Michigan running backs coach Jay Harbaugh told Ty Isaac last Friday night that Isaac would be starting the game against Cincinnati the next day. In Michigan’s three-headed running back rotation, whether Isaac, Chris Evans or Karan Higdon starts doesn’t mean as much as who’s getting the carries as the game wears on.
In this case, however, it did. Isaac had started just one other time in his two previous seasons at Michigan, on Oct. 3, 2015, against Maryland. Isaac had 6 carries for 17 yards in that game.
He was much more prominent against Cincinnati, setting career highs in carries (20) and yards (133) in the Wolverines’ 36-14 victory. Michigan doesn’t produce a depth chart, but if there was one, Isaac would be at the top of the running backs.
“He’s progressed,” Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh said. “I think he’s capitalized on opportunities. He’s always been a good football player. Now he’s better, which is good. He’s taken his opportunity, he’s taken the bit and he’s run with it.”
Ty Isaac’s career stats at Michigan
Isaac has 31 carries for 247 yards in the first two games of this season. That already tops his season total of 2015 and puts him well on pace to surpass the 74 carries for 417 yards he had last season. The only thing he hasn’t done yet is reach the end zone.
Give that time.
Isaac had three runs of 10 yards or more on Saturday, including 53-yard sprint on a sweep left in the fourth quarter took Michigan from deep in its own territory into UC’s half of the field. Isaac had a 31-yard run wiped out earlier because of a holding penalty against wide receiver Nate Schoenle, and there were other opportunities for big runs that didn’t develop because of missed blocking assignments.
One of his best runs, according to Jim Harbaugh, was one that picked up 2 yards.
“He avoided a tackle for a loss on a free runner off the edge,” Harbaugh said. “I thought that was significant.”
Isaac had four more runs of at least 10 yards in the opener against Florida, when he rushed for 114 yards on just 11 carries. He twice converted third-and-13 situations with runs of 36 and 14 yards. His 18-yard run on a fourth-and-1 play in the third quarter kept a drive alive that Michigan eventually turned into a go-ahead touchdown.
Jay Harbaugh says Isaac may be the team’s best pass protector in the backfield. That helps him get the opportunities.
“Some of those situations, it makes sense for him to be in there and there are certain runs he had on those third-and-13s that he runs particularly well,” Jay Harbaugh said. “Karan does as well. Sometimes you like a certain guy for a certain type of scheme, and that was why he was in on those certain couple of plays.”
‘I need to be a rock at certain times’
Isaac has trimmed his 6-foot-3 body down to 228 pounds this season. He still has his strength but he has more burst when he gets to the outside when he breaks tackles. Jay Harbaugh said 80 of Isaac’s 114 yards against Florida came after contact.
Isaac transferred to Michigan after playing his freshman season at Southern California. He has bided his time with the Wolverines, developing as a backup to De’Veon Smith the last couple of seasons. Evans was the leading returning rusher from last season, and started against Florida. He had 78 yards on 22 carries against the Gators.
Who starts at running back this week against Air Force remains to be seen. Isaac, Higdon and Evans bring varying skill sets to the game plans, and depending on which one Michigan feels gives it the best chance to win, that one will get his shot first. Isaac has seized upon his opportunity.
“I feel like I’m not necessarily the most vocal of people but I’m just trying to lead by example,” Isaac said. “There’s guys younger than me on the team at certain points in time I look up to them with the way that they play or the things that they say. I don’t really think about it as much but if someone needs to lean on me I understand that being an older guy on the team I need to be a rock at certain times.”