Thursday, December 24, 2020

Anatomy of a Running Back Substitution, Part 1


Jay Harbaugh (image via Twitter)

I've seen a lot of criticism over the years - but especially in 2020 - about Michigan's running back rotation. There has been a lot of blame put on running backs coach Jay Harbaugh for using too many backs, not giving Hassan Haskins enough carries, not giving Zach Charbonnet enough carries, not giving Blake Corum enough carries, not giving Chris Evans enough carries, etc.

First, a brief history of the running back rotation under Jim Harbaugh for the top four running backs:

Hit the jump for the rest of the post.

TYRONE WHEATLEY (Running Backs Coach, 2015-2016)

  • 2015: De'Veon Smith (180 carries/36.7%), Drake Johnson (54 carries/11.0%), Derrick Green (47 carries/9.6%), Sione Houma (43 carries/8.8%)
  • 2016: De'Veon Smith (181 carries/31.5%), Chris Evans (88 carries/15.3%), Ty Isaac (74 carries/12.9%), Karan Higdon (72 carries/12.5%)

JAY HARBAUGH (Running Backs coach, 2017-2020)

  • 2017: Karan Higdon (164 carries/31.0%), Chris Evans (135 carries/25.5%), Ty Isaac (88 carries/16.6%), Kareem Walker (20 carries/3.8%)
  • 2018: Karan Higdon (224 carries/40.8%), Chris Evans (81 carries/14.8%), Tru Wilson (62 carries/11.3%), Ben Mason (33 carries/6.0%)
  • 2019: Zach Charbonnet (149 carries/30.1%), Hassan Haskins (121 carries/24.4%), Tru Wilson (44 carries/8.9%), Christian Turner (44 carries/8.9%)
  • 2020: Hassan Haskins (61 carries/35.5%), Blake Corum (26 carries/15.1%), Zach Charbonnet (19 carries/11.0%), Chris Evans (16 carries/9.3%)

1st string RB carry percentage (in order from highest to lowest): 2018, 2015, 2020, 2016, 2017, 2019

4th string RB carry percentage (in order from highest to lowest): 2016, 2020, 2019, 2015, 2018, 2017


It means very little, other than this:

The people complaining about Jay Harbaugh's rotation being too deep need to realize that Tyrone Wheatley did the exact same thing. People even complained about this when Wheatley was the running backs coach.

What's the common denominator? Not Jay Harbaugh, who was the TE coach in 2015 and 2016. Not Josh Gattis, who wasn't at Michigan until 2019. Not Ed Warinner or Pep Hamilton or Jedd Fisch.

The common thread is Jim Harbaugh.

There's an old phrase in coaching that goes like this: "You're either coaching it or you're allowing it to happen." I don't think that phrase is accurate in 100% of cases, but the point is that Jim Harbaugh has allowed or told two different running backs coaches with varying running back skill sets to rotate running backs liberally.

Soon (not tomorrow, because it's Christmas, you heathens), I will post a follow-up about how coaches decide to rotate and substitute backs in game situations.


  1. Accountability. Going the way of the dodo

    "You're either coaching it or you're allowing it to happen."

  2. Yep, Jim Harbaugh sucks at dishing out carries properly. 1st string should be 50% and the others should divide the other 50%. Good research.

  3. But why? What would be the logic of spreading it around so much? Is there a good case to be made for that approach?

  4. Do I think Jay Harbaugh is a good coach? Yes. Do I think he's good enough? No.
    Jim Harbaugh needs a better coaching staff. He has made great choices before. Jedd Fisch was doing a great job. He was recently the qb coach at New England, and now he's a head coach in college. Jim Harbaugh needs to start making good assistant coaching choices again. I'm sure it's in him to do it.

    joseph dreamed dreams

    1. Jedd Fisch was also the passing game coordinator. Not every position coach is destined to be or wants to be a head coach. Heck, not every coordinator wants to be a head coach.

      Lloyd Carr's assistants, for example. Erik Campbell, Fred Jackson, Jim Herrmann, etc. are just a few examples of guys who never became head coaches.

    2. Merry Christmas Thunder,

      I was just saying that there have been coaches working with Jim Harbaugh that have gone on to be very successful. So he's able to spot good coaches. And, he's able to get things back on track again at Michigan.

  5. I may be dumdum as a dodo but I have no idea what this is saying beyond the consistency between Harbaugh Jr and Wheatley in giving the top guy 30-40% of carries.

    Does the RB coach determine the rotation or is it Jim H?
    Is this rotation more or less than other peer programs?
    Does more or less rotation correlate with production?

    In short - is there a problem here worth diagnosing?


    1. I'm getting to some of those points. I'm not going to mess around with analyzing other programs, but I would argue that it doesn't really matter when looking at Clemson/Ohio State/Alabama because those guys get the cream of the crop when it comes to talent.