ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It’s not as if Michigan hasn’t had the pieces for a succesful backfield; it’s just that Michigan had been previously unable to get everyone in sync at the same time. One part would be OK, the next wouldn’t perform up to par.
It’s been a back-and-forth cycle for the past five years.
This year, though, the No. 3-ranked Wolverines (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) seem to have everything covered. They have the quick-burst backs by way of sophomore Karan Higdon and true freshman Chris Evans. They have the power backs by way of senior De’Veon Smith, redshirt junior Ty Isaac and fifth-year senior fullback Khalid Hill.
Once fifth-year senior Drake Johnson — full of shifty speed and chunk runs — regains full health, Michigan should really have something with which to work. That return could be as early as this weekend’s homecoming game with Illinois — which, in hindsight, seems to be late by about six weeks.
During the preseason, Johnson — who had a horrific encounter with a utility lift vehicle during track season — talked about feeling great, ready to play and prepared to put all of those nagging injuries — ACLs included — far, far behind in the rear view mirror.
And something happened again, delaying what should have been a satisfying return for Johnson, a former Ann Arbor Pioneer standout and lifelong admirer of Michigan football.
“He had a setback in practice, where he strained a muscle and that set him back — so he’s been rehabbing from that, and that process has led him to being back,” coach Jim Harbaugh said. “He’s done a nice job getting himself ready to play.”
Confident that Johnson will see the field versus the Illini, Harbaugh detailed the oft-recovering back’s recent activity in practice.
“He’s just playing well,” Harbaugh said. “He’s running and moving — and I recognize that’s Drake Johnson, and (he’s) up to near full 100 percent.”
The addition of Johnson would serve as an ideal complement for the Big Ten’s No. 2-ranked total offense (470 YPG) and rushing effort (255 YPG).
According to fifth-year senior right guard Kyle Kalis, Wolverines running backs have become more selective during the 2016 season, more easily recognizing their surroundings and abilities to break for large gains.
“The backs are doing a really good job of just trusting us, trusting us to open holes up,” said Kalis, a vet who’s helped sustain a strong O-line. “They have really good patience coming downhill, waiting for it (run lanes/holes) to open up and knowing the precise time to hit it.
“Being a back, that’s the biggest thing — just have that patience… to be able to let the play express itself — and then hit the hole. They’ve been doing a really good job of that.”
Harbaugh called it a process. Kalis says running backs have just taken advantage of the situations. Either way, both coach and player recognize the potential of Higdon, Smith, Johnson, Isaac, Hill — who has a team-high seven rushing touchdowns on 13 attempts for 21 yards — and Evans, who has all but locked himself into the conversation of best first-year debuts for a running back at Michigan.
A Ying-Yang relationship between the O-line and the carriers? The ability to learn new schemes and tactics? It’s been a combination of all those things for Michigan, which has scored a Big Ten-leading 25 rushing touchdowns — seven more than second-place Ohio State (18).
Or, one Khalid Hill more than the Buckeyes… it fits.
Michigan won’t rush for 481 yards every week, like it had done versus Rutgers, but it has a newfound confidence on the ground. The Wolverines can throw any type of runner, at any time, and see results.
In 2015, the 10-3 Wolverines rushed for 2,057 yards and 27 touchdowns.
This year, through six games, the Wolverines have gained 1,651 yards and scored 25 times.
“I think that the main factor is a system (has been) put in, a new system, and they’ve become more familiar with it as time goes on,” Harbaugh said of his recent balance in the backfield.
“Their catching the ball out of the backfield, their blocking — their vision, seeing the holes… their patience,” Harbaugh added. “Ball security has been very good.”