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5 questions on the running backs for Michigan in 2018

Can Karan Higdon be Michigan’s first 1,000-yard back since 2011? This question and more below.

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

Tyrone Wheatley. Tshimanga Biakabutuka. Anthony Thomas. Chris Perry. Mike Hart.

Michigan used to pump out prolific backs like clockwork in the 1990s and 2000s. All of the above enjoyed a cup of coffee in the NFL.

Over the litany of issues for Michigan football in the last decade, one of them has been finding one — let alone two — ball-carriers to grind out yards. After a second-half surge from Karan Higdon, Jim Harbaugh may have found one for 2018.

Higdon answering the call, and four other questions, make up our preseason segment today.

Can Higdon reach his 1,000-yard goal?

The rising senior was six yards away from going pro last year.

“Yes, very close,” Higdon said at Big Ten Media Days. “If I touched 1,000 (yards), I was going to do it.”

From 2008 to 2017, only Denard Robinson and Fitzgerald Toussaint reached four digits. Outside of quarterback, that means one back has reached the mark in the last decade.

Higdon hit his stride after the loss to Michigan State. After maxing out at 65 yards in a game over the first five weeks, he busted loose against an underrated Indiana defense to the tune of 200 yards. He reached the century mark twice more in the following three weeks, including another 200-yard outing against Minnesota.

An ankle injury slowed him for the rest of the year, but if offseason pictures mean anything, his body is ready for 2018.

Jim Harbaugh found Toby Gerhart in year two at Stanford, and since then, the Cardinal have produced a 1,000-yard rusher every year except 2014. With Higdon and the returning No. 14 S&P rush offense, the promise of a consistently powerful running attack could finally reach Ann Arbor.

What to do with Chris Evans?

After an enticing freshman debut, Chris Evans almost saved the 2016 Orange Bowl against Florida State.

While the Wolverines eventually lost, his run heightened expectations for a scintillating sophomore sequel. While not a slump, Evans hardly cleared expectations in 2017.

He gained 685 yards on five yards a pop, including a 191-yard effort against Minnesota at night. He occasionally flashed big-play potential — particularly against the Gophers, Purdue and Maryland — but eventually he ceded starting time to Higdon.

Evans is a bit of a mystery. He arrived in Michigan as a potential slot receiver-tailback hybrid, but his body has completely transformed into a a brick-solid 217-pound frame.


A post shared by Chris Evans (@kidnplay_abc123) on

That body looks ready to smash defenses, not to run circle routes out of the backfield. He did snag nearly 10 yards a catch last season, including five for 34 yards against Ohio State. If John O’Korn wasn’t running his own internal circle routes within his brain, he would’ve found Evans streaking open for a critical fourth-quarter first down.

Jim Harbaugh has never shied away from a committee approach out of the backfield, so if Evans maintains the shiftiness that got him into the end zone against the Seminoles, he may be jockeying with Higdon for snaps.

Pass blocking: Will it happen?

Evans bluntly laid out running backs coach Jay Harbaugh’s emphasis this offseason.

“Pass protection,” Evans said during spring practice. “Pass protection, pass protection, pass protection, pass protection and pass protection.”

The Wolverines infamously gave up 36 sacks in 2017, ranking No. 114 nationally. The running backs refused to deflect all the blame to the offensive line.

“So each guy kind of has his own cross to bear in terms of pass pro, because they’re overcoming a specific type of weakness,” the younger Harbaugh said. “Some guys it’s mental, some guys it’s pad level, some guys it’s spatial awareness. Some guys it’s focus, some guys struggle to punch. So, it’s always different for each guy.”

With the aforementioned physical changes, Higdon and Evans have the necessary bodies to hold up in pass protection. People forget that De’Veon Smith provided the requisite toughness in 2015 and 2016 as a pass-blocker, leading to over two sacks less a game on average.

The elder Harbaugh seemed impressed with the growth of his starters on his “Attack Each Day” podcast.

“I’ve seen better protection from the running backs. It’s all about (senior) Karan (Higdon) and (junior) Chris (Evans), Chris and Karan. They’ve emerged as leaders on our offense.

Anthony Thomas and Mike Hart remain the gold standards for blocking backs at Michigan. The younger Harbaugh is at least focusing enough on the skill to push his guys in that direction.

How real is the hype for Christian Turner?

Jon Runyan specifically offered unsolicited praise last week for incoming freshman Christian Turner.

“I’d say from watching film, probably Christian Turner,” Runyan said. “Small guy, but he’s explosive, he runs really hard. That’s what we need from a back in the Big Ten. He’s been really impressive out there.”

The 247 composite 3-star seemed destined for a redshirt, but the Runyan comment got people thinking for an early emergence for the Buford, Ga. product.

He is battling for the No. 3 spot with O’Maury Samuels and walk-on Tru Wilson. Wilson, in particular, received extensive praise this spring from Jim Harbaugh.

Both Higdon and Evans earned some run in 2015 and 2016, which set up bigger 2017 seasons. Who is their heir apparent?

Which style wins: ‘80s punk or turn-of-the-century villains?

The fullbacks are weird dudes, just based on their hair. All photos courtesy of Michigan Athletics.

There’s Bebop look-a-like Ben Mason. Millennials, Bebop was the useless villain from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Yes, I’m a Grandpa who has those shows on VHS.

Oh, look. It’s Kate Winslet’s fiancé from Titanic.

Don’t mess with my friend, Billy Zane, he's a pretty cool dude. Oh...that’s freshman Ben VanSumeren.

Wow. Miles Teller put on a lot of weight to play Vinnie Paz. I mean, hi, Jared Wangler.

Fullbacks smash people’s faces into dust. They can look however they want.