ANN ARBOR, Mich. — In 2016, Michigan’s running backs endorsed a certain philosophy that Jim Harbaugh is fond of: More is more.
De’Veon Smith, Chris Evans, Karan Higdon and Ty Isaac combined for 2,302 yards and 25 touchdowns in 13 games in 2016. While Smith was Michigan’s top rusher with 846 yards and 10 touchdowns, the Wolverines haven’t had a 1,000-yard running back — or a bona fide No. 1 running back — since 2011. However, the graduation of Smith, who signed with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins in April, and the departure of Tyrone Wheatley to join the coaching staff of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars brings the potential for changes.
That starts with a new coach. Jay Harbaugh moved from tight ends/assistant special teams coach to running backs coach in January. Harbaugh’s move could bring a change in philosophy — instead of four running backs with carries, Michigan could go back to having a No. 1 back.
“Guys are going to be put in a position where they’re good at,” Harbaugh said in April. “It might be a certain run for a certain type of guy, or a certain scheme for another guy but, obviously, any coach would like a guy to emerge that he can trust.
“But, in reality, I’d like every guy to emerge. I’d like to be thinking, ‘I want this guy to be in, but I really want to be playing these guys, too.’ You’d like to be able to touch your whole group.”
Land of 10 analyzed Michigan’s returning running backs for 2017, as well as newcomers in its incoming freshman class — and its new running backs coach.
Chris Evans, sophomore
Evans widely is regarded as Michigan’s de facto No. 1 running back. He’s the leading returning rusher for the Wolverines, with 614 yards and 4 touchdowns on 88 carries in 2016.
A shifty running back, Evans said this spring that he aims to refine his skills as a running back. He wants to supplement his speed by improving his technical abilities in carrying the ball and better understanding the responsibility of being a blocking back.
Ty Isaac, fifth-year senior
Isaac transferred from Southern California prior to the 2014 season. He has a combination of size and speed to go with a keen sense of field vision. However, in two seasons at Michigan, he has had limited carries and has taken on more of a blocking role, particularly in passing situations.
Isaac averaged about 55 yards a game in a stretch of five games at midseason in 2016 and finished with 417 yards and 5 touchdowns. Isaac had 5 carries for 47 yards and a touchdown in the spring game.
Karan Higdon, junior
Higdon has a knack for finding the right routes and the right holes. He ran for 425 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2016. Higdon’s highest production came in games against Rutgers and Illinois, when he ran for 108 yards and 2 touchdowns against the Scarlet Knights and 106 yards and 1 touchdown against the Illini.
Higdon’s reps, however, diminished in the final five games of 2016; he had no more than 5 carries per game. He led all rushers in Michigan’s spring game with 81 yards and 2 touchdowns on 12 carries.
Kareem Walker, redshirt freshman
Kareem Walker struggled at the start of his tenure with the Wolverines. Despite enrolling in January 2016, Walker was not involved in team activities at the start of the season, mandated by coaches to focus on improving his academics.
When he rejoined the Wolverines midway through the season, he worked out with the scout team. Walker had a strong showing in the spring game but enters 2017 as an unproven player.
O’Maury Samuels, freshman
As a senior at Los Lunas (N.M.) High School, O’Maury Samuels was the No. 1 recruit in New Mexico and had 160 carries for 1,376 yards and 14 touchdowns, despite missing two games with a right ankle injury.
Samuels’ speed is evident; he won three New Mexico Class 5A track and field championships earlier in May. He finished first in the 100-meter dash (11.22 seconds), and anchored Los Lunas’ championship 400m and 800m relay teams.
Kurt Taylor, freshman
Kurt Taylor had 1,631 yards and 22 touchdowns as a junior in 2015 at Newton (Ga.) High School, and his productivity garnered a scholarship offer from Michigan.
Taylor transferred to Grayson (Ga.) High School for 2016, where he ran for 930 yards and 14 touchdowns, and caught 19 passes for 296 yards and 4 touchdowns. He helped Grayson win the Georgia Class AAAAAAA state title.
Jay Harbaugh, running backs coach
Harbaugh spent his first two seasons on his father’s staff coaching tight ends and working with special teams, but he is in his first year of coaching running backs. He never played running back.
However, his players are noticing changes in the philosophy at the position. Higdon said this spring that Harbaugh is placing more of an emphasis on pass protection from Michigan’s running backs.
The first thing that Evans noticed about Harbaugh was his diligence, not just in preparing to be a coach but in working with players at the position.
“Coach Jay hit the ground running,” Evans said in April. “The first day, he had a meeting, and I was blown away by how ready he was.
“It’s like a running backs coach never even left. He jumped right in and got on board with everything that we were doing.”