Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh had a short answer on Monday afternoon when asked about who will start at running back for the Wolverines on Saturday night.
“I haven’t decided yet,” he said.
That seems to be a far cry from Big Ten Media Days, when he stated that Tru Wilson was set to take the lead in the Michigan backfield, but that was before fall camp.
“Tru Wilson is our starter,” Harbaugh said back in July. “He was our second-leading back last year and did a great job.
Things have changed, and the options behind Wilson have, as Harbaugh likes to put it, come on “like a freight train.”
That player that has received the most hype in the backfield is true freshman Zach Charbonnet, who did not take part in spring activities due to an injury. Since fall camp started, he has been ready to roll and has been impressing everyone — coaches and teammates included — in the process.
Christian Turner, a redshirt freshman, is another player that has been involved in the battle with Wilson and Charbonnet for the largest share of the carries when the season rolls around. Turner got the start in the bowl game last season and showed the combination of burst and running ability that warranted a longer look in the spring.
So what does the lack of a decision to this point mean? First off, it by no means is a knock against Wilson at all. He is a known commodity and the coaching staff seems comfortable by what he brings to the table.
What it is, though, is a looming sense that the youth at the position — which also includes Ben VanSumeren and Hassan Haskins — is set to play an extremely vital role this season. Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis may open things up and pass more, but the Wolverines are not abandoning the run game and have enough talent in the backfield to rotate and keep guys fresh while remaining dangerous.
Wilson may still start and get that first carry, but there does not seem to be much of anything holding back the likes of Charbonnet and Turner to this point. Of the two, the arrow seems like it is pointing the most upward on the true freshman, but this battle will continue into the season and probably through the bye week, as well.
We are always careful not to get too hyped up over freshman skill players, but Charbonnet looks and sounds to be among the most impressive through camp that Harbaugh has brought in thus far. It is easy to see why he has drawn David Johnson comparisons because at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, he has the size and speed you want out of a lead back and he can also catch the ball fairly well, which helps add another wrinkle of unpredictability to Michigan’s offense when he is on the field.
Turner can play, too. A lot of what he does is a throwback to the not-so-distant past of having Karan Higdon in Michigan’s backfield. He is not the biggest guy, but he runs hard and has the ability to make someone miss even if he is not a burner.
All three of these guys do the things that should be required of them in this offense well and that’s good news for the offense in general. It will be interesting to see who gets the most amount of carries on Saturday, as this is one of the bigger unanswered questions that the Wolverines have heading into the season.