Michigan Football Preview 2017

2017 Michigan Football Preview

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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66 ■ THE WOLVERINE 2017 FOOTBALL PREVIEW RUNNING BACKS BY JOHN BORTON M ichigan fans won't require a game program to figure out who's in the running to carry the football for the Wolverines this fall. They've already seen the talent in action. De'Veon Smith emerged as Michigan's top back over the last two years of his career, and he's on his way to throwing his weight around in the NFL. Whereas Smith's 846 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns clearly bolstered U-M's 10-win effort in 2016, he proved far from The Lone Ranger of The Big House. The top three backs behind Smith com- bined for 1,456 rushing yards and 15 touch- downs. They all return and join some young hopefuls in gearing up to churn out the pro- duction once again. They've got a new boss, with Tyrone Wheatley moving on in the offseason and giving way to former tight ends coach Jay Harbaugh. He has embraced his new task with enthusiasm well known to Michigan- kind and is excited about the task ahead. For a team committed to running the foot- ball effectively, inhabiting Michigan's run- ning backs room is a big deal, Harbaugh stressed. "It's exciting," Harbaugh said. "Maybe half the practice, you have the ball in your hands. There's no greater gift than that, to be carrying the rest of the roster in your hands and trying to make something happen. "That's really fun, and it's a great honor in this offense. It's great to be working with these guys." Harbaugh has learned a lot about his crew in a short amount of time. He coached on the offensive side of the football a year ago for the Wolverines, and obviously knew plenty about the running backs. But it's different when you're focused on the tight ends every day and encountering the backs in practice, as opposed to putting everything into the ball carriers. Harbaugh admitted he's been very pleased with the micro view. "They're hard workers," he said. "That's the main thing, and I didn't know that until we really got going on the field. They're smart, they're tough and they'll run all day long. They really get after it. "They take their careers and their improve- ment very seriously. That's what I ask for. I'll coach you hard and give you exactly what you need, give you things to focus on and to fix and to tweak. They've answered the call every single time, in terms of not repeating mistakes and aggressively trying to improve their weaknesses." As noted, they're not unknowns when it comes to performing on the football field, either — at least several of them. Sophomore tailback Chris Evans led the pack of returners in 2016 yardage, despite his true freshman status. He piled up 614 rushing yards as a rookie and averaged 7.0 yards per carry, best among Michigan's tailbacks. Evans finished the season strong as well. He scored the go-ahead touchdown against Florida State in the Orange Bowl with 1:57 remaining, bursting away on a 30-yard TD dash. Had the Wolverines closed the deal on special teams and defense, Evans' burst for his fourth touchdown of the year would have garnered even more long-lasting attention. As it is, he quickly put himself into posi- tion to perhaps become Michigan's lead back in 2017. He played only the first quarter of the spring game, demonstrating the ability to split out and catch a pass, taking a wildcat snap and making a first down, and reminding all that he hasn't lost a step. "Chris does everything pretty well," Har- baugh observed. "That in itself is a unique thing, to have no real weaknesses. He's very elusive, he's great out of the backfield catch- ing the ball and he's a dynamic player." Evans is also looking to improve his al- ready strong vision with the help of his new position coach. The back noted that last year moves such as the one he pulled off against Florida State were predetermined. He's work- ing to get to the point where his body is able to just react to whatever opening he sees and take advantage of it. Ty Isaac is now a fifth-year senior tailback, a former five-star prep athlete who started out at USC, transferred to Michigan and is still seeking to fulfill his abundant potential in a year of major college production. He stepped it up some last season, carrying 74 times for 417 yards (5.6 average) and five touchdowns for the Wolverines, in a four- man rotation. PRESEASON ANALYSIS: RUNNING BACKS STARTERS ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ This one's written in pencil, given the on- going competition between veteran backs and the acknowledgement that several could play. Sophomore Chris Evans, though, came through in strong fashion during the Orange Bowl and certainly appears to have the well- rounded skills to take over. Fifth-year senior Khalid Hill gets the nod at fullback. DEPTH ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ Depth will be a strength for this crew, with Evans supplemented by fifth-year senior Ty Isaac and junior Karan Higdon at tailback, and Hill backed by fellow fifth-year senior Henry Poggi at fullback. All have seen extensive time on the field and know what they're doing. X-FACTOR Redshirt freshman Kareem Walker has joined the running backs battle and could make some room for himself in a crowded field. He combines decent size (6-1, 207) with strength and speed, and stepped it up in a big way during bowl practices. OVERALL ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ Jay Harbaugh inherited a good situation in his move to coach running backs this season. Both backfield spots feature depth and talent, well beyond recruiting hype and projected results. This is a group that could combine for 3,000 rushing yards this season. Note: Star rankings are made on a scale of 1-5 stars. QUICK FACTS Position Coach: Jay Harbaugh (third season, first with RBs). Returning Starters: FB Khalid Hill (2 starts at FB, 6 at TE) and FB Henry Poggi (7 at FB, 4 at TE). Departing Starter: TB De'Veon Smith (26). Projected New Starter: TB Chris Evans (1). Top Reserves: TB Karan Higdon, TB Ty Isaac and FB Nick Volk. Wait Until 2018: TB Kareem Walker. Newcomers: TB O'maury Samuel and TB Kurt Taylor. Moved In: FB Greg Froelich (from OL) and FB Ben Mason (from LB). Moved Out: None. Rookie Impact: Samuel. Most Improved Player: Walker. Best Pro Prospect: Evans. Taking The Lead A Variety Of Talented Backs Are Getting Ready To Roll

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