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An Early Look At 2017 Michigan Football: Five Breakout Stars On Offense

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For the next couple weeks, we’ll be doing position previews and analyzing the various strengths and weaknesses of Team 138. But first off, some breakout candidates.

Photo credit: Patrick Barron, MGoBlog

Well, it’s over. Now comes a long, long wait until 2017 Michigan football kicks off.

Still, college football never disappears. There’ll be spring practice right around the corner, then the draft and those delicious nuggets of information in June and July about how the players are developing.

So, I’m actually running out of time to make these football previews early enough for them to look really uninformed and ridiculous come September. Let’s jump right into it, before it’s too late.

Offense

RB Chris Evans (5’11”, 200) So.

As soon as Evans stepped onto the field, he had arrived. The speed, the natural ability, and a cool head when things didn’t go right - Chris Evans had it all. Well, almost.

If we’re being critical, there are still some areas worth keeping an eye on as Evans heads into his sophomore season. Pass protection stands out: in a lot of third-down situations, Harbaugh kept De’Veon Smith out there to either pass-block or leak into the flat. Now that De’Veon is moving on, Evans (or someone else) has to step up in that regard.

Another important factor will be ball security. Evans fumbled the ball twice, which is a quick way for a talented player to ride the bench. Hopefully that turns out to be nothing. Also, how will Evans do in the red zone? Or will a bigger back like Kareem Walker overtake him?

Putting those questions aside, the skill level that Evans shows is undeniable. He ran for 565 yards this year, the most for a Michigan freshman since Mike Hart. He had a 47.5% opportunity rate (best on the team among anybody with 20 carries) and 8.3 highlight yards per opportunity (second among regulars to Jabrill).

He was also a threat to catch the ball when the need arose, and we’ll probably see some more of that going forward - especially with a crowded running back battle unfolding.

RB Karan Higdon (5’10”, 189) Jr.

Evans’ biggest competition in the backfield could come from Karan Higdon, an overlooked part of the 2015 class who has blossomed into a look-alike of Iowa’s Akrum Wadley - a shifty and explosive back with surprising strength when he needs to use it.

Higdon wasn’t used quite as often as Evans this year, but he showed the same general skill-set - lots of big-play ability (7.0 highlight yards per opportunity, and for context, FSU’s Dalvin Cook had 7.7) as well as move-the-chains efficiency (45.6% opportunity rate, also above average).

Another interesting fact: Higdon got more than two-thirds of his carries in the second half of games, and his average jumped from 4.0 to 7.1. So, he either warmed up as he got more carries, or he simply benefited from the starters and workhorses wearing out defenses. I’ll bet it’s some of the latter, more of the former, and that 7.1 number is no fluke.

. Carries Yards Average TD's Opp.% HY/O First Downs Fumbles
. Carries Yards Average TD's Opp.% HY/O First Downs Fumbles
Chris Evans 80 565 7.1 3 47.5% 8.3 25 2
Karan Higdon 68 422 6.2 6 45.6% 7.0 18 0

RB Kareem Walker (6’1”, 207) R-Fr.

Yeah, it looks like this is going to be a hotly contested battle to be Michigan’s starting running back next year.

Unlike the last two guys I’ve talked about, Kareem doesn’t have any playing time to his name yet. He’s focused on academics first and foremost, even taking time off from football practice to just be a student for a little while. And, according to one of his teammates, it’s done him a world of good.

"He's improved a lot on and off the field," said De'Veon Smith. "He's made tremendous strides. He's grown as a player, he understands the concepts more. He understands what he has to do to get on the field.”

That’s key, because Walker already had a college-ready game when he stepped on campus. Now he’s a year into his training regimens and hungry to make a statement.

"He had his freshman year taken away from him, but he now knows he has this bowl camp, spring ball and then next fall camp to (get it back)."

TE Tyrone Wheatley, Jr. (6’6”, 276) R-So.

You may have noticed Tyrone’s steadily increasing presence over the second half of the season. As a blocker, he was almost as good as a sixth linemen, and as tight ends tend to do, he could sneak out into the flat and catch the ball as well. He showed poise and did all the facets of his job well. Mentally, physically, he seems ready to take on a leading role.

Conveniently, Michigan will need someone to step forward without Jake Butt in the fold. Ian Bunting and Wheatley currently have the inside track for that, but there are some darkhorses as well in Asiasi, McKeon, Gentry, and Eubanks - depending on what they do with the off-season.

WR Tarik Black (6’3”, 190) Fr.

If I were playing it safe - and I don’t really like to do that - I would have gone with Devin Asiasi here. Devin’s a phenomenal talent, strong as an ox, and he has a year of experience under his belt already. At the same time, he looked somewhat uncomfortable in his limited number of snaps - with a couple of drops, a couple penalties - so I’m going to guess that he needs a little more in-game seasoning before making the leap to starting and dominating college players.

Instead, I’m going to bet all of zero dollars (and zero ink, since this is digital) on Tarik Black breaking out as a freshman. Sometimes, with certain guys like Chris Evans or Mason Cole, they’re just inexplicably ready to play from Day 1 - and there are a few things I’ve seen from Tarik that indicate he’ll not only be a good player, he’ll be good very early on in his college career.

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For one, he’s obviously tall and fast enough to make a difference right away. He’s also blessed with impeccable balance and great hands, and seems to relish the physical nature of the sport. Being ready for the physical grind of college is a big step, and having the skill to make plays, particularly in the red zone, also helps.

Next, his route-running has been highly praised, and that’s a nuance that usually only comes to veteran, savvy receivers. It shows that he understands spacing and how to operate around defenders without producing interceptions and fumbles - a big issue for some first-year players.

Also, his physicality and tremendous size indicates he’ll be a capable blocker out on the perimeter, which is a big area of need with both Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh moving on. Having an advantage in so many areas also makes me confident that he’ll be able to learn whatever he needs to learn quickly and avoid a midseason “freshman wall.”

It’s sometimes tough to bet on a freshman, especially for outsiders who don’t know the players personally. But I think Tarik can fit into the offense right away and will have every opportunity given the loss of Darboh and Chesson to the NFL.