ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The Michigan football program is bucking a certain longstanding college football tradition.
Many teams go into the season with one player as its marquee back, and the other ones are mere reinforcements or situational backs. Michigan, however, is in a unique situation where it has four productive running backs. And this far into the season, the third-ranked Wolverines will continue to rotate four running backs, rather than focus on one, when it hosts Maryland at 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday.
Depending on whom you speak with about those four running backs — De’Veon Smith, Karan Higdon, Chris Evans and Ty Isaac — some label it as merely a product of the evolution of Michigan’s offense, that each running back in fall camp earned a spot by bringing a unique characteristic to the position.
But others, like center Mason Cole, acknowledge that they knew what Michigan’s coaching staff was going to do when it chose to field four running backs this season.
“It’s something we kind of anticipated,” Cole said. “Last year, we knew we had some good backs, and going into this season, we knew all of our backs would be really good. They went out there, they performed and they’re doing the right thing.”
Michigan hasn’t had a 1,000-yard running back since Fitzgerald Toussaint in 2011. Toussaint, who is now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, had 1,041 yards and 9 touchdowns on 187 carries that season. In the following years, Michigan’s top back averaged no more than 364.5 yards (Smith led Michigan with 753 yards last season).
But Michigan’s multiple-back productivity this season is a product of Michigan’s offensive philosophy.
“We want to keep those guys fresh,” Michigan offensive coordinator Tim Drevno said. “We want to make sure they don’t take too heavy of a load and just, for us to be fresh, and for them in their careers down the road in the NFL.”
Smith, Higdon, Evans and Isaac have combined for 1,625 yards and 18 touchdowns on 262 carries this season. For a basis of comparison, Penn State’s Saquon Barkley is the Big Ten’s top running back with 888 yards and 10 touchdowns on 147 carries; San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey leads the nation with 1,469 yards and 13 touchdowns on 223 carries.
“Those coaches, they’ve done this at high levels,” Higdon said. “Whatever they say, I trust them. And I go with it. I definitely see how the logic is working, and I think it’s working, and it’s going to continue working.”
Production of Michigan’s running backs this season
At Michigan, each player brings his own quality to the pool of running backs.
Smith, a 5-foot-11 228-pound senior, runs with strength and brute force.
Higdon, a 5-foot-10, 189-pound sophomore, has a knack for finding the right holes and routes.
Evans, a 5-foot-11, 200-pound true freshman, is shifty and nimble.
Isaac, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound redshirt junior who transferred from USC in 2014, has a keen sense of field vision.
Game-by-game yardage totals for Michigan’s running backs
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Michigan, however, didn’t have great production from its rushers in last Saturday’s 32-23 win at Michigan State — of their 192 rushing yards, WR Eddie McDoom led the Wolverines with 53 yards on 2 carries, including a 33-yard carry early in the second quarter. This weekend, Michigan will face a Maryland rush defense that has allowed an average of 220.1 rushing yards in its first eight games — just 12th in the Big Ten.
Each running back also realizes that in playing in a group that’s a running-back-by-committee, it’s vital to make the most of the carries each player receives.
“That’s important, regardless of if you have a four-man rotation or a one-man rotation,” Higdon said. “You have to capitalize on the opportunities that you get. That’s the difference between good and great running backs.”
At a position that can be ego-driven, there’s an importance to finding a certain balance — and a certain way to contribute.
“You always want to be the guy,” Higdon said. “But just because you are the guy doesn’t mean you’re going to produce the way you should. With that being said, you’ve got to be able to take whatever is given to you and capitalize on it.”
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh maintains a simplistic mindset to utilizing a four-man rotation:
“More is more,” the second-year Michigan coach said earlier this season. “More good football players always seems better.”