Zach Charbonnet passed just about every test in the Michigan football team’s season opener.
The true freshman running back filled the box score with 90 yards on eight carries, flashed next-level elusiveness in the open field and even hauled in a pair of receptions. He dazzled the naked eye in the seventh-ranked Wolverines’ (1-0) 41-20 win over Middle Tennessee State, particularly on a 41-yard scamper at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
But when it came to pass blocking — an area of the game that keeps star running backs, particularly freshmen, off the field all too often — Charbonnet found a way to shine. The four-star recruit recorded nine protection pickups in as many tries, earning high praise from his coaching staff.
“I don’t think we’ve had a back get nine pickups in a protection since we’ve been here, one single back,” said Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh. “And to be 100-percent, nine out of nine, that’s like, wow. That’s really good. … He just was handling it, with not even a misstep. So, it’s rare — that’s rare.”
Added tight ends coach Sherrone Moore: “I’ve only seen one other freshman back block like that, and that’s a guy I played with. That was really impressive to watch (Charbonnet), nine-for-nine in pickups, just go up and strike people and never back down and know who to block with all the exotic pressures (the Blue Raiders) brought.”
That “guy” Moore played with? That would be the great Adrian Peterson, whose 13,318 rushing yards are eighth-most in NFL history. Moore played offensive line at Oklahoma in 2006 and 2007, opening the very holes Peterson blasted through on his way to becoming the school’s third all-time leading rusher.
For Charbonnet, pass-blocking the first layer of growth in a season coming off the heels of a training camp defined by just that. After arriving in Ann Arbor on crutches, he impressed the staff throughout August before ultimately establishing himself as the top option in a crowded running backs room.
“You could just tell by the way Zach carries himself,” Moore said. “He’s all about his business, very mature for his age. And, obviously, he’s a special talent.”
If Charbonnet continues to pick up pass protection, he could become the Wolverines’ featured back sooner rather than later despite being just a frosh. Christian Turner carried the ball a team-high 11 times on Saturday night, while quarterbacks Shea Patterson and Dylan McCaffrey combined for 17 attempts. Tru Wilson, usually the team’s primary pass blocker, saw just two carries but picked up a big block to set up Patterson’s 36-yard touchdown pass to Tarik Black.
All three running backs made a positive impact in their own way, but Charbonnet’s seemed to resonate most. As for his ceiling, Harbaugh left the impression that it’s limitless.
“I’ve had pro guys that don’t understand the protections as well as the freshman back in this game.”