Michigan makes smart move to use full menu of backs

Tyrone Wheatley likes to think of his play sheet on Saturdays as a menu. He has a depth chart full of running backs who each bring a slightly different flavor to a rushing attack that is averaging 230 yards per game this season.

It’s not so much the amount of yardage (the Wolverines boosted their averaged with 300-plus yard gams against Hawaii and a depleted Penn State front seven), but the number of different contributors that makes the ground game dangerous. Each of Michigan’s top four backs has scored a touchdown through four games, and three of them are averaging at least 6.6 yards per carry. That doesn’t even include the team’s leading scorer, fullback Khalid Hill, who has four touchdowns on his nine carries in 2016.

Some coaches see sharing the wealth at running back as a problem. It keeps your top backs from developing a rhythm and getting into the feel of the game. Wheatley and head coach Jim Harbaugh have both said they’re not concerned with how many touches a particular back gets, as long as they’ve got the right guy in the game at the right time.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen obstacles to [having] multiple good players,” Harbaugh said this week. “I guess if you took the less-is-more philosophy if life you might be able to find an obstacle. I’ve always subscribed to the more-is-more philosophy. More always seems better.”

That’s why the coaching staff added sophomore Karan Higdon to the mix last week against Penn State. Higdon scored twice against the Nittany Lions, including a 40-yarder in the fourth quarter.

The “sledgehammer” option on Wheatley’s menu – as he described Higdon on a radio show appearance this Monday – said he missed spring practice with an illness and most of training camp while working through an undisclosed issue. He had some ground to make up when he returned during the first week of the regular season.

“It was mentally challenging sitting back and watching other guys work and knowing you want to be out there,” he said. “[I] focus[ed] on the playbook and on what other guys are doing and learn from them. It’s a competition. If you love to compete, this is the place to be.”

Higdon worked his way into the mix with big-bodied battering rams De'Veon Smith and Ty Isaac as well as the speedier, shiftier Chris Evans. Each player has his strengths, and Wheatley tries to deploy them when they can be most effective.

The other benefit to a regular rotation is the ability to keep fresh legs during a game and throughout the long Big Ten conference schedule. All four backs averaged fewer than 10 carries per game during September. There are at least 100 FBS backs above that mark from other teams around the country.

Against No. 8 Wisconsin this weekend, Michigan will need all hands on deck in the running game. The Badgers rank 10th nationally with the 80.5 rushing yards per game they’ve allowed while building a 4-0 record.

A set of at least four fresh backs – plus Hill at fullback, do-it-all sophomore Jabrill Peppers and a couple of wide receivers capable of taking a handoff to the house – gives Michigan’s offense a lot of different ways to attack. It also gives them plenty of experienced options if the physical Badgers’ front seven starts to wear down anyone in particular. All that’s left to figure out is a way to give those guys some gaps to run through.