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Michigan football midseason grades: Running backs

Deep group of running backs lead Michigan offense

Karan Higdon and Chris Evans will be a dangerous 1-2 punch for Michigan this season. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Karan Higdon and Chris Evans will be a dangerous 1-2 punch for Michigan this season. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

College football season is flying by, as Michigan finds itself already halfway through its regular season schedule.

The Wolverines are 6-0 and ranked No. 4 in the nation after breezing past Hawaii, UCF and Colorado in the nonconference schedule and kicking off the Big Ten season with wins over Penn State, Wisconsin and Rutgers.

READ: Big Ten power rankings, week 6

As Michigan takes a week off to prepare for the second half, ClickOnDetroit.com will break down the team's performance by position through six games.

Here's a look at how the running backs fared.

Other midseason position grades:

De'Veon Smith

Grade: B
Strengths: Breaking tackles, ball security, pass blocking
Areas to improve: Ball carrier vision, running after catch

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De'Veon Smith entered the season as Michigan's starting running back after averaging 4.2 yards per carry in 180 attempts last season. He racked up 1,389 rushing yards over his first three seasons and improved his game each offseason.

This year, Smith has had more help from a deeper group of running backs. He's on pace for his fewest number of carries since being a true freshman, and the decreased work load has agreed with him. In 61 attempts, he's averaging more than five yards per carry for the first time in his career, and he gives Michigan a different look when more athletic backs come out of the game.

Smith exploded during the Colorado and Penn State games, breaking tackle after tackle en route to gaining 194 yards on 23 carries. He also scored a touchdown in each of those games. When he's going right, it's the ability to keep his legs churning to absorb big hits and finish runs that makes his game special.

But Smith has struggled in a few games this season, especially last weekend against Rutgers, when he gained only 11 yards on five attempts. Michigan built a huge lead early, so Smith got most of the game off, but the rest of the offense had no problem slicing up Rutgers.

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No matter how much he struggles on the ground, Smith will always have a spot in the rotation because of his improved pass protection in the backfield. He picked up a couple of big blocks against Colorado and Wisconsin to give Wilton Speight time in the pocket. Speight doesn't always take hits well, so Smith's added protection is an underappreciated part of his game.

Unlike some of the other weapons on the field, Smith doesn't have home run potential. The breakaway speed isn't there, and he doesn't look comfortable in the screen game. But he's a talented, veteran running back who has done his job well through six games.

Ty Isaac

Grade: A
Strengths: Pass blocking, breaking runs outside, short receiving game
Areas to improve: Breaking tackles, top-line speed

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Here's one of the most improved players on Michigan's offense this season. Ty Isaac was in the doghouse early last season after a goal line fumble against Maryland. Michigan was backed up inside its own five-yard line in a surprisingly close game, and Isaac put the ball on the turf. The Wolverines recovered, but Jim Harbaugh pulled Isaac from the game, and he only earned four more carries the final eight games of the season.

That hasn't been an issue so far this season. Isaac had one bobble on an outside run against Wisconsin, but he managed to hold onto the ball and hasn't coughed it up this season.

Isaac has started to gain Harbaugh's confidence, and as a result, he's been lining up next to Speight when the snaps matter the most.

Against Colorado, Michigan was leading 31-28 in the third quarter when a personal foul penalty backed the offense to its own 11-yard line. On first and 19, Harbaugh dialed up a screen pass to Isaac, who made two defenders miss near the line of scrimmage and turned a play that looked to be going nowhere into a 21-yard gain. The Wolverines went on to score a touchdown that sucked the life out of Colorado.

Two weeks later, Michigan was in a fight for its life against Wisconsin. When the game rolled into the fourth quarter and the game was still tied 7-7, Isaac was the running back getting many of the snaps with the game on the line. He carried eight times for 48 yards in the game and made a huge block in the backfield that allowed Speight to hit Amara Darboh downfield for the game-winning touchdown.

Last week, he carried 12 times for 99 yards and two touchdowns. The USC transfer avoided big mistakes in the first half of the season and has earned the second most carries of any running back.

Chris Evans

Grade: A
Strengths: Home run potential, elusiveness, finding running lanes
Areas to improve: Pass blocking, receiving out of the backfield

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Through six games, Michigan's leading rusher in terms of yards and yards per carry isn't the starter, Smith, or the USC transfer, Isaac -- it's the true freshman Chris Evans, who burst onto the scene with over 100 yards in the opener and has established himself as one of the most exciting players on the team.

When Evans gained 112 yards and scored two touchdowns on just eight carries against Hawaii, he looked like he was ready to run away with the starting running back spot. His ability to hit the hole and burst into the secondary gives Michigan a weapon it has lacked for years.

But Evans couldn't recapture that magic during the rest of the nonconference season, gaining just 45 yards on 13 carries. He lost playing time to Smith and Isaac, who showed an ability to help the offense in other areas.

When Penn State came to town, Evans was back at it, averaging seven yards per carry and finding the end zone. He enjoyed his best game against the porous Rutgers defense Saturday, gaining 153 yards on 11 carries. He is the most explosive running back on Michigan's roster, and he'll continue to improve under Harbaugh.

He certainly has room to improve in pass protection, which is common for young players, and he should be more of a weapon in the screen passing game. But as a true freshman playing on a Top 10 team, Evans has handled himself well.

Karan Higdon

Grade: B+
Strengths: Vision, finishing runs
Areas to improve: Pass protection, elusiveness

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Karan Higdon plays the role of forgotten man in this running back core, probably because he isn't as flashy or highly touted as guys like Evans and Kareem Walker.

Higdon carried the ball 11 times as a true freshman and didn't make much of an impact, but he's been a huge asset to Harbaugh as a sophomore.

In the four games in which he received multiple carries this season, Higdon has made the most of his opportunities. He averages 7.2 yards per carry, and leads all Michigan running backs with five touchdowns on the season.

Despite carrying the ball only once against Colorado, and receiving no carries against Wisconsin, Higdon is starting to make his case to play in big games. He torched Penn State for 81 yards and two touchdowns on nine carries, and proved he can read his blocks and take care of the ball against Rutgers.

Harbaugh has held Higdon to a limited role so far, but his knack for finding the end zone makes a compelling case for more playing time going forward.

Khalid Hill

Grade: A+
Strengths: Scoring touchdowns, making plays as receiver
Areas to improve: Sharing

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Fullback Khalid Hill earns the award for strangest stat line on the roster. Hill has carried the ball 13 times this season for 21 yards and seven touchdowns. His longest run of the season was a four-yard score.

Whenever Harbaugh wants to punch the ball into the end zone, Hill is his guy. So far, the play has been unstoppable, as Michigan has yet to go to Hill on the goal line and come away with anything other than a touchdown.

Michigan running backs and receivers who are tackled inside the five-yard line know their touchdown is going to big No. 80, whose job is to finish drives. He isn't sharing, but Harbaugh doesn't care.

Hill has also been a bit of a secret weapon for Speight in the short passing game. He's caught eight passes this season for 66 yards and a touchdown. When nothing else is open, Hill is comfortable hauling in short passes and lumbering for the sideline.

Kingston Davis

Grade: Incomplete

The true freshman gained 17 yards on two carries in the opener against Hawaii, but hasn't seen the field since. With so many running backs already in the rotation, he's in line for a bigger role in the future.

Overall

Grade: A-

Michigan's running game hasn't been dominant all season, but it appears to be vastly improved from the last several years. Harbaugh is making it a priority to run the ball on offense, and he's put together a nice mix of power and speed to make that happen.

Michigan's running backs don't turn the ball over, and they make plays when the offensive line creates holes. Last year, the running game disappeared in big games. To make Michigan's playoff aspirations come true, that can't happen on the road against Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State.