Michigan football's Zach Charbonnet was productive as a true freshman.
He just wasn't completely healthy.
Charbonnet ran hard and finished as the Wolverines' leading rusher with 149 carries for 726 yards and 11 touchdowns (a program record for a true freshman), but the injuries lingered. There was a sense that he could've done more if he was at full strength.
Now, Charbonnet's knee no longer hinders him. And Michigan's run game is counting on the sophomore to take a step forward.
“I probably felt a lot better during the quarantine," Charbonnet said Tuesday. "One of the things that I felt, I’m just able to open up my stride now. That was one thing that really helped me that I felt.”
Charbonnet is the leading returning rusher in a running backs room that got a lot more crowded this offseason. While the Wolverines struggled to find depth in 2019 (Charbonnet had to carry the ball 33 times against Army in just his second career game), they now have four backs who likely will all play this season: Charbonnet, Hassan Haskins, Chris Evans and Blake Corum.
Charbonnet doesn't feel threatened by the other backs. He praised Evans' leadership and said the fifth-year senior has been a "great role model" for the other backs. And Charbonnet is "really glad" that Corum, a true freshman, joined the team.
“Blake, he’s really fast and he’s just a really hard worker," Charbonnet said. "He’s just one of those guys that you can feed off of because he can make those big plays. I love that about him.”
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And while they are all fighting for playing time, Charbonnet said it's a friendly competition.
“We all just feed off each other in practice," he said. "Someone has a big play, we just hype each other up, and that’s the running back room we want to be — competitive, but still have each others’ backs and cheer on whoever’s in.”
Perhaps the expanded rotation will help keep Charbonnet fresh after his effectiveness and usage varied wildly during the 2019 season.
In the first two games, Charbonnet had 41 carries for 190 yards and three touchdowns. He had just seven carries for 28 yards in the next two games. Then came a four-game stretch when Charbonnet had 51 carries for 313 yards and six touchdowns — that was followed up by a four-game stretch in which he had just 27 carries for 111 yards and two scores.
In the Citrus Bowl, Charbonnet looked more explosive than ever before, with 13 carries for 84 yards against Alabama.
He spent the offseason trying to get healthy. And it wasn't long before he began to notice the benefits of doing so.
“I’d say that was a big thing for me to battle with in terms of now, just being able to have this whole offseason to work on my body, my speed, my strength," Charbonnet said. "I just think it’s giving me a little bit of an advantage to be an overall better football player to have this offseason healthy.”
While Charbonnet was mostly a physical, between-the-tackles runner who rarely broke long runs in 2019, he worked to improve his explosiveness during the offseason at the request of running backs coach Jay Harbaugh. The goal for Charbonnet and the other backs is to be able to make the defense's free hitter miss and break longer runs.
“So I think that is a great point that Coach Jay has brought up," Charbonnet said. "This offseason, we’ve been working on our second level moves. A lot of open space, trying to make moves and break tackles and stuff like that. That’s a lot that we’ve been focusing on.”
It's not the only aspect of Charbonnet's position that he's hoping to get better at.
“I know there’s room for a lot of improvement," Charbonnet said. "One of my things that I keep working on is just trusting my reads and my holes and stuff like that. Pass (protection), keep my eyes disciplined and seeing where the blitzes are coming from. And then also making that second-level defender miss.”
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football will get RB Zach Charbonnet at full health in 2020