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Michigan football: ranking running backs from the Jim Harbaugh era

Under Jim Harbaugh, elite running back play has come to be expected.



Oct 20, 2018; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines running back Karan Higdon (22) runs though the tackle of Michigan State Spartans linebacker Brandon Bouyer-Randle (26) during the second half of a game at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Since Jim Harbaugh took over as head football coach with the University of Michigan football team in 2015, the Wolverines have been known for playing old-school, hard-nosed, pound-the-rock football. They’ve mostly stuck with that philosophy outside a short foray in an attempt to modernize (“speed in space”). It’s clearly worked as per excellent results the past two seasons when paired with the good quarterback play, great offensive lines, and elite defenses.

It’s helped that Michigan has had some great running backs to carry the load. Here’s a look at the best Michigan running backs under Jim Harbaugh*.

Minimum of 100 carries for Harbaugh coached teams*

Tier 1 – Unstoppable

1. Blake Corum

(457 touches, 2783 yards, 6.1 average, 33 touchdowns, 30 games played)

“Blake the Great” is just that and deserves to be in a tier of his own. The best term I can use to describe Corum is “unstoppable”- because when healthy, no team has been able to do that. Corum’s worst yards per carry average in 2022 was 4.6 against a top-5 rush defense on the road at Iowa- but he still had 29 carries for 133 yards and one touchdown.

So did the Hawkeyes stop him? I’d say no.

Teams can only hope to slow Corum, but they seldom succeed. There are just not enough good things to say about how good Corum is.

-12 career 100+ yard rushing games (five 150+ rushing yard games).

-Within full seasons, in 12 out of 14 games (85 percent) in which Corum had 15+ carries, he’s rushed for more than 100 yards.

-Tied a school record in 2022 for eight straight games of 100+ rushing yards before his injury.

-One of four running backs in school history with a career average of 6.0 yards per carry or higher, with at least 250 carries. (Rob Lytle, Tim Biakabutuka, Tyrone Wheatley)

-One of two running backs in school history with both a 200+ rushing yard game and a five-touchdown game. (Ron Johnson)

I could keep going too, but let’s just say the Wolverines are lucky to have Corum in Ann Arbor for one more season.

Tier 2 – Between “great” and “elite”

1. Hassan Haskins

(476 touches, 2495 yards, 5.2 average, 30 touchdowns, 32 games played)

Hassan Haskins will always be one of my favorite Michigan football players, and he deserves so much praise for being a vital piece of the Wolverines’ turnaround. An unheralded recruit out of Missouri, Haskins barely snuck inside the top 1000 recruits per 247Sports. After bouncing back and forth from running back to linebacker and back again, Haskins finally broke out at Illinois in 2019 when he had his first 100-yard game.

Then he showed how special he could truly be on a rainy night under the lights against the Fighting Irish. That night he had 20 carries for 149 rushing yards and one spectacular hurdle – a specialty that Haskins became known for thereafter, and the fans loved it.

Then Haskins stuck through it during the worst of times in the 2020 season and came back ready to work in 2021, enjoying the best of times. Fans will always hold Haskins in high regard for being a part of the senior class (Harbaugh’s lowest-ranked while at Michigan) that finally brought home a Big Ten title for the first time in seventeen years.

The only thing holding Haskins back from tier 1 was consistency. While Corum had zero games of under 4.5 yards per carry in 2022, Haskins had six in 2021, including three games under 3.5.

-10 career 100+ yard rushing games (four 150+ rushing games).

– Haskins’ 20 touchdowns in 2021 were the most by a Michigan running back since Willie Heston’s 21 in 1904.

– One of three running backs in modern school history to have a five-rushing touchdown game.

2. Donovan Edwards

(213 touches, 1630 yards, 7.7 average, 13 touchdowns, 22 games played)

While Donovan doesn’t have the career numbers as some of the other guys (he is only going into his junior season, after all), his placement in these rankings is based on skill set and potential. Plus, his numbers are still awe-inspiring in their own right and could easily double before his time in the winged helmet is up.

In his two seasons with Michigan football, Edwards has shown an elite level of play-making in the backfield that the Wolverines haven’t seen in a long time. The only things holding Edwards back from more so far have been needing to split carries with the two guys ranked ahead of him on this list and unfortunate injuries. Still, Edwards has the potential to be the best of them all. This rings especially true considering how great he is at catching the ball, whether out of the backfield or spread out wide.

– Five career 100+ rush yards games (three 150+ rush yard games).

-First true sophomore with a 200+ rush-yard game since Denard Robinson and the first running back since Mike Hart.

-First running back with a 100+ receiving yard game since Chris Perry in 2003.

-Edwards’ career 6.7 yards per carry is the highest in school history (minimum 60 carries).

Edwards’ game at Ohio State (22 carries, 216 rush yards, 9.8 average, two touchdowns) will go down in rivalry history as an all-time performance, and his two long touchdown runs of 75 and 85 yards on back-to-back drives will be in highlight reels for decades to come.

3. Karan Higdon

(487 touches, 2793 yards, 5.7 average, 27 touchdowns, 39 games played)

Compared to Haskins and Corum, Karan Higdon’s career rushing stats are very similar, even if he’s not quite remembered in the same light. The main reason for this is due to the fact that the teams he played on had a different level of success. Higdon was a great running back for two seasons in 2017-18, but those teams went a combined 18-8 and didn’t beat Ohio State or win the Big Ten.

But Higdon was a workhorse with big-play potential, and his ranking here reflects it.

-13 career games of 100+ rushing yards (four of 150+ rushing yards).

-The only running back with multiple 200+ yard rushing games since Mike Hart.

-Seven straight games of 100+ rushing yards in 2018.

Tier 3 – varying levels of “good”

1. De’Veon Smith

(533 touches, 2486 yards, 4.7 average, 27 touchdowns, 41 games played)

De’Veon Smith was a great running back who carried the ball a boatload. He was a power back with solid speed who ran between the tackles and wasn’t afraid to lower his shoulder. While Smith had an excellent career in the Maize and Blue, he, unfortunately, didn’t have the best timing.

First, he played for mediocre teams with head coach Brady Hoke as a Freshman and Sophomore in 2013-14. Those teams went a combined 12-13. Then, when he was on good teams under Jim Harbaugh in 2015-16 (20-8 record), they didn’t have the dominating offensive lines we’ve grown accustomed to recently. Regardless, Smith was still a solid all-around running back but ended up in the third tier for two main reasons. One, Smith never rushed for over 1000 yards in a season, and two, he never had a season in which he averaged at least 5.0 yards per carry. He would be the only player in tier 2 without one of those stat points, let alone both.

-Eight career games of 100+ rushing yards (one of 150+ rush yards).

-Led the team in rushing twice, 2015-16.

2. Chris Evans

(369 touches, 2274 yards, 6.2 average, 17 touchdowns, 42 games played)

Chris Evans was one of the most talented guys on this list and has flashed that potential in his short time with the Cincinnati Bengals. While with Michigan football, however, he never entirely broke out. Maybe he never really got his chance, but regardless, he was never the number 1 back on the team. He was always seemingly behind the guys ahead of him on this list. Evans still had some great games, like in 2017 at Minnesota when he went off for 191 yards and two touchdowns on just 13 carries.

Unfortunately, academic issues nearly derailed his career, as they caused him to miss the 2019 season. Still, Evans deserves significant praise for not giving up and making a return to the team in 2020. It’s unfortunate because that 2019 team really could have used him. Evans was a big-time threat in the open field but, unfortunately, needed to be utilized more, catching the ball out of the backfield or from the slot.

-Three career games of 100+ rushing yards (two of 150+ rush yards).

-Evans’ 479 career receiving yards is 11th all-time in program history for a running back.

3. Zach Charbonnet

(182 touches, 921 yards, 5.1 average, 12 touchdowns, 18 games played)

Like Evans, Zach Charbonnet is another “what-if” of Michigan football running backs under Harbaugh, this time due to the transfer portal. While things have turned out great for both parties, it still stings some to see Charbonnet running wild at UCLA. We all saw his potential as a true freshman in 2019 when he led the team in rushing attempts, yards and touchdowns.

Then the unfortunate debacle that was the 2020 season happened, when Charbonnet touched the ball just 25 times in five games, and that was it for his time in the winged helmet.

-Two career games of 100+ rushing yards (15 such with UCLA).

-Set freshman school record with 11 rushing touchdowns in 2019.

4. Ty Isaac

(199 touches, 1240 yards, 6.2 average, eight touchdowns, 26 games played)

Ty Isaac, a big-bodied (6-3, 228 lbs) transfer from USC, somewhat quietly had an excellent career as a Michigan Wolverine as one of just 55 players in school history to rush for 1000+ career yards. That may not sound stellar until you consider how many players Michigan has had in the previous 140-plus years. Like some of the others ahead of him on this list, Isaac never seemed to get his chance, as he ranked third in carries in his junior (74) and senior seasons (88), with most of it seemingly coming after the game was essentially over.

-Four career games of 100+ rushing yards

-One of seven running backs in Michigan football history to average 6.0+ yards per carry for their career (minimum of 70 carries).

5. Tru Wilson

(115 touches, 634 yards, 5.5 average, two touchdowns, 22 games played)

A former walk-on, Tru Wilson became a fan favorite as the third running back in the 2018-19 season. Chants of “TRUUU” would boom from the stadium whenever he touched the ball, and he would run hard in return. While not the biggest or fastest back, Wilson had good vision and was very crafty. He had some nice runs, albeit usually against backups late in the games, and even found the endzone several times. Most notably, a 27-yard touchdown rush against Notre Dame in 2019 to extend the Wolverines’ lead to 31.

-One of 15 running backs in Michigan football history to average 5.5+ yards per carry (minimum of 100 carries).

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