There is usually a lot of talk about who Michigan football’s feature running back is going to be, but that concept is truly overrated.
It seems like common practice to speculate who might become Michigan football‘s next feature running back. The Wolverines haven’t had one since Mike Hart (or maybe you could make the case for Denard Robinson).
But that notion of having to have one player who shoulders the bulk of the work for 25 carries a game is overrated, and frankly, it’s dangerous.
Running backs take some pretty serious hits throughout the course of the season, and if a coach claims to be on the side of student-athletes—and why wouldn’t they be?—they have a clear-cut reason right there to break up the workload and spread the carries around to multiple backs.
And it may be that the “feature” backs of the future are the ones getting 12-15 carries per game, while one or two others work somewhere between 7-10.
That’s similar to what Michigan did this season. De’Veon Smith got a little more than 12 carries per game. Chris Evans got 6.7. Ty Isaac got 5.7. Karan Higdon got 5.5. Although I haven’t seen anyone advocate the notion that Smith was a true feature running back this season.
On top of the moral claim that coaches should help preserve the longevity of their players, there’s also the simple fact that teams—and this includes Michigan—have more talent waiting in line. Evans proved himself to be a dynamic running back, and he commanded more than one or two touches a game. Had Smith been a more consistent bruiser, that wouldn’t have been a good reason to keep Evans locked away.
Look at Damien Harris at Alabama. He’s played a full season (14 games), minus three quarters against Kent State after an ankle injury, and he’s getting 10 carries a game. You might look at his 1,016 yards and not see anything overly spectacular. But 7.3 yards per carry on 140 carries says otherwise.
Alabama does it by supplementing Harris’ production with Bo Scarbrough (7.8 rushes per game) and Joshua Jacobs (6 rushes per game). And sometimes the chain of production is rearranged.
As Michigan moves forward without Smith, the cries for a feature running back will be amplified once again by those who long for the Mike Hart days. But Michigan doesn’t need a feature running back.