Preview 2017: Running Back Comment Count

Brian August 28th, 2017 at 4:00 PM

Previously: Podcast 9.0A. Podcast 9.0B. Podcast 9.0C. The Story. Quarterback.


[Eric Upchurch]

[Bolded player rules: not necessarily returning starter, but someone we've seen enough of that I'm no longer talking about their recruiting profile. Extant contributor.]

Chris Evans So. Karan Higdon Jr. Ty Isaac Sr.* Chris Evans So.
Karan Higdon Jr. Kareem Walker Fr*. Karan Higdon Jr. Eddie McDoom So.
Ty Isaac Sr.* Ty Isaac Sr.* Chris Evans So. Ty Isaac Sr.*
Kareem Walker Fr.* O'Maury Samuels Fr. Kurt Taylor Fr. Karan Higdon Jr.

Michigan loses their starter but returns 60% of their running back carries, so experience won't be in short supply. Neither will quicks, what with Chris Evans and Karan Higdon emerging into a one-two punch. This is a major shift from De'Veon Smith, a battleship of a back who was great at carrying defensive backs like recalcitrant children but never a visionary.

The nature of these gentlemen is interesting. Most are short, and quick, and clever. Mike Spath gathered this quote at Big Ten media days from an anonymous opponent:

"They have a lot of speed backs now that Smith is gone. They're not going to be a power-running team so I'll be curious to see what type of formations they run. They've got the two guys that could be really good as a No. 1 - Evans and [Karan Higdon]."

This is a sea change from the Smiths and Derrick Greens of the world where how mean you look is priority one. Chris Evans looks like a dang sweetheart, but he's a killer all the same.




if we're being honest his hair is more Play than Kid [Bryan Fuller]

This is a good preview. It is not an infallible one, as last year's take on CHRIS EVANS demonstrates:

…our bet is the Evans hype is likely to peter out into not very much this year. There are only so many snaps to go around and you know Smith, Isaac, and Peppers are going to get their cuts.

Evans was first amongst equals in the three-man platoon behind De'Veon Smith and is now projected by many to start and have a huge breakout year. That includes this space, and not just because of this:

[Evans] coaches a local kids flag football team. This in and of itself is odd and very, very Harbaugh. An acquaintance of mine relates that his kid is in this flag football league, and that his game was at 7:15 in the morning, with a potential second game at 9:30 if his kids' team won. Chris Evans is at this game. Not because his team is playing—his team is the one waiting for the winner at 9:30. Chris Evans is... taking notes? Watching intently? Is Chris Evans, starting Michigan running back, scouting a flag football game at 7 in the morning? Yes. Yes he is.

Dan Murphy confirmed that was no fever-dream of an under-caffeinated parent, uncovering that and yet more Chris Evans coaching exploits. Evans immediately leaps to the front of the Jim Harbaugh 2040 list.

Also the depth chart. Early in camp there were some rumors that Karan Higdon had grabbed the starting job; those were forcefully debunked by both Scout and 247. Evans remains first among equals and should see a plurality—if not a majority—of the carries. His quick hook in the spring game is plenty of evidence in that department:

"I wanted to play more …but they said 'nah, nah, nah, you're not going to play, you're not going to play.'

Also his ability to deploy a sick crossover in a sport that doesn't have them:

Evans breaks ankles. He is superbly agile and able to juke guys in a quick one-two-three step ballet move. He needs little room to pull this off:

In the bowl game he did this literally while in the hole, running through the subsequent arm tackle it set up:

This offseason someone close to the team told me that Evans even had a tendency to juke guys there was literally no way he could see, because he knew what the likely structure of the defense was and what that meant for, say, a safety approaching from the side. He's not just scouting flag football.

This is no doubt part of the reason why Evans seemed immediately more instinctual than De'Veon Smith and Michigan backs since, jeez, Fitz Toussaint. I spent virtually the entire Hoke era complaining about straight-ahead running, bad cuts, and an inability to set up blocks. Evans was a breath of fresh air in that department. He had a feel for how to commit the second level and then burst into a different gap:

Evans was good at putting his foot in the ground after linebackers had decided, and slipping through tight creases in the line. He just knows that he needs to change direction once, and when to make that change:

As a true freshman he's already better at taking advantage of his blocking than anyone who's been in the backfield at Michigan for a minute. And once he gets in the open field it's jockstrap time:

Evans did all he could last year to establish himself as Michigan's top back, and that continued through the offseason:

"He's coached the flag football team. He's held youth camps," he said. "He did that all on his own. His nose was in the playbook all off-season. He put in the work to get bigger. His dedication to taking the next step has been a lot of fun to watch. He's relentless."

While it wasn't all sunshine and roses—Evans made an occasional wacky cut and drew some grumbles around here for going down at first contact too often—it was a freshman year to sit up and take notice of. Numbers adore Evans. Obligatory caveat: they should all come with a big flashing "SMALL SAMPLE SIZE" sign. They are all we have to go on, though, so:

  • Evans is first among returning Big Ten RBs in PFF's "Elusive Rating," which turns a combination of broken tackles and yards after contact to "measure a runner's success beyond the point of being helped by his blockers." Ty Johnson and Akrum Wadley are 2 and 3, so the metric passes a basic sanity test.
  • His 4.1 yards after contact were fourth best nationally for freshmen and second in the Power 5.
  • Evans was the second most likely returning Big Ten back to get five yards on any particular run ("opportunity rate") and towards the top of the league in yards acquired after he got to five ("highlight yards"). He's behind only the two Maryland backs in highlight yards per attempt, and was significantly better than the other three Michigan backs last year in all categories.
  • Evans just about swept the RB portion of Michigan's winter combine, winning everything except the powerball throw.

Evans's 40 at the combine was a somewhat alarming 4.64, but I wouldn't sweat that. That might be the first 40 time to ever receive negative FAKES around here. From what we've seen on the field Evans's long speed is at least solid; as a recruit his speed was unanimously declared his best asset, with a significant amount of data backing that up:

A 4.4-ish 40 at the Army Combine just after his junior year is legit. Last March Steve Wiltfong noted that Evans has run a "4.4 hand-held every time" he lays down a 40 yard dash. At Best of the Midwest he ran a 4.37 40, and while that's solidly in the realm of combine fiction Evans's track career was impressive. Tracking Football places him in the 87th percentile of RBs based on his lycra exploits, which include a state championship in the 100 meter relay and a narrow defeat in the regular 100 meter state finals.

Maybe that's a bad run, a dinged up guy, or a typo. I'd be surprised if Evans isn't a legitimate 4.5 guy and, depending on your definition of legitimate, 4.4. But hey, don't take it from me, take it from Drake Johnson, raconteur:

"He's mad athletic. You just see some people and think 'yeah, he's an athlete.' He's an athlete, he just does stuff. He's smooth, he's real smooth. He's like butter smooth, we're just like 'ooh, wow.' He's like *sound effects* someone flips to the side, like he had no chance. Like, I'm sorry you could've tried but it sucks to suck. He just makes it look easy."

(Someone give this man a job talking about things.) Evans's home run ability should be top notch. This doesn't feel like a slow RB:

If he has a problem in this department it would be the ability to turn 40 into 50, and all the evidence outside that 4.64 suggests he'll be fine

Evans's other potential drawback is much more real: pass blocking. He was barely asked to do it last year—14 snaps total per PFF, and when he did it was ugly. He's bigger and older now but still not that big and not that old. He's never going to be Mike Hart. Michigan has a solution and it's one with a lot of upside. Evans:

"I'm coming out of the backfield or in the slot because I'm bigger, but I'm not 230. I can't really step up in the hole and block people. Well, I can -- that's what I've been working on all offseason. [But] we can block with five and send five receivers downfield. Stretch the field out with guys -- the good receivers that stretch the field out. It'll give me more open lanes to run through."

With 91 catches his last two years in high school, Evans was as much a receiver as he was a running back. Michigan entirely neglected to explore that talent a year ago; plenty of spread looks in the spring game suggest they will not continue doing so this year. Webb reports that you should expect him to get more looks thanks to his "outstanding receiving skills" that could have seen him play slot.

Evans should bust out to become one of the Big Ten's best backs, and its most prolific receiver out of the backfield, give or take an Akrum Wadley. He's got the quicks, speed, dedication, and agility to make a great many folks look foolish. You can't project All Big Ten nods in a league where a pretty dang good running back is going to be the 8th-best guy in the conference; Evans should perform at that level.

[After THE JUMP: a cast of thousands! several, anyway. plenty. pedant.]



slithery and ground-hugging, Higdon is part serpent, but nice [Bryan Fuller]

While junior KARAN HIGDON is apparently not surging into the feature back role, even bad reports that he did are still good news for him. The debunkings do say he's "made it interesting." This preview is ready to believe those reports after Higdon's sneaky-good sophomore year.

Higdon runs behind his pads, and he does so in a way that really communicates what that piece of scouting jargon means.

That's an unblocked safety at two yards who cannot stall Higdon's momentum and eventually falls off of him. Higdon did this consistently last year. At contact he'd lower his shoulders, take a hit, use that momentum to stabilize himself, and then go get some more yards. His compact frame and balance allows him to blow through tackles:

And he's got a subtle shiftiness to him through the hole, that running back instinct that results in little changes of direction that throw off pursuers and make blocks come good:

Higdon doesn't run in straight lines but has a characteristic shallow zig-zag style and quick feet that result in a lot of hits from the side and the requisite yards after contact. This site's game column after Penn State:

Hidgon regularly changes his angles of attack when he's running between the tackles, and he's low to the ground. He gets a lot of glancing contact and gets under much of the direct stuff, so he's good for a couple yards of YAC on most plays where he gets started. [He's] a guy who is behind his pads, as they say. The first thing most tacklers are going to contact on him is a portion of the body that's tough to get a grip on, so he falls off a bunch of tackles.   

Higdon also felt like a proverbial slashing runner; on his first carry he followed a sweep outside and then made a hard cut directly upfield that I thought was going to get him the maximum number of yards. That one run last year when he had a slick cut past a Northwestern linebacker was intriguing, and this was his first real chance to follow up on it. Stock: up.

And sometimes he just straight up drags people, Hart style. Also, he's fast enough:

Like Evans, Higdon benefited by being the recipient of plenty of offset draws against poor competition that broke big, and various outfits that had given up during garbage time. His sophomore year still saw him move from potential future contributor to an important cog in the machine.

The biggest gotcha here: Higdon's vision occasionally failed him in big moments. He set 30 yards on fire in the Ohio State game when he did not see an OSU LB commit outside on an offset draw, and he had an opportunity to make the fourth quarter of the Michigan State game significantly less annoying if he would have followed a series of excellent blocks:

That is a well-blocked power play that Higdon ignores. At the time I said "vision issues on power are kind of becoming a thing" with him. That'll happen. Higdon only came in for those dings on occasion.

After a productive year two Higdon looks set for a semi-breakout junior year. "Semi" is because of Evans; in a slightly different situation we might be talking mostly about him. 24/7:

Higdon continues to look like the best total combo of abilities (speed, power, vision), while Evans is the most talented back in the fold.   

Rivals called him "very sharp" and its praise for him was fulsome, if not accurate about the depth chart. He seems to have definitively passed Ty Isaac, per everyone, and that's a little something as well.

Higdon's YPC will dip as he gets put in higher difficulty situations, especially if he ends up the short yardage back like he probably should. His effectiveness relative to competition level  should increment upwards again; give him a crease and he'll maximize its utility before bashing through a safety for some YAC. He'll be a clear positive as he gets 30-40% of Michigan's carries.


Isaac is the hossiest of experienced runners [Eric Upchurch]

Redshirt senior TY ISAAC is the #3 back. While all thought that he might live up to his five-star ranking has fled after four years in which he's struggled to see consistent carries, Isaac brings a combination of athleticism and sheer size that the top two lack. And every once in a while he'd give you a little something to remind  you why he was so touted:

He had an Evans-like move or two in his back pocket:

And in last year's spring game he gave Jabrill Peppers a little move and ate up 10-15 yards afterwards without having Peppers close on him. He is a large, athletic person. He's never really taken off.

One of the main reasons he evaporated two years ago—ball security—was much less of an issue last year. He did have one heartstopping near-fumble against Wisconsin. Better to nearly fumble than actually fumble, though, and that was the only hiccup. He's no doubt been focusing on carrying it high and tight ever since the second half of his sophomore year was spent looking on from the bench.

The other reasons he's topping out as an okay player despite being a five star are more subtle. He started his Michigan career with a number of bad cuts, and even as that tendency has faded from his game he lacks the shiftiness and burst of the guys who have passed him. Once up to full steam in the open field he's an impressive sight, but he patently lacks Higdon's ability to slalom through traffic and Evans's nasty phonebooth jukes. He's good at finding a crease and running through arm tackles...

...he's not an acceleration machine who can redirect in a flash. Neither is he a brick on the ground you have to try to tackle. Those things put a ceiling on his effectiveness.

Despite that Isaac was about as productive as the aforementioned backs, averaging just under six yards a carry on 74 attempts. All of these guys had the benefit of things like "garbage time against Rutgers" and were perfectly happy to let Smith and Khalid Hill suck up all the short yardage carries, so those numbers are inflated and will necessarily come down next year.

Insider reports have unanimously held that Evans and Higdon are 1-2, but Isaac has not been overlooked by camp chatterers. Webb relayed a couple of runs on which Isaac displayed "patience, vision, and burst" and asserted he could find roles as a redzone back—sheer size—and as a hybrid receiver. FWIW, Isaac was Michigan's top-ranked pass blocker at running back per PFF, albeit on just 14 attempts. (De'Veon Smith got the lion's share and did not repeat his excellent junior campaign.)

Isaac will have a couple packages and can expect to get a half-dozen touches per game. At this point he is what he is, which is a solid contributor but not a star.



Walker might be the best power back on the roster [Patrick Barron]

Redshirt freshman KAREEM WALKER [recruiting profile] is going to have a tough time breaking through the three guys discussed above and lands here instead of the rotation section. Walker's first year was a rough go academically. There were rumors he'd transfer for much of the year. He stuck it out, though, and things seem to have stabilized:

"I got a 3.0 this semester," Walker said with a smile. "At Michigan. That was like 'wow." That felt good. I worked hard for that.

"(Harbaugh) hasn't seen (the report card) yet, but I told him I about a grade I got (a while back). I had to leave practice one day for a paper and I ended up getting a B+ on that. I told him about that grade. He liked it."

With danger in that department (hopefully) in the rear view, talk about Walker has slowly refocused on his abilities. He was the top RB in his class for a large chunk of the recruiting cycle before a precipitous drop at the end and has occasionally flashed that ability in his two spring games.

Most of the practice hype has gone to Evans and Higdon but Walker has popped up for a couple mentions. 247 reported he was up nearly 20 pounds since he arrived, now sitting at 220, and he'd gotten a handle on the playbook after his freshman year. Scout asserted he's the "best in-between the tackles runner" but was struggling to block.

Still, the vibe from press conferences is that Walker is another year away from a serious push. Jay Harbaugh:

How has Kareem Walker been doing?

“Doing really well. He’s done a great job. He’s coming along slowly but steadily and getting better and better at everything we’re asking him to do. I think he’s going to be able to contribute for us, most definitely.”

He should be the main man in garbage time, where he'll try to demonstrate why he was so hyped back in the day. He could also work his way into the rotation as a short-yardage option. 247 suggested he's the back most suited to be a "pure bruiser." Jay again:

"He can be a decisive, down-hill back that can have some force. He's a little bit different from the other guys, he doesn't have quite as much elusiveness. But when he sees a hole, he can put his foot in the ground and really hit it with some violence."

Walker should see around 50 carries as he tries to get himself established, with an eye on taking over Isaac's portion of the offense in 2018.


biiiiiiiiiiceps [247]

Freshmen O'MAURY SAMUELS [recruiting profile] and KURT TAYLOR [recruiting profile] are highly likely to redshirt. Both would be physically ready if pressed into duty—this must be the RB recruiting class with the largest bicep-circumference-to-height ratio in Michigan history—but are unlikely to be mentally up to par. In Samuels's case this because he's from New Mexico and has played against not quite literal jackrabbits for years; in Taylor's case it's because his best upside is as a third down back and pass blocker.

Long term Samuels is a considerably more thrilling prospect than Taylor, what with his crazy explosive testing numbers and dynamite film, but that's another preview. Lorenz asserted he "continued to hear great things" about Samuels, FWIW. Taylor came in for some praise towards the end of camp as a "pleasant surprise" and doing the kind of muscle hamster things he needs to if he's going to get carries:

...took a handoff at the four and seemed to be destined to be hit for a loss. Instead he shook off the would-be tackler and got three tough yards to advance the ball to one. Harbaugh was so impressed with the effort he had the entire team watch it.

This is still a down the road situation; Webb says he's "not getting rotational looks" just yet.



August 28th, 2017 at 4:58 PM ^

Evans talked about going 5 wide to alleviate pass pro issues, how would this work? I can see how it can make the defense have to respect the pass, some, but it sure seems like you are setting up for a blitzer to kill the QB. Doesn't seem like a viable season long solution.


Does it come down to an offenses ability to set up the screen versus the defenses ability to figure out whether or not it's ok to blitz?


August 28th, 2017 at 5:23 PM ^

we have this year. Glad to see Evans has put on some size, because no matter how elusive he is, there will always be a need to lower the shoulder and move a pile for an extra yard or two and he should be able to do that now. Also should help with his pass pro.  I think both Higdon and Issac could start at many schools so three top backs should be fun to watch this year.


August 28th, 2017 at 6:00 PM ^

Higdon could be a 1,300-yard feature back, a really good one, as much as Anthony Thomas and Chris Perry and all the rest of the great RBs of the '90s and early to mid '00s.  He's absolutely got the ability.  The only reason he's not is because Chris Evans is going to be, like, elite.


August 28th, 2017 at 6:04 PM ^

hand up in the Buckeye players face mask. Michigsn had 17-7 lead and was about to score and suck the life out of the Buckeyes. Instead we get the interception and 17-14.


August 28th, 2017 at 6:13 PM ^

Of all the plays that get talked about in this game, this one gets talked about very little and it was huge.  Like you said Michigan was starting to take control of the game.  Their last 3 offensive possesions had gone 11 plays 55 yds for a TD, 6 plays 40 yds fumble at the goaline, 5 plays 22 yds TD,  Those aren't mammoth drives in terms of the yardage but that's 3 straight possesions where OSU couldn't stop them and UM was starting to move the ball when the Cole face mask was called.


August 28th, 2017 at 7:30 PM ^

I'm excited about both Evans and Higdon. There's a lot there, assuming they aren't swarmed in the backfield.

Evans is fine with 4.64 speed but arguments that he is faster than that don't persuade me. At no point did he demonstrate the explosive breakaway speed that you see in 4.4 RBs. On the contrary, the Wisconsin highlight used to demonstrate his speed shows me, instead, great agility and good quickness. But not breakaway speed.

That's generally fine. There will be some runs that he'll have big plays that could have been more big at 4.4. But those are relatively rare.


August 29th, 2017 at 11:42 AM ^

Yeah, I'm with you on the speed. He's plenty fast but he's not gonna outrun everyone a la Denard. I could see sub 4.6, but 4.4 does seem to be a bit of a stretch. He'll more than make up for lack of elite long speed with his agility and vision. Which will be an especially welcome sight behind an unknown caliber OL. 



August 28th, 2017 at 7:43 PM ^

Higdon and Evans are going to be fun for our lineman to block for the way they get to hole.

Isaac seems comfortable and ready to have a productive year. Walker is going to run over guys once he gets cut loose. Deveon Smith with better vision and better feet.

Samuels may just be the all around freak back we have not seen in years.