ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It’s been five years since the Michigan football team had a running back finish with a 1,000-yard rushing season. If Chris Evans continues his torrid, early-season pace, he could end that dubious streak.
Consider this: Evans ran for 112 yards on eight carries Saturday in Michigan’s 63-3 win over Hawaii. The true freshman is already more than 1/10th of the way towards that benchmark, with 11 games remaining in the regular season.
Saturday at Michigan Stadium, Evans didn’t waste time taking his place. Given Michigan’s recent drought in the backfield, Evans provided his team and his program with a jolt.
Fitzgerald Toussaint ran for 1,041 yards in 2011, the last Michigan back to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark in a season. Michigan also wielded dynamic quarterback Denard Robinson, the team’s leading rusher in 2010, 2011 and 2012, who averaged 1,381 yards each season.
Toussaint is now playing for the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers and Robinson, who is now a running back, plays for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Having gaudy college statistics doesn’t necessarily make one predestined for the NFL, but it certainly gets one noticed.
Evans took the place of De’Veon Smith, who left late in the first quarter Saturday with a rib injury. Prior to the season, Evans’ teammates didn’t know much about him.
“On the first day of camp, he was making plays,” Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight said. “After two days of training camp, we all knew who Chris Evans was. The best thing about him, he doesn’t let anything get to his head. He just goes about his business.”
Prior to the season, Michigan running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley asked for trust from his running backs.
“Can we trust you to go out there and take care of the football?” Wheatley said. “Can we trust you to make all the right decisions? Can I trust you to beat one-on-one matchups, guys that can beat one-on-one matchups can help make the offensive line better. That’s the key: Can I trust you? Can I continue to trust you when we put the ball in your hand?”
For one game, Evans earned this trust.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh insists he saw something in the freshman from Indianapolis.
“I know Chris Evans was special,” Harbaugh said. “What you saw today is what we saw in practice last month. He can catch the ball in the backfield, he can line up at receiver … he’s a very special player. I expect big things, going forward. He really can do everything you want a back to do.”
Evans treaded like a pro in his first collegiate preseason camp.
“I made sure that I got on his (Harbaugh’s) good side,” Evans said. “So, he wasn’t really yelling at me. I made sure I did what I needed to do.”
Evans’ humble, business-like approach helped put him in the spotlight in his first collegiate game. During post-game interviews, the 5-foot-11, 200-pound running back marveled at the number of reporters who surrounded him in the Crisler Center.
At a position that’s been surrounded by uncertainty and underachievement during the last five years, Evans brought some clarity.
Now, Wheatley, Harbaugh and the Wolverines face a strategic choice: Go with the running back you trust, or go with the one with the best numbers?
After Saturday, Evans has a chance to become both.
Rachel Lenzi covers Michigan sports for Landof10.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @RLenziAJC
MICHIGAN’S LEADING RUNNING BACKS SINCE 2006
2006: Mike Hart, 318 attempts, 1,562 yards
2007: Mike Hart, 265-1361
2008: Brandon Minor, 103-533
2009: Brandon Minor, 96-502
2010: Vincent Smith, 136-601*
2011: Fitzgerald Toussaint, 187-1,041*
2012: Fitzgerald Toussaint, 130-514*
2013: Fitzgerald Toussaint 185-648
2014: De’Veon Smith 108-519
2015: De’Veon Smith 180-753
* — quarterback Denard Robinson led the team in rushing yards