September 6, 2017
ANN ARBOR — When Michigan takes the field Saturday for its home opener against Cincinnati, you can expect with near certainty to see Chris Evans line up first at running back.
The sophomore earned that right after a standout freshman season that saw him rush for 600-plus yards. During preseason camp, he gave the coaching staff no reason to strip him of his title as starter.
And for now, that will remain true. But Michigan’s running back situation remains fluid and open for business, running backs coach Jay Harbaugh said Wednesday.
“It’s a great thing to start a game,” Harbaugh said. “But in terms of roles throughout a game, things change tremendously from the first quarter to the fourth quarter. In the big picture, who starts isn’t terribly important.”
For anyone that follows the Michigan football program, this isn’t breaking news. Head coach Jim Harbaugh has pushed a “meritocracy” since arriving in Ann Arbor, or the idea of putting the best player in the game. And that’s where this whole story shifts.
Last Saturday, in Michigan’s 33-17 win over Florida, it was senior Ty Isaac who had the hot hand. Isaac has said he’s realized this is his last go-around in college, and he looked like a man on a mission against Florida. He rushed for 114 yards on 11 carries, matching a career-high set in 2015, and came through in the first quarter with a 36-yard run on third-and-12.
“He was playing fast, he was playing at his full speed,” Harbaugh said. “He was decisive. He was great after contact. I think he had like 80 yards after contact, which was huge. He played with a physical presence that he has and we needed him to play with.”
Harbaugh won’t go into specifics on plans to divvy up carries for Michigan’s game Saturday against Cincinnati (Noon, ABC), but it’s a safe bet to assume the 5-foot-11, 206-pound Evans gets the first crack. He took 22 of the 40 carries dispersed among Michigan’s three-back rotation against Florida, rushing for 78 yards and a long of 29.
Then there’s junior Karan Higdon, healthy after suffering an injury-plagued 2016, who rushed for 29 yards on seven carries and scored Michigan’s only rushing touchdown of the game.
“They’re certainly competitive,” Harbaugh said. “Every running back is going to want the ball, but they’ve done a great job of being unselfish as a group, rooting for each other’s success and still taking advantage of their own opportunities. I expect them to want the ball more.”
Harbaugh acknowledges the unique abilities of each but imagines, in a perfect world, a running back group that is interchangeable. Evans has the most speed, while Isaac edges him in size. And there’s hope that Evans one day could become a reliable third-down back.
Until then, the Michigan coaching staff plans to go with the hot hand. The player who has the best beat on the defense. Because at the end of the day, that’s what helps wins games.
“It’s a little bit more fluid,” Harbaugh said. “And that’s because we have confidence in all of them. That’s where that stems from. We don’t feel like there’s any runs Karan can’t go in and perform on. Same with Ty, same with Chris.”