The Michigan running back depth chart has taken a big hit over the offseason with O’Maury Samuels being kicked off the team and now Chris Evans being away from the team due to academic issues.
Unfortunately, the timing of the Evans news occurred right before the 2019 National Signing Day, preventing the staff from pursuing running backs that could be on the roster next season in the event Evans is not. They were already looking into adding a second running back in the class after Zach Charbonnet, but decided against it.
Their main target was 4-star Alabama commit Keilan Robinson, but they reportedly passed on receiving an official visit from him because of tight scholarship numbers. He took a visit to USC last weekend instead, and Michigan State is also recruiting him pretty hard. This was only Robinson’s second official visit, so he could hold off signing Wednesday and extend his recruitment, but that seems unlikely, especially for a Nick Saban recruit.
Just in case Evans does not come back to the team in the future, here are a few things that could happen to boost the depth at running back:
Disclaimer: I am not saying these things WILL happen, nor am I saying Evans is off the team for good. I am saying IF Evans does not come back, here are some things the staff could do to combat the depth issue.
Perhaps Michigan offers Ohio 3-star running back John Branham, who has been waiting a long time for the Wolverines to give him a chance. He’s the brother of 2020 wide receiver commit Kalil Branham and would probably commit on the spot. He’s expected to have an announcement today, so I highly doubt this happens.
What Michigan does have in the 2019 class is a lot of slot receivers. I could see the coaches moving one of their four slots to more of a running back role. The candidate that stands out to me would be Giles Jackson, who played mostly out of the backfield as a junior and rushed for more than 1,500 yards. Mike Sainristil would be another option, who took handoffs as a high school player.
Another possibility is the grad transfer market. If you’ve followed college football at all over the last couple months, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the transfer portal. There are some former highly-touted running backs in the portal that would be immediately eligible.
I don’t see any backs who were recruited by the staff though, so there aren’t many existing relationships with these players. The players who will be immediately eligible are seniors, which means they were from the class of 2015, which was the transition year between Brady Hoke and Jim Harbaugh. There’s also the reality these players are transferring for a reason; they weren’t good enough to start on their own teams.
So with few options for the immediate future, focus turns to the 2020 class. Running back was already going to be a position of need, with two being the minimum the staff would take. That number probably gets bumped up to three if Evans isn’t able to turn his grades around. They are recruiting backs of different molds, though, so there will be different roles for them, especially in Josh Gattis’ system.
Ngata and Cooper are designated as athletes and listed at 5-foot-9 and around 180 pounds, which indicates more of a scatback/slot devil/jet sweep type of player. Drennen is a little bit bigger at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, and is listed as an all-purpose back. He says schools are recruiting him as both a running back and a slot receiver.
A wild card here is AJ Henning, who visited Ann Arbor last weekend and said Gattis’ plan for him on offense would move him all over the place, including the backfield. He could be somebody who gets carries as soon as he gets on campus if he chooses Michigan.
As for traditional running backs who will tote the ball, the list is still long. Elite 5-star talents like Bijan Robinson and Kendall Milton are being chased by the staff. Notably, coaches visited Milton’s high school last week and are trying to pry the door open with him.
I’ve talked about New Jersey 4-star Jalen Berger a lot recently since he has connections to both Anthony Campanile and Gattis. The staff’s interest in 4-star Lawrence Toafili has increased significantly lately, and he seems to be intrigued. Finally, 4-star Detroit King standout Peny Boone was offered recently and has to be considered a favorite to land in the class if the coaches push for him, considering his proximity to the program.
There are even more options I’m not going to list here, but you can check out on my 2020 recruiting position preview for running backs.
Assuming the staff doesn’t take another running back in 2019, I’d say they easily take three in 2020 if Evans doesn’t come back. Under Gattis’ new direction on offense, I’d guess they take two players in the athlete/all-purpose back mold and one in the traditional running back mold. Luckily, the Wolverines already knew they had to prioritize the position, and they are in the race for several top talents.