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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — He was both perhaps the most heralded hire this offseason by the Michigan fanbase as well as the one who’s had the quickest returns.
Former Michigan football running back Mike Hart is overseeing the tailbacks some 14 years after donning the winged helmet himself, and the Wolverines rushing attack is the talk of college football through two weeks. With Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins both putting up video game numbers, the maize and blue’s ‘thunder and lightning’ have certainly taken a step forward under Hart’s tutelage.
On Wednesday, Hart talked all things run game including what he’s seen from his backs, Donovan Edwards’ progress and much more.
Here is everything he had to say.
Is this the ideal start for a running backs coach?
"I think it's the ideal start for this team. I think it's what we needed. It's good to come out and run the ball. Obviously, the running backs are playing hard but the O-line's doing a great job. That's the most important thing. Last year, we saw a lot of guys in and out on the O-line and I think these guys know who they are, they know what they want to do. They're big, they're physical and they do a great job up front."
We've seen what the backs do well, what do they need to work on?
"I mean, I think there's always room for improvement. I think a lot of things you don't see on film -- you see the big plays, you see all those things -- but you get down to the details, the intricacies of certain plays and what they're supposed to do and mistakes made -- whether it's a route or certain things. There's always things to improve on. Attack the safeties in the open field on certain runs. They definitely can improve but they're doing a great job of what we're asking them right now."
What have they done well?
"You see Hassan, he breaks tackles, he's done a great job in short-yardage situations. We didn't get the one on the goal line last week but that wasn't on him. From that standpoint, he's done a great job with short yardage. Blake -- big plays. Big plays are huge, especially in the run game, to pop those long runs off. Makes it a lot easier to score touchdowns.
How does he manage the backs?
"It's this analytics company that tells me -- no! No! I just think there's certain plays for certain guys going into the week and they practice it throughout the week and it's just a feel thing. I played Madden a lot growing up and once a back has a certain amount of carries, they automatically sub them. When you run the ball on a 12-play drive, Hassan's gotta come out for a bit, Blake comes in. But you'll see: sometimes Blake starts a series, sometimes Hassan does. Donovan will start a series every now and then. Kinda just go with the flow and how you feel -- just go with your gut. I don't use analytics for substitutions, no.
Balancing how Corum wants to be in every play, his eagerness
"All of them want to be out there, but that's our job as a coach -- that's why we're coaches. We put them out there in the best situations possible, from that standpoint. I think they all want to have 25 carries. Donovan wants to have 25 carries. I think my job as coach is to manage the room. That's the biggest thing when you have a talented room is everybody wants to be in there and be on the field. Right now, they're all happy, they're all having success. But when everyone's not getting that many carries, that's when you've really gotta juggle them and manage from that standpoint."
Even in terms of special teams?
"Oh, you're speaking of Jay (Harbaugh) with special teams? Yeah, we've gotta take care of him with special teams, without a doubt. Blake's a gunner on punt team, he's on the kickoff team, he's on the kickoff return team. I think that's when Jay actually comes in and does a great job communicating and says, 'Hey, Blake's out there for a long series. Do you want to put him in on punt team? If he had a long drive, do you want to put him in on kickoff return?' That's where Jay does a great job of communicating with me throughout the game. Just his plan going into the game of doing those types of things. That's the great thing about him being the running back coach before -- he gets it, he understands it. After a long drive, Blake can't go cover a punt or a kickoff, stuff like that."
How is Corum's patience?
"He's grown. He's not there yet. But I think he's a lot more patient than he was last year. I think he could settle into the game a little bit more. Sometimes he's too fast still because he's a fast, quick kid. But he understands it, he needs to let those plays develop, give the linemen a chance to get to their blocks, to get to their second level. When those guys do their job up front, which they've been doing a great job of, then he's one-on-one with a safety and it's hard to tackle Blake in the open field."
Is Corum the fastest running back he's been around?
"He's the quickest, most explosive! In a 100-meter dash, probably not. He is fast now! He can go. I think all those tools -- there's long speed, right? You're a 100-meter guy -- I've coached some guys that are 10.6, 10.7, from that standpoint. What he brings is he can make a move full-speed, burst, he gets from 0-10 really, really fast. And that's what I think makes him so dangerous when there is a crease in there, when there is a hole. He gets through it really fast and gets on the safety quick. I think it surprises most safeties."
How much can you teach patience?
"Yeah, you can get guys to slow down, without a doubt. I can't get him to make the safety miss, that's all natural ability, that's from his parents. Can't get him to see a hole -- that's natural ability. When you talk about how the run is being blocked, who's blocking who, the time it takes for those blocks to develop -- whether it's outside zone, counter, power, inside zone. I think all those things apply differently. He has to know what's going on or he's gonna run into somebody that's not blocked because the double team hasn't gotten off to him."
How are they in pass blocking?
"Oh, they're fine. There's no problem with their pass-blocking abilities. I think you guys are probably referring to last week against, with Hassan's block. That wasn't on Hassan. Hassan was actually saving the play, to be honest with you. But Hassan can block, Blake can block, Donovan's getting better at blocking, so I don't have any concern with their pass pro ability. "Hassan's a strong guy now. It's hard to get behind him on a pass play. That was kinda just a miscommunication error from that that standpoint from up front to the backfield. Those are things we can improve on. I'm comfortable from that standpoint."
Would he like to incorporate screens into the offense?
"Of course. We have screens in our offense and you screen when you pass the ball a lot in passing situations. I think if you're running the ball like we were in the last two games, you don't need to screen. We've had screens in the past two games, probably three or four screens a game. We have them in practice. It's just whether you get to them or not."
Did they intend to run 56 times?
"I think you always go in with the intention to run the ball -- sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I don't think the intention was to run the ball that much. That definitely wasn't the intention, but the intention wasn't not to run the ball. None of us thought we were gonna run the ball that many times against that defense because it's a great defense. It's fun. It's fun when you can do that, I'll tell you that."
Did he run the ball playing Madden?
"I'd run the ball all day, it's the only way to play! Dive, dive, dive! Third-and-1, run the ball! Do it again! I'm serious though! That's how I play Madden. I'd throw a little quick out, you know. I like playing that way."
What has the OL done to open the door for the backs?
"I think if you -- there's holes. There's big holes out there. I don't know the exact stat but yards before contact, I think we're top five in the country. That tells you the O-line is doing a great job. Before those guys can touch us, we're past the line of scrimmage. When you have great backs and it's their job to make one person miss, they do a great job of it. They get clean holes. "As a running back, if you have to make a move behind the line of scrimmage, it's not gonna be a positive play. If you get to at least the second level without being touched, good running backs break tackles. On Hassan's touchdown run, he broke a tackle, right? He got to the unblocked man. On Blake's home runs, he makes someone miss in the open field. They're doing a great job. "It's not just the O-line. You've gotta understand, the tight ends are blocking their tail off. With Schoony, with Erick, Joel, those guys are doing a great job, too. Those D-ends aren't easy to block in this league. Playing Washington, they do a great job, slicing back. Those guys put their body on the line as much as the O-line does. It's a real team effort up front. The receivers get into the secondary, blocking safeties, blocking those -- downfield blocks are huge. We're not a team that just bubbles guys on the outside all the time and they stand there and watch. They're blocking, they're putting their face in there in the run game -- which is huge."
The challenge of getting Donovan Edwards to run north-south
"I think that's always the issue with any back that comes from high school. Not just Donovan, that was Blake's issue last year. I'm sure it was Hassan's issue when he was a freshman. That's one of the biggest transitions when you get to college. Everybody's fast, not just fast, but they contain the ball and there's angles, right? So you have to get vertical. "He's doing a great job. That's one thing -- I need to get him on the field more. He's talented. I told him that he should have more carries in the game against Washington. Without a doubt. But we've just gotta get him in there, get him oiled up. We'll try to get him in the game more."
How are Haskins and Corum's vision?
"Vision? I think that -- I can't teach them to see a hole, I can get them to understand where a hole is supposed to be. But I think some of those runs -- Hassan's touchdown last week, that ball wasn't supposed to go out there, but he just saw it. He just ran out there. I think No. 1, it's God-given, it's from their parents, it's genetic. You have to have vision to be a good running back. But again, I'll just emphasize the fact that certain players are supposed to hit certain areas. And so you try to get them to understand where that ball's supposed to go. Who's blocking, who with the blocking scheme, where that crease is supposed to open up. "Teaching them, I go back to patience because I think that helps those guys who are fast, who are quick, who have great vision, because sometimes guys just see a hole and want to hit it and that doesn't allow the block to set up for the line. So you just have the linebacker fall back and make the tackle in the hole. More or less, just trying to get them to slow down."
What are the backs looking for when the line is pulling?
"Just wait, let them go and do their job! Because obviously they're trying to block somebody, so if you're trying to beat them to the hole and go out in front of them, then there's gonna be an unblocked guy. That happened in the game once or twice -- we were too fast. We didn't give those guys time to get around to each of their blocks. They know whether it's counter or power. In counter, two guys are coming in and sometimes it's inside zone -- just depends on the play call, what's supposed to happen and how it's supposed to happen. Those are things that we talk about a lot going into the game."
Does Josh Gattis communicate with him indicating which back for which play?
"I think that you go into a series with a plan. When a series is going on, Coach Gatt is calling the plays. You don't want to interrupt the play-caller when he has a mindset of what he wants to do and what he's going with. When we communicate is when we get to the sideline, when the defense is on the field. What are we gonna do on the goal line? What's our next third-and-1 call? What are you guys comfortable with? What do you want to run the next series? "Obviously Coach Moore is heavily involved in that, from that standpoint. I'm in involved with that (too)."