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An Early Look At 2017 Michigan Football: Running Backs Preview

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NCAA Football: Indiana at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Personnel

Who’s definitely leaving? After a solid career in which he led the team in rushing every year from 2014-16, De’Veon Smith will be saying sayonara.

Who might, or might not, be around? Former USC transfer Ty Isaac is a fourth-year junior, but Harbaugh has said he hopes Isaac will return. Drake Johnson is a candidate to get a sixth year of eligibility, but there might not be a spot for him, or, he may need to give up his scholarship.

Turning the tables now briefly to recruiting, Michigan is still chasing one very important candidate: Najee Harris, out of Antioch, California. If Michigan is able to flip Najee from Alabama, it would be an unbelievable boon for Harbaugh’s recruiting efforts, but the odds are not in our favor. We’ll know for sure on January 7th.

So, who’s definitely going to be in town, fighting to be the tailback? Well, first off, there’s Chris Evans, who has to be viewed as the incumbent after running for 565 yards as a freshman, second-most on the team and the most for a freshman since Mike Hart back in 2004.

Evans will be pushed by about a half-dozen other candidates, all of whom have a puncher’s chance at a legitimate role: Ty Isaac and Drake Johnson have been mentioned above, Kareem Walker, Karan Higdon, and Kingston Davis all have chances to show they deserve an increased role, and 2017 commits O’Maury Samuels and Kurt Taylor will try to play the role of spoilers - à la Chris Evans last year.

Click To Open Video In New Tab | Kurt Taylor might be a low three-star, but he has a polished game and good catching ability.

The Depth Chart

A complete shot in the dark as to who will start: I’ll guess that Chris Evans and Kareem Walker end up splitting the starter duties.

Right on his heels: Karan Higdon and Ty Isaac both make it a good competition, but end up in more of a reserve role.

Outside looking in: Kingston Davis, Drake Johnson, O’Maury Samuels, and Kurt Taylor.

My first thought with this group had little to do with anyone in particular, and more to do with replacing the various things that De’Veon Smith brought to the football team. Smith was a valuable third-down back, a guy who saw a lot of time in the red zone and was used a lot in physical, short-yardage situations. But more importantly he was a guy that Harbaugh trusted with the ball and appreciated more than most (and maybe a little too much).

Evans will be able to do what he’s already done, but can he fill some of the roles left by De’Veon? He is slightly mischaracterized as a speedster, when he’s actually a really solid 5’11”, 200 pounds. Still, my first and most obvious question with Evans is whether he can be a third down tailback and a producer in the red zone. He’ll probably be fine, but I still see an opening for a heavier back to make his mark a little more than Evans can.

The veteran guy in that equation is Ty Isaac, but I’m going to bet against him just a little bit in favor of Kareem Walker. To be fair, Isaac hasn’t been the hardest worker in college, and his skill-set has never seemed to result in actual production. He was a five-star recruit because he was huge and fast, but he’s become a collegiate athlete who isn’t quite physical enough, runs east and west a little too often and doesn’t seem to get the most out of either his size or his speed.

That could change, but for now I’m putting my hopes on Walker. He’s got a great game around the line of scrimmage, very quick footwork and the ability to shed tacklers without losing any speed. He’s not a guy who tries to run over the whole defense like De’Veon, but he uses his size to stay on his feet and keep moving forward.

As for Higdon, he’s reminded me of Iowa’s Akrum Wadley at every step of his career so far - both were very unimpressive when they first got to college from a physical standpoint, but have bulked up and turned into sneaky and deadly runners.

Wadley took a big step in 2016, his redshirt junior year, and was probably the biggest reason why Iowa beat Michigan: he was one of only four runners who could put up 100 on Michigan’s defense, and Michigan was 1-3 in those games. The good news for the Wolverines is they have their own version of Wadley who is just entering his true junior season.

Three Questions

How does the offensive line hold up? Young running backs can make an impact pretty early in their career; it’s a blessing of the position. Young offensive linemen, though, need a little more time. Michigan will be turning to a lot of young big men up front next year, and hopefully Drevno and Harbaugh can find a little magic in them.

Does Harbaugh like size over speed? I’ve been in De’Veon’s corner more than most, but it was frustrating watching him take the majority of the carries in the Orange Bowl when FSU showed all season long they could fall victim to guys like Chris Evans.

This season, Harbaugh will have his choice between a number of bigger tailbacks - Isaac and Davis are probably going to be around 240, and Walker might get up to 220 by fall - but his best choice with the game on the line just might be a 190-pounder. Will Harbaugh trust his team’s speed in big moments?

Who starts crafting a legacy? Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve been waiting for a guy we can point to as the next Mike Hart for quite a while. De’Veon hasn’t been the most popular guy in town, nor Fitzgerald Toussaint before him. (Brandon Minor in ‘08 and ‘09, ooh yeah!)

Michigan has a great tradition of running backs, but who takes that torch from here? Is it a running back by committee under Harbaugh, or does someone knock this out of the park?

NCAA Football: Illinois at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Final Verdict

As with quarterback, I see this position improving a little bit in 2017. Depth is getting downright ridiculous, and competition will be fierce. Michigan has added five guys in the last two classes alone, and more might be coming in 2018.

I’m encouraged by the fact that Michigan has multiple guys coming with each class who can add something a little different to the run game. Harbaugh is dedicating himself to making a diverse and effective pro-style offense that uses both speed, size, and catching ability. Will 2017 be the first year we see a wide-open committee approach? Or will one or two guys nail down the starting role?

But, an even more important question that’s looming over this group is a little harder to answer. Will the offensive line be any better in 2017? Their long-term prospects are fine, but ‘17 might be a bumpy ride. We’ll just have to find out what that means for Michigan’s running backs.