Rick Osentoski, USA TODAY

Jay Harbaugh looking for running backs to exceed expectations this fall

Michigan running backs coach previews the running backs and what expects from them.

Interview by Sam Webb

Story by Josh Henschke

Michigan saw plenty of action out of the running back position last season. Perhaps gearing up for the departure of De'Veon Smith, the coaching staff will be looking for someone to step up and carry the load.

Of course, the popular name and candidate to take most of the snaps is Chris Evans. However, U-M returns plenty of depth at the position that has seen a fair amount of playing time.

A player that came on during the middle of the season is junior-to-be Karan Higdon, who appeared to create an effective tandem with Evans when things were clicking. Wolverines running backs coach Jay Harbaugh says that with Higdon's small stature, he must prove that he's capable of being able to withstand the grueling games of physical Big Ten football.

“He has got to prove that he’s a smaller guy that can play in a big conference," Harbaugh said. "He’s done a good job with it and there are certain things that he can do as a runner to get a little bit more than what is there and certain runs I’m confident, last year that were five, six yard runs, he’ll make them eight to ten yard runs. That’s what I’m excited from him certainly and he has come to work every day with that mentality.”

Ty Isaac, who is one of the elder statesmen of the group, hasn't been able to seize opportunities to keep a solid foothold on his standing on the depth chart. Heading into his final season of collegiate football, he has to prove to the coaching staff that he is able to play at a high level.

Also, Harbaugh says, he needs to throw his weight around a little bit.

“Ty has got to be a finisher, be a big back that consistently plays like a big back," Harbaugh said. "It is just little things with him. There were times he was really good in protection and there is some ground to gain and become really, really special in that regard where you have a big back who is really solid, assignment wise and fundamentally and technique wise. Really it is just continued improvement in all those things to be a complete player. With Chris and Ty and Karan, with those guys for instance, all of them have the potential to come out of this next season of 2017, being guys where you’re like, man that guy is a complete back. That’s what we’re looking for. Those are the guys that last a long time and can make some money playing the game down the road.”

Drake Johnson, who hasn't been able to see the field due to unfortunate injuries, is expected to return and compete for playing time this year. Harbaugh says that his leadership and knowledge of the system can be valuable to the younger players in the room.

“Really he adds a veteran element. He has got a lot of experience," Harbaugh said. "He knows football, very smart, cerebral guy. He can help in the room teaching the guys things. He’s a dependable player in the sense of knowing where to go, what to do and how to do it. He can go, he can run.”

Finally, an intriguing prospect and someone fans have been curious about is Kareem Walker. Not being in uniform for most of the season to focus on academics, Walker eventually earned his way to dress on game days. While making some big strides in the classroom, Walker has also made big strides in his maturation process as well. Something that Harbaugh, and the rest of the coaching staff, sees on the daily.

Now it's about putting it all together for Walker.

“Kareem, you definitely notice a change in his approach," Harbaugh said. "Like you said, I wasn’t with him every single day, so I don’t want to comment too much on him, but I can say what he is now since I’ve been with him and it has been a guy that has been accountable. He’s where he is supposed to and does what he’s supposed to do. That’s the starting point to improvement is just being where he’s supposed to be and doing what he’s supposed to do and really selling out and giving great effort. He’s doing all that, which gives him a chance like those other guys to become a complete player. A lot of the fans understand what kind of talent he is, he’s got a big body and has got great vision and all this stuff and if he just approaches it that way every single day, you’re going to have another guy added to that group that can kind of do it all.

“He’s over 200 pounds. He is put together well. Off the top of my head, I don’t want to say a number that I am not positive. He’s put together well and has really developed his upper body and his lower body is improving. He is going to be a guy that can run between the tackles for four quarters if he keeps doing what he is doing. It is going to be special for us.”

U-M's other freshman running back, Kingston Davis, spent last season rehabbing an injury. The Michigan Insider will get an update on his progress next week.

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