No. 2 Michigan has versatile ground game with balanced backs

Posted at 9:50 PM, Oct 31, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-31 21:50:24-04

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Jim Harbaugh likes to spread the wealth when No. 2 Michigan runs the ball.

Four running backs, a pair of receivers, a fullback and do-it-all Jabrill Peppers are each averaging more than one carry per game.

It seems to be helping all of those Wolverines now, keeping them fresh with the football when it is their turn to run with it. The plan potentially serves the program well in the future, too, because recruits can see a lot of players getting a chance as underclassmen to take the field for the Wolverines (8-0, 5-0 Big Ten) .

Michigan opponents, including Maryland (5-3, 2-3) on Saturday at the Big House, are left preparing for a lot of different players when Wilton Speight hands off.

Harbaugh acknowledged all of those benefits Monday, but didn't want to talk too much about the topic to perhaps keep opponents guessing.

Michigan's running backs — De'Veon Smith, Chris Evans, Karan Higdon and Ty Isaac — combine for nearly 33 carries and 203 yards rushing per game. None of them is averaging 12 rushing attempts or has run for more than 450 yards this season.

Smith, a senior, gets the ball the most and still is averaging just 11.3 carries and 56 yards rushing a game.

A freshman, Evans, and a sophomore, Higdon, with 53 carries apiece this season show talented tailbacks will get an opportunity to play as merited under Harbaugh. Fullbacks traditionally get a chance to flourish with Harbaugh and Khalid Hill is the latest example, running for eight touchdowns on 19 carries.

Just when defenses are keying in on the backfield, the Wolverines run end-arounds to wide receivers Eddie McDoom and Jehu Chesson. And just to keep teams even more busy with their scouting reports, they have to spend time looking at how Peppers runs with the ball off shotgun snaps.

When Michigan practices, everyone in the backfield knows they're auditioning for playing time.

"It makes you better as a competitor," Higdon said. "It makes you better as a player knowing that you got someone who can easily step up and take your spot or take your opportunities."

Harbaugh loves to find creative ways to put the ball in Peppers' hands. Harbaugh sounds as if he might want to even more after watching him return a fumble for a 2-point conversion toward the end of Saturday's 33-23 win at Michigan State .

"I heard a sonic boom," Harbaugh said. "I thought some parachutes were going to come out."

None of Michigan's players are going to come out publicly and say they want 15 to 20 carries a game because that would go against Harbaugh's team-first mantra. Getting the ball less may also cut down on wear and tear, giving players a better chance of staying healthy in college and perhaps in the NFL.

"I definitely see how the logic is working," Higdon said. "

Higdon said the players in his position group simply have faith in the coaches, including former Michigan star and NFL player, Tyrone Wheatley.

"He's been there and done it at a higher level," Higdon said. "Whenever he's critiquing you or telling you things that you're doing good, it's coming from someone who has been at the highest level so it's definitely appreciated."