There are plenty of question marks on this team heading into the 2017 season, but two of the easier to predict positions are running back and fullback.
Let’s face it. The running game hasn’t been dominant at Michigan for a very long time. But this year may be the year that all changes. It all starts with my presumptive No. 1 on the running back depth chart this year.
Chris Evans - 5'11, 200 lbs
Man, I love this kid. From being a coach and mentor for youth football leagues, to his sweet 90's style high top fade with rec specs to his smooth running on the field. Off-field stuff aside, he is a promising running back and looks to have a hold on the starting job and get the majority of touches this season.
What Evans showed us last year makes me think a lot of Walter Payton. They both aren’t flashy, but make defenders miss with a slight shiftiness that looks fluid and easy in the open field. Evans also can get skinny through the hole and burst through, and he certainly wasn’t afraid to lower his shoulder to get an extra yard, just like Payton used to do it.
Prediction: He'll be Michigan’s first 1000+ yard rusher since Fitzgerald Toussaint, and I think he adds another 300+ receiving. If he gets 1500+ yards from scrimmage and 12+ total TDs (I'd be more bold here if the Panda didn't pilfer like the Panda's gonna pilfer) then he'll compete for 2nd or 3rd team All-Big Ten this year. He's not Saquon Barkley yet. Next year...Heis...ok, I'll wait.
Next up we have a guy that is gonna get touches, yet has something to prove.
Ty Isaac - 6'3, 230lbs
This kid has yet to live up to his five-star high school recruiting rankings, but there is still plenty of talent here. His size and speed combo is unmatched on the roster and he has a chance to put up some pretty significant numbers himself. First, he must continue to stay out of the Harbaugh Dog House because there is plenty of talent behind him to take touches if he goes back in like he did after his disastrous start against Maryland in 2015.
If he does stay out, (ball security, blocking assignments and finding the right holes will be parts of that for the big man) you have a HUGE running back with good receiving ability out of the backfield. New RBs coach Jay Harbaugh singled out Isaac as the best blocking back this spring which portends time as a third down back and being in there for more passing situations. His running style is a bit upright, which has exposed him in the past to getting stripped, but he plays with power and has a good stiff arm. If he can put it all together, he could surprise a lot of folks and is the thunder to Evan's lightning.
Prediction: 700 rushing and 150 receiving yards with 6+ touchdowns.
Now, let’s get into the unsung baller battling for more this year.
Karan Higdon - 5'10, 190
He is your quintessential north/south back. He is the embodiment of someone running behind pads with a nifty jump cut that gets him into his lanes. He probably won't break many 75-yard runs or dazzle you with jukes and jives, but he'll get you a lot tough yards at 6 yards per clip and still break a few good ones here and there. His breakout game vs. Penn State last year and subsequent 100-yard efforts against Rutgers and Illinois showed us all what he could do.
Prediction: Higdon plays 3rd fiddle but not by much. I could see him having a similar year on the ground to Isaac with around 600-700 yards rushing on slightly less carries with 5+ TDs. If he proves to be a better pass blocker and reliable receiving option, he could surpass Isaac in total touches.
Now we move on to one of the more interesting running backs at Michigan.
Kareem Walker - 6'1, 208
Walker did not play last season due to focusing on academics, but he's gotten his stuff together since and is a popular breakout candidate. Walker is a one-cut power back with excellent explosion through the hole. He has been knocked for being indecisive and, thus, slow, but it seems like when he recognizes reads he can really move. Although he has good size for a running back and is considered a powerful runner, his relatively thin legs can lead to getting tripped up easier. A few added pounds and some adjustments could propel him up the depth chart.
Prediction: I think he'll get half the carries of Higdon and Isaac this year but make very good use of them. Without injuries on the depth chart ahead of him, I think he gets 300 yards or so and a few TDs. Next year he'll be in the mix for a lot more carries.
O'Maury Samuels – 5’10, 192
Dude is absolutely jacked for a recent high school senior. He looks more than physically ready for college. He ripped up lower competition in New Mexico. The physical tools are there but he’s probably a bit too raw for B1G play. This guy marinates for a year and the meritocracy will sort ‘em out.
Kurt Taylor – 5’8, 197 – Height + Weight = Tank. “Bowling ball” was used several times to describe him in scouting circles. After watching his high school tapes, I like it and agree. The overall three-star back from Georgia impressed scouts even though he doesn’t seem to have breakaway speed or much shiftiness. He looks like a downhill back that can get under bigger defenders’ pads and make them look silly. Like Samuels, he will likely have to wait at least a year.
The Man, The Myth, The Legend
Khalid Hill - 6'2, 263
Never has a self-given nickname been as unbelievably perfect and awesome as The Hammering Panda. That alone is enough to love this guy, but also that over 1/4 of the times he touched the ball last year he scored. His stats are amazing to look at. 41 offensive touches. 13 total touchdowns. 1.6 yards per carry. He's easily one of my favorite non-superstar Michigan players ever.
One of two fifth-year seniors at fullback, Hill is really half TE/half FB (or just an H-Back). He can block, catch, and run (at LEAST a yard at a time). This off season he said he focused on some of the things he did wrong last year like his fumble vs. Iowa and a sack he gave up vs. Colorado. Jay Harbaugh noted he’s in better condition than ever. I think Mr. Hill will find a spot in the NFL one day due to his size, athleticism, versatility and phenomenal hands.
Prediction: 10 total TDs and close to 100 yards rushing and receiving. He will be the best FB/H-back in the country, for whatever that’s worth.
The Handle Bar Stache/Crazy-Eyes Killa
Henry Poggi – 6’4, 260
Recruited as a DT, he’s played defensive end, tight end and finally fullback at Michigan and through it all has been a guy coaches love wherever he’s played and seemingly hasn’t complained. He’s what you’d call a "football player.”
His biggest area of improvement would be consistently reading the defense and finding the guy he needs to obliterate every play. With only one career rush and a handful of catches, he’s not going to put up counting stats. But mark my words, he will make an impact on the running game this year.
Prediction: Poggi is going to get his first career touchdown this year. I can feel it. He will also fix his past issues of missing assignments and help the running game become a feared presence.
NEW GUY/HARBAUGH GUY
Ben Mason – 6’3, 250
Ben came in as a three-star recruit that most thought of as a linebacker, but played quite a bit of fullback in high school to the tune of 700+ rushing yards his senior year. Either way, he has the requisite size to jump into B1G football immediately. He enrolled early and Harbaugh confirmed his fullback status.
"I’ve never seen anybody go forward and hit somebody better. I think this guy was just made to be a fullback." I couldn’t love this statement any more
Prediction: He will get some snaps on offense and on special teams. Heir apparent at FB as both guys ahead of him are fifth-year seniors. He will contribute all four years and likely start 3. Mauler, opener of holes, future fan favorite.