It’s been two months since the 2018 season ended and the makeup of Michigan’s running backs room is already markedly different. Gone are load-bearing backs Karan Higdon and Chris Evans (unless he works his way back onto the team this fall) as well as O’Maury Samuels, who was kicked off the team in December after he was charged with domestic violence. Eric Gray, a 2019 Tennessee signee, was committed to Michigan through the regular season and would have fit nicely with what new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis intends to do, but alas, no. Remaining are anti-blitz missile Tru Wilson, smooth-running Christian Turner, and Hassan Haskins.
Michigan’s most recent addition is also its highest profile one. Zach Charbonnet, ranked in the high 300s in 247’s composite rankings last summer, parlayed an excellent senior season into a massive rankings jump, ending the season at #46. Charbonnet was six spots away from earning a fifth star on 247, which has him ranked #38, this ranking likely would have risen even further had he been healthy enough to participate in Under Armour All-America Game week. Charbonnet enters Michigan not just with the lofty expectations heaped on a top-50 player, but one who’s stepping into a situation where the path to the field is such that there’s going to be no incubation period before those expectations will hatch into the talk of twitter.
I was able to track down a copy of Charbonnet’s final high school game to give us a better idea how he plays outside of the straight fire highlight videos that I am not ashamed to admit to having watched multiple times on Youtube. His Oaks Christian squad, ranked #16 in the nation, got blown out by the nation’s second-best team, but there was plenty to pull from despite (or maybe due to) the frequency of unblocked opponents in the backfield. Warning: parts of this film are [~extremely 2007 OSU flashback~].
[After THE JUMP: every-snap film and scouting]
It’s evident from the first play on the reel that Charbonnet is difficult to bring down on first contact. The second play puts his elusiveness on full display, jabbing to the right and setting up the unblocked end, then shifting his weight and escaping to his left. That is, of course, until three other defenders get off their blocks and swarm Charbonnet; defenders in the backfield was a recurrent nuisance for Charbonnet this night. The run at 00:24 shows that Charbonnet isn’t just difficult to bring down on first contact but that he sets up hits well, lowering his pads and displaying the all-important balance through contact that seems to be a good predictor of collegiate success; on this play it’s the backside pursuit that brings him down, as he’s able to bounce off the defender in front. Charbonnet presses the hole and redirects when it collapses at 00:33, lowering and squeezing his way through a gap that isn’t clearly visible to the untrained (read: my) eye and falling forward for about four more yards than you can reasonably expect a back to collect; there’s another nice example of him falling forward to gain additional yardage at 3:07. The touchdown at 00:42 starts with Charbonnet reading the H-back’s block, seeing that there’s room on the inside of his block, then smoothly cutting off that guys butt before upshifting and bursting through the secondary.
I don’t really know what he’s supposed to do at 1:07 as there’s a safety screaming downhill who’s going to take the edge away, and in the middle there’s just a mass of defenders and enough winning their block to seal Charbonnet inside and hew him down. His burst up the middle to get a couple extra yards here is impressive. At 1:18 we get a #SpeedInSpace clip, and he does show decent speed plus intelligence in trying to get outside the WR’s block and turn it up the sideline. He lines up in the slot and gets the ball in space at 2:12, and the spin away from a defender is really nice but #PowerInSpace seems more appropriate for Charbonnet.
You can see how quickly he’s processing the changing gaps available at 1:50 as he identifies the backside cut, sees that gap close as he’s heading for it, then bounces the run outside. Charbonnet’s ability to get to top speed while still behind the line of scrimmage to avoid unblocked defenders is impressive in its own right [1:58], but to then be able to come to almost a complete stop over the course of two yards to force a missed tackle is just ridiculous. He then shows he can do the opposite at 2:42, chopping his feet in the backfield to allow time for the edge rusher to get picked up before accelerating through first contact and lunging almost to the goal line. You could probably group the run at 4:11 with the one at 2:42 as Charbonnet has to redirect on his first step after a defender beats a block to his left, then accelerates through first contact to his right and runs with such power that he requires two defenders to spin him to the ground.
Things bogged down for Oaks Christian near the goal line, and I’m not sure what Charbonnet was seeing that caused him to go left at 2:50. There was a defensive lineman who got off his block after Charbonnet was headed and left and it caused him to arc further out, so there’s a chance that the run would have been successful if he had been able to hit the left side faster. The run at 2:56 is over almost as soon as the ball is snapped; look at how many OC linemen have no one to block at 2:58. Charbonnet makes the first of the three defenders closing in miss, too.
The play at 3:42 is…special? It’s a unicorn play, me thinks. Don’t usually see a DE come off the line so hard the QB has to step up to let him past so he can execute the pitch. Then there’s a linebacker running in full speed without a blocker in sight because hey why not.
As far as blitz pickups are concerned, Charbonnet is starting from a good spot. There are a couple of nice blocks at 1:00 and 1:38, but they aren’t blitz pickups. He doesn’t seal the guy off who’s coming free but at least looks for work and chips at 3:12, then at 3:58 Charbonnet does a great job identifying and moving laterally to pick up and push the LB past the QB.
Charbonnet has a rare ability to accelerate to top speed in just a few steps and the patience to stop himself from doing in order to read his blocks. The ease with which he changes speeds causes defenders to lose their angle and allows Charbonnet to run through contact or, at the very least, fall forward for extra yards. He’s not the shiftiest back, nor does he have the highest top speed; he instead uses his vision and quickness to set defenders up to fail. Charbonnet can see a gap open backside, change his path to hit it, watch it close, and think to bounce the run outside over the course of two seconds. He retains balance on first contact, and it’s no coincidence that he habitually runs behind his pads.
As for the other things Charbonnet will be asked to do, he has the makings of a back who can be a quality pass protector. The state of his OL was such that he was more often looking to help as a defender beat a lineman than picking up a blitzing linebacker, but he did a nice job sliding from one side of the A-gap to the opposite to pick up a blitz late in the game. Charbonnet is also not as likely to be thrown the ball as some of Michigan’s slot types, but he did a nice job running hard toward the defensive back to create space for his cuts when he did run routes and is sure-handed enough that he’s a feasible option. Charbonnet also read blocks well in the open field; this is not surprising given how he read his blocks near the line of scrimmage. All told, Charbonnet is going to maximize the yards he could acquire when the ball is in his hands.