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2023 preseason positional grades: RBs

Corum and Edwards are the two best weapons Michigan has on offense.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 05 Michigan at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There are a lot of really talented running backs returning to college football in 2023. All offseason, we have seen national outlets ranking them and putting expectations on them for the fall.

Most have included Blake Corum as the No. 1 overall back and Donovan Edwards somewhere else in the top-10. I think it’s reasonable to believe they should both be among the best in the country by year’s end if they can stay healthy, despite sharing touches for the Michigan Wolverines.

Runningbacks - Grade: A+

  • Starter: Blake Corum (1A), Donovan Edwards (1B)
  • Backups: CJ Stokes, Kalel Mullings
  • New Faces: Cole Cabana, Benjamin Hall
  • Depth: Tavierre Dunlap, Leon Franklin

Corum was the best running back in college football in 2022. If it weren’t for the knee injury late in the year against Illinois, he had a credible shot at being the first running back since Derrick Henry in 2015 to win the Heisman Trophy. His case could have been made if he had a similar performance to what Edwards did to the Ohio State Buckeyes in a program-shifting win in Columbus.

Corum can do just about anything on the field. His smaller 5-foot-8 frame is jam-packed with muscle and power, but he is so agile and can make acute cuts into the open field that so few running backs at this level can. When he gets the space, his breakaway speed takes over as he pulls away from the secondary and into the end zone. He’s a spectacle to watch.

Corum had 18 rushing touchdowns last season and essentially missed the last two and a half games. He’s going to get quite a few more house calls in 2023 and is well worthy of the honor of the best returning running back in college.

The question so many are asking is, “How is his return going to impact Edwards?” The Wolverines’ offense did not miss a beat in the biggest games of the season once Corum went down with his injury. In fact, in the final three games of the year — Ohio State, Big Ten Championship, Fiesta Bowl — Edwards had 520 of his 991 rushing yards. Oh, and he did it all with a broken hand and a lower-body injury sustained all the way back in Week 2

If Edwards wasn’t hurt for a decent chunk of the season, Michigan likely would have had its first pair of running backs to surpass 1,000 rushing yards each since Rob Lytle and Gordon Bell in 1975. I think that is not a goal, but an expectation for the duo in 2023 if both can stay healthy.

Michigan fans knew how great Edwards was before his breakout performances, but the national media started to pick up on it with those back-to-back house calls to seal the game against Ohio State.

I think a case could be made that Edwards is every bit as good as Corum. He’s considerably bigger, but has the same breakaway speed and balance that Corum possesses. In fact, Edwards led all Power 5 running backs in 2022 with 7.1 yards per carry, making him one of the most explosive backs in the country.

The biggest difference between the two, and what has NFL scouts intrigued, is Edwards’ ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. As a true freshman, he had a 10-reception, 170-yard performance in the blowout win over Maryland. With the broken hand in 2022, it made it very difficult to utilize him in that way, and he still had more than 200 receiving yards.

That’s a part of Harbaugh’s offense I would love to see tapped into a little more as they approach closer to a 50-50 run-pass split in 2023. I believe there is a strong chance we see sets with both Corum and Edwards on the field together; imagine the hell you can raise on opposing defenses. Both are dynamite with the ball in their hands, and you want your best 11 on the field for every down. I suspect Harbaugh figures out a way, whether both are in the backfield or if one lines up in the slot (likely Edwards).

Backups and New Faces

There’s some excitement behind Corum and Edwards for the 2023 season as well. At the top of the list is CJ Stokes, who was a surprise as a true freshman. He had the third-most carries on the team among running backs last season when the expectations were not high for him. There has to be a lot of optimism he can continue to build off that and have a strong sophomore season, if necessary.

The wildcard here is Kalel Mullings. At 6-foot-2 and 232 pounds, he’s the ideal size for a short-yardage running back. Mullings made two pivotal plays in the final three weeks of 2022: a jump pass to convert a third-and-one play on a pivotal third quarter drive against Ohio State, but he also had a fumble on the goal line against TCU in the College Football Playoff.

Some new freshmen faces could see a few snaps as well. Benjamin Hall impressed a lot of people in Michigan’s spring game, and 247sports even said he could be a starting running back in 2023 at other Big Ten programs. Then, Cole Cabana — a highly sought-after four-star recruit — will be deserving of a few snaps, too. From top to bottom, this room has all the makings to be the best in college football in 2023.