The Wolverine

2018 Michigan Football Preview

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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62 ■ THE WOLVERINE 2018 FOOTBALL PREVIEW RUNNING BACKS BY CHRIS BALAS F or decades, Michigan had been one of the Big Ten standards when it came to churning out great running backs. Billy Taylor and Rob Lytle in the 1970s, Butch Woolfolk and Jamie Morris in the 1980s, Tyrone Wheatley and Tshimanga Bi- akabutuka in the 1990s, and Chris Perry and Mike Hart in the 2000s … all of them were some of the best in the country. The well has dried up in the last decade and, not coincidentally, so have the Big Ten championships. The Wolverines have had one 1,000-yard running back since Hart put up 1,361 as a senior in 2007 — Fitzgerald Toussaint (1,041 in 2011) — and have only had one close since with Karan Higdon's 994 a year ago. That's been tough to accept for the Michi- gan football alums who ran the ball behind great lines, and it's just as difficult for them to fathom that the Wolverines haven't won a Big Ten title since 2004. There's hope, however, that it will be rectified in year four under head coach Jim Harbaugh. "It is hard, but we've gone through a change. Everybody knew change was com- ing someday, sometime. It's just longer than what everybody's expected, and everybody's hungry," said former Michigan All-Big Ten running back and No. 4 all-time rushing leader Jamie Morris, a teammate of Har- baugh's in the mid-1980s. "This is a team where if everything works right, just like 1997 when they put it together … I see the hunger in these kids, the want-to. They have something to prove." When it comes to the dearth of 1,000-yard rushers, he added, it comes down to more than just the running back. "You can't just blame the running backs — and I'm not saying there needs to be blame thrown around," he said. "You just need a team effort. You need the offensive line to come along, you need great quarterback play and you need good running back play. Those are all keys to the running game." It helps to have great backs, though, and Michigan has at least two candidates in Hig- don and junior Chris Evans. Higdon has as- cended each year he's been in Ann Arbor, and he came up only six yards short of 1,000 last year. One of the last memories from his 2017 campaign isn't a good one, though, a fumble inside the 5-yard line when it appeared the Wolverines were getting ready to put South Carolina away in the Outback Bowl. Instead, the Gamecocks rallied for a 26-19 win. Higdon has put it behind him, and he's chiseled and in outstanding shape at 5-10, 190 pounds. He and Evans did everything asked of them this spring and then some, run- ning backs coach Jay Harbaugh noted. "They're doing a great job, just exactly what you'd expect from them," Harbaugh said. "They've taken every part of their game that needed detail or polish, and they're doing that. Every day it's one less mistake. "Pass protection-wise, they're both im- proving. Typically running backs don't get to that just because they don't have time. "Those guys are exceptional athletes. As we work them in empty packages and com- ing out of the backfield, they can handle a lot of detail with their technique like a receiver would. Them continuing to hone those skills has been nice to see." Higdon was U-M's 2017 Offensive Player of the Year and a third-team All-Big Ten hon- oree, adding 131 yards receiving to go with his 994 rushing yards. He has an opportunity to add himself to the distinguished 1,000- yard list, coming off a breakout season in which he notched a pair of 200-yard games. QUICK FACTS Position Coach: Jay Harbaugh (fourth season, second with RBs). Returning Starters: RB Karan Higdon (8 career starts), RB Chris Evans (3). Departing Starters: FB Khalid Hill (11), FB Henry Poggi (17), RB Ty Isaac (3). Projected New Starter: FB Ben Mason (1). Top Reserves: RB Tru Wilson, RB O'maury Samuels, FB Jared Wangler. Wait Until 2019: RB Kurt Taylor. Newcomers: RB Christian Turner, RB Hassan Haskins. Moved In: None. Moved Out: RB Kareem Walker (off the team). Rookie Impact: Turner. Most Improved Player: Wilson. Best Pro Prospect: Higdon. Top Heavy Wolverines Have Talent At Running Back, But Need A Few More To Step Up "They're doing a great job, just exactly what you'd expect from them. They've taken every part of their game that needed detail or polish, and they're doing that. Every day it's one less mistake." RUNNING BACKS COACH JAY HARBAUGH ON SENIOR KARAN HIGDON AND JUNIOR CHRIS EVANS PRESEASON ANALYSIS: RUNNING BACKS STARTERS ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ There's four-star potential here, especially at the top with senior Karan Higdon and ju- nior Chris Evans — who have combined for 3,115 career yards from scrimmage and 28 total touchdowns — but the running attack needs to be more well-rounded to earn it. Both need to be better in the blocking depart- ment, though they're good runners. Sopho- more fullback Ben Mason is a rock, but he doesn't have much experience. DEPTH ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ There's no proven talent beyond Higdon and Evans at tailback, while fifth-year senior and former linebacker Jared Wangler is the No. 2 fullback. He hasn't played the position in a college game. Finding a No. 3 running back is going to be key in fall camp, and the Wolverines will need both the tailbacks and fullbacks to stay healthy. X-FACTOR Can either of the freshmen become the third back the Wolverines are looking for? Christian Turner isn't big at 5-11, 185 pounds, but he's explosive and can be used situation- ally if he's good enough. Hassan Haskins is 6-1, 207 and a chain mover. But, regardless, Evans and Higdon need to stay healthy. OVERALL ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ There's some talent here, and there's po- tential. What is unknown entering the fall is how much the Wolverines have beyond Higdon and Evans, and Michigan needs to find a third running back (at least).

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