The Michigan Wolverines running back room looks different in 2019 without Karan Higdon and Chris Evans around, but that doesn’t mean there will be a dip in production from the unit this season.
However, from the outside looking in there are uncertainties, albeit uncertainties that aren’t negative, looming in the RB room that are worthy of discussion.
Five Questions at running back for Michigan football in 2019
Tru Wilson, starting RB?
“Tru’s doing a great job, just always in the right spot,” tight end Sean McKeon said last week. “He knows his job well, he knows what to do, he’s been making some really good cuts in the run game. He definitely seems more confident, because he’s kind of the leader of that group now, doing his best to help the younger guys come along.”
Wilson enters 2019 with the most experience on the unit, rushing for 364 yards in 2018. The former walk-on has worked on getting faster this offseason. Wilson said he lost weight and gained muscle and believes he would have had more yards rushing and played better last season if he was faster. Now a year later, Wilson says he’s faster, quicker, and more confident in the way he moves his body. He has implemented a new diet into his regimen with the help of staff nutritionists.
Wilson had the best yards per carry average on the team last season (5.9), and was also the best blocker at RB. With Michigan using the fullback less this season and Shea Patterson likely to run more, this could put Wilson in prime position to receive the bulk of snaps at running back.
The depth chart isn’t set in stone at RB and could change on a week to week basis, but right now it seems like Wilson is in line to receive the most carries to start the season.
Is Zach Charbonnet the real deal?
Big expectations await true freshman Zach Charbonnet this season, one of the more highly touted backs Michigan has landed on the recruiting trail in awhile.
Charbonnet was the Los Angeles Times Running Back of the Year in 2018, averaging 8.2 yards per carry with 1,770 yards rushing yards and 13 touchdowns for Oaks Christian. Charbonnet was the No. 46 overall recruit in his class and the No. 4 overall running back in his class.
Charbonnet is as big as a freshman RB’s gets, standing 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds. A bruiser of a runner, he’s been compared to Arizona Cardinals RB David Johnson by 247Sports Barton Simmons.
Jim Harbaugh on Charbonnet: “Even though he missed all of spring, he’s made no mistakes this camp.” Reports are really great on Zach Charbonnet. Though he didn’t practice in the spring, he’s been termed ‘a lot like Ben Mason.’ Strength coaches are saying that he’s a ‘stalker.’ He stalks them, he’s in the weight room all the time living in there. Talking about Zach and Ben Mason. They’re both right up there at the top of that list.”
Josh Gattis on Charbonnet: “He’s such a good kid, and when you look at his work ethic. He’s always in the weight room, he’s always in the coaches’ offices. He’s a very smart, cerebral player,” Gattis told reporters last week, five practices into camp.”
Charbonnet could see the majority of carries in games this season, he could be an immediate impact freshman that contributes to the offense in a major way. Charbonnet sat out spring practices recovering from a minor surgical procedure on his knee, but has been full systems go throughout fall camp. The reps he gets this month are important in hopes he’s in game-time shape physically and mentally by the time Michigan plays Middle Tennessee State.
Will RB’s be used more in the passing game?
With a new scheme comes new questions. Michigan hasn’t used a running back a ton as a passing option during the Harbaugh era, but with a pro-spread system in place, could we see an uptick in receptions from a running back?
Last season, Chris Evans had 18 receptions and 81 carries, while starter Karan Higdon had just 7 receptions and carried the ball 224 times. It would be nice to see Michigan get more production in the passing game from their starting running back. It’s good to keep a defense guessing in whatever way possible, and if a RB is a threat to catch the ball, that would be yet another factor the D would have to worry about while giving Patterson a reliable check-down option.
Will Michigan still be a run first team?
The pass to run ratio is going to be more of a 60:40 split than in prior seasons (usually has been 60:40 run/pass), but Michigan won’t be a finesse-spread scheme. Offensive linemen are still required to be physical, and now their speed is more important as well.
“We’re going to be sound and fundamentally sound in our run game. We’re going to be aggressive in taking our shots,” offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said in March. “We’re going to be aggressive in putting in conflict on the defense. For us, that’s the biggest focal point is understand that we’re still going to dictate the style of the play and we’re going to finish with an aggressive mentality.”
Yes, Michigan will pass more in 2018, but the running game will still be an integral part of what the Michigan offense does. Without a good rushing attack, a passing offense is bound to get predictable, and Gattis wants to keep defenses guessing. Expect a little bit less rushing attempts cumulatively for Michigan in 2019, with an increase in their yards per carry average.
Is the depth at RB the best at any position on the team?
We’ve talked about Tru Wilson and Zach Charbonnet, but there’s also Christian Turner, Hassan Haskins, and Ben VanSumeren. “That’s probably the deepest position for us right now,” Gattis said last week.
Gattis is confident that all five RB’s can get the job done. “I wouldn’t dare pick one guy in that situation. Not to label one guy out, because I truly believe that all five can get it done right now for us,” Gattis said. “I like where they’re at. I really can’t see one guy yet pull away from the group and that’s the exciting thing. In most cases you have one guy pull out in front, but this group has really kind of pushed themselves out front.”
Gattis also said that all five backs could take the field and there wouldn’t be a drop off in production. Gattis is all about putting the ball in as many different hands as possible on offense, and it sounds like a sub-category of that ideology could be giving all five backs reps in a given game.
There isn’t a true depth chart at running back, and there may not be this season for Michigan. Wilson’s experience may give him the most carries early in the season, but in the name of meritocracy all five are going to get a crack at success in Michigan’s offense.