Following Michigan’s season-opening 40-21 victory over Middle Tennessee State, true freshman running back Zach Charbonnet has received justified high praise for his performance.
The Camarillo, Calif. native is just 18 years old but has been labeled as the future of U-M’s running back position since his verbal commitment in June 2018 as a four-star prospect.
As expected, he was the starter in his first game as a Wolverine. With limited touches (10), Charbonnet totaled 90 yards on eight carries, averaging 11.3 yards per carry. Catching the ball out of the backfield twice on three targets, he totaled nine yards in the receiving game.
Given the small sample size, there isn’t much definitive to take away from his first showing outside of yeah, he’s legit. There is something to make of what he showed on tape, though.
The Wolverine Lounge phoned in a friend for an assessment on Charbonnet’s first game compared to his high school tape.
Chris Howard was a running back at Michigan from 1994 to 1997. U-M won a national championship in his senior season when he totaled 938 rushing yards, along with seven rushing touchdowns and one receiving touchdown as the team’s starting running back.
The former Wolverine tunes in each week to watch the team he used to tout the rock for. As a former running back, Howard was intrigued to see the debut of the highly-anticipated Charbonnet.
“I watched his high school highlight, of course,” Howard said during a phone interview with TWL. “I thought he was a big, physical runner with good speed, great vision, and great patience.
“I’m always wary of kids having great high school film. But the thing with Zach is, he played against really good competition and showed out in those games. So that allows me to feel he’s on the right path. But, again, he’s a freshman. Time will tell. The backfield will be competitive.”
It’s not uncommon to hear widespread hyperbole following impressive debuts in all sports. Charbonnet didn’t light the world on fire. He didn’t score a touchdown.
It’s what he did with and without the ball that impressed Howard most.
“What I saw from Zach was a well-prepared young man. What a lot of people don’t understand about pass pro (at running back) is having to understand who your man is,” he said. “Middle Tennessee State was bringing blitzes from everywhere, and a lot of times it’s very difficult, especially for a freshman, to identify who his man is. Sometimes your guy isn’t going to show it. He understood who his guy was.
“One of the things we talk about in the running back room is, ‘if you can’t pass protect, you can’t play.’ Zach was 9-for-9 on his blitz pickup, which again is not common for a freshman. Not only that, he really stood his ground. I was more impressed with his blitz pickups than anything else. I missed quite a few blitz pickups as a senior. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone do that as a freshman, much less as a veteran on the team.”
Following Saturday’s game, Charbonnet was quick to draw high praise from the coaching staff, teammates, and fans alike.
In turn, he drew some comparisons to one of both professional and college football’s best running backs of all-time. Adrian Peterson, the Big 12’s single-season rushing record-holder, ran for over 4,000 yards in three years at Oklahoma, adding 42 total touchdowns (41 rushing, 1 receiving). Only seven more running backs in the history of college football can claim that many yards in a career.
Nonetheless, current U-M tight ends coach Sherrone Moore, a former teammate of Peterson’s at OU, made the comparison earlier this week.
“I’ve only seen one other freshman back block like that, and that’s a guy I played with,” Moore said during a media session Wednesday. “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.”
Howard isn’t ready to make that lofty comparison, but he understands the sentiment and offered his own comparison with the small sample size we’ve been able to see from the true freshman.
“I know people keep talking about Adrian Peterson. I don’t know about all that. He’s a very upright runner, but he can get low when he needs too. He reminds me of (former Cowboys running back) Demarco Murray,” Howard said. “Runs upright with good vision — not necessarily a burner, but good enough speed to take it to the house. I’m sure there’s other comparisons out there, but that’s what comes to mind. It’s hard to gauge with the limited touches we saw.”
Murray played seven seasons in the NFL, retiring early at 29 years old. He ran for over 7,000 yards and 49 touchdowns in his seven years in the NFL, adding 2,165 receiving yards. He played in three Pro Bowls and was a first-team All-Pro back in 2014.
Taking a step back and looking at Charbonnet in the big picture, most of his success, according to Howard, relies on a few things.
“Looking at him come out of high school, he has all the intangibles. He can catch the ball out of the backfield, we’ve seen him in pass pro; he has good speed, great vision & patience. He is an overall complete running back. His ceiling is extremely high — obviously barring injuries,” Howard said. “My question comes from a durability standpoint. He had a lot of touches in high school. He came in with an injury (Charbonnet was on crutches in the winter following a foot surgery). He’s a physical runner, he really lays into guys when he’s running the ball. As long as he’s durable, he’ll have a great career at Michigan.
“Your running back is always going to be as good as your offensive line. If your line is opening holes, then they are creating space for you to showcase your talents. You have to be Barry Sanders back there to play behind a bad offensive line. I say every year, Michigan will go as far as its offensive line takes it. If Michigan’s offensive line has an outstanding, stellar year, creating opportunities for Zach to showcase its talent, then he’ll have an outstanding year. But if defenses are getting to him two yards behind the line of scrimmage, then he won’t.”