but he struggled to stay on the field in his first season in Ann Arbor. Consistency is key for Isaac, who showed flashes of what Michigan fans were expecting of him, but not nearly enough before landing himself in the dog house due to ball security problems.
However, that was 2015. He is looking to bounce back in a big way to provide the Wolverines with a solid second option behind Smith, and perhaps even more than that. He had a very good showing in the spring game, so it will be interesting to see if he can carry that over to the regular season.
#20 | Redshirt Senior | 6-1, 201 pounds | Ann Arbor, Michigan
2015 statistics: 12 games (1 start) | 54 rushes, 271 yards (5.0 ypc) | 4 TDs
Johnson may not be the leader in the clubhouse for the bulk of the carries this season, but he is player that, when healthy, gives Michigan something they do not have much of in terms of an elusive back and someone who has the ability to hit a home run play.
He famously survived being run over by a forklift this offseason and has had two ACL injuries in his career, so Johnson is no stranger to adversity. What he brings as a change -of-pace back with experience cannot be understated. If he stays healthy, Johnson will certainly be a factor in 2016.
#22 | Sophomore | 5-10, 189 pounds | Sarasota, Florida
2015 statistics: 3 games | 11 carries, 19 yards (1.7 ypc) | 0 TDs
Harbaugh is willing to burn a redshirt if he feels a player can help the team right away. Higdon was an example of this last season, receiving a handful of carries in a reserve role.
Johnson was working his way back from injury, Isaac was on the bench and Derrick Green (transferred to TCU this offseason) was a non-factor. Michigan wanted to see what Higdon, a signing day flip in 2015 from Iowa, could bring to the table.
It remains to be seen what type of role he will have this season. He will battle the true freshman for reserve snaps.
#6 | Freshman | 6-1, 207 pounds | Wayne, New Jersey
2015 statistics (high school): 12 games | 215 rushes, 1517 yards (7.1 ypc) | 15 TDs
Michigan has a trio of true freshman running backs who they believe can make an impact as early as this season, led by a pair of early enrollees in Walker and Kingston Davis.
Walker was the nation’s fourth-ranked running back, per the 247 Composite. The Wolverines were able to snag his commitment shortly after he backed out of his pledge to Ohio State, which sweetened the pot for fans of the Wolverines and their excitement for this young player.
Walker is the perfect combination of size, power, speed and vision and may have the highest ceiling of any of the backs currently on the roster. He could be a year or two away from making a huge impact, but if the staff feels he is ready to play, they will not worry about preserving a redshirt for him.
#23 | Freshman | 6-1, 245 pounds | Prattville, Alabama
2015 statistics (high school): 10 games | 242 carries, 1656 yards (6.8 ypc) | 19 TDs
Davis is another early enrollee that will get early playing time if the coaching staff thinks he can contribute. He is a behemoth for a player his age, but moves very well for a player his size.
The spotlight may be on a player like Walker coming in with high expectations, but Davis could surprise as an under-the-radar contributor as early as 2016.
#12 | Freshman | 5-11, 200 pounds | Indianapolis, Indiana
2015 statistics (high school): 10 games | 188 rushes, 1115 yards (5.9 ypc) | 15 TDs
Evans is another true freshman that could make noise for the Wolverines as early as this season. He is a home run threat as a runner and is also excellent catching the ball out of the backfield.
He could certainly be in the mix for some change-of-pace carries, lining up as a slot receiver or being a weapon in the return game. Evans is a former four-star prospect and the ninth-ranked all-purpose back in the 2016 class, according to 247’s Composite.