Anatomy of a Running Back Substitution, Part 1

Anatomy of a Running Back Substitution, Part 1

December 24, 2020
Jay Harbaugh (image via Twitter)

I’ve seen a lot of criticism over the years – but especially in 2020 – about Michigan’s running back rotation. There has been a lot of blame put on running backs coach Jay Harbaugh for using too many backs, not giving Hassan Haskins enough carries, not giving Zach Charbonnet enough carries, not giving Blake Corum enough carries, not giving Chris Evans enough carries, etc.

First, a brief history of the running back rotation under Jim Harbaugh for the top four running backs:

Hit the jump for the rest of the post.

TYRONE WHEATLEY (Running Backs Coach, 2015-2016)

  • 2015: De’Veon Smith (180 carries/36.7%), Drake Johnson (54 carries/11.0%), Derrick Green (47 carries/9.6%), Sione Houma (43 carries/8.8%)
  • 2016: De’Veon Smith (181 carries/31.5%), Chris Evans (88 carries/15.3%), Ty Isaac (74 carries/12.9%), Karan Higdon (72 carries/12.5%)

JAY HARBAUGH (Running Backs coach, 2017-2020)

  • 2017: Karan Higdon (164 carries/31.0%), Chris Evans (135 carries/25.5%), Ty Isaac (88 carries/16.6%), Kareem Walker (20 carries/3.8%)
  • 2018: Karan Higdon (224 carries/40.8%), Chris Evans (81 carries/14.8%), Tru Wilson (62 carries/11.3%), Ben Mason (33 carries/6.0%)
  • 2019: Zach Charbonnet (149 carries/30.1%), Hassan Haskins (121 carries/24.4%), Tru Wilson (44 carries/8.9%), Christian Turner (44 carries/8.9%)
  • 2020: Hassan Haskins (61 carries/35.5%), Blake Corum (26 carries/15.1%), Zach Charbonnet (19 carries/11.0%), Chris Evans (16 carries/9.3%)

1st string RB carry percentage (in order from highest to lowest): 2018, 2015, 2020, 2016, 2017, 2019

4th string RB carry percentage (in order from highest to lowest): 2016, 2020, 2019, 2015, 2018, 2017


It means very little, other than this:

The people complaining about Jay Harbaugh’s rotation being too deep need to realize that Tyrone Wheatley did the exact same thing. People even complained about this when Wheatley was the running backs coach.

What’s the common denominator? Not Jay Harbaugh, who was the TE coach in 2015 and 2016. Not Josh Gattis, who wasn’t at Michigan until 2019. Not Ed Warinner or Pep Hamilton or Jedd Fisch.

The common thread is Jim Harbaugh.

There’s an old phrase in coaching that goes like this: “You’re either coaching it or you’re allowing it to happen.” I don’t think that phrase is accurate in 100% of cases, but the point is that Jim Harbaugh has allowed or told two different running backs coaches with varying running back skill sets to rotate running backs liberally.

Soon (not tomorrow, because it’s Christmas, you heathens), I will post a follow-up about how coaches decide to rotate and substitute backs in game situations.

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