Higdon said Thursday night, after Michigan’s fourth spring practice, it’s been one of the things he’s concentrating on the most.
Evans went even further. When asked what specifically he has worked on this spring, he held out his hand, counted each finger off and repeated the words ‘pass protection’ over and over again.
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The junior believes he lost playing time last season because he wasn’t good enough at protecting the quarterback. So, like his backfield mate, he has worked on changing that.
“(Jay Harbaugh) didn’t necessarily say it, but I know based off the tendencies and him saying the opportunities that I get, that he doesn’t really trust me out there in pass protection,” Evans said. “So what I’ve gotta do is pass protection, pass protection, pass protection. I’ve just got to beat it until I get it down.”
It appears their work has caught the eye of Harbaugh, the running backs coach. According to him, the team’s two leading rushers from last season are “doing a great job” this spring while polishing the parts of their game that needed more attention to detail.
Michigan running back Chris Evans (12) celebrates his touchdown with teammate defensive line Khaleke Hudson (7) during the second half at the Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Saturday, November 4, 2017. (Photo: Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press)
That includes more precision in their routes coming out of the backfield or empty sets. And, of course, it includes pass protection.
“They’re both super tough,” Harbaugh said. “Just getting them to play with the technique that we’re looking for and from right now to if you compared it to last spring, it’s significantly better. Even these four practices have been incrementally better.”
That isn’t the only similarity between the two. Both say they’ve gotten bigger with the help of new strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert. Higdon is close to 200 pounds after weighing “about 190, 195” after the bowl game. Evans, a sophomore, is at 214, up from 210.
Then there’s the bond they share off the field. Such a close friendship might seem unexpected, considering Higdon and Evans have competed for carries the past two years.
On the field, the duo took a combined 299 carries for 1,679 yards and 17 touchdowns as the backbone of Michigan’s ground game.
And yet, despite that natural rivalry, their relationship has flourished. Off the field, they both coach youth football teams, collaborating on different ideas for their players. When they have time, Evans said, they’ll get together during the weekend to hang out and talk about … pass protection. What else?
“We’re real tight,” Evans said. “When stuff goes wrong on the field, we talk. Even off the field.”
Added Higdon: “We’ve grown a lot closer. Obviously, we compete a lot, and we compete at a high level against each other. But we’ve been able to push each other and learn off each other and just build that relationship, that friendship and keep each other going, keep each other motivated and make sure whoever’s on the field at whatever time (will) succeed.”
Oct. 28: Michigan running back Karan Higdon rushes for a touchdown in the first half against Rutgers at Michigan Stadium. Higdon rushed for two TDs in the 35-14 win. (Photo: Rick Osentoski USA TODAY Sports)
According to Higdon, that relationship has developed since Evans arrived on campus two summers ago. He feels it’s been the strongest this year, as he enters his final spring at Michigan.
Unlike Evans, this will be the final go-around for Higdon. He briefly considered leaving early for the NFL, and says he got a lot of great feedback. But he came back, and he’s set numerous goals for himself. One of those is carrying the title of offensive captain — which he’s already gone about trying to earn by being more vocal and leading more by example.
According to Higdon, he felt he had been doing that before, but in a selfish manner. Now, he wants to be more contagious.
“Selfish manner meaning I was focusing on what I needed to do to help the team, and not really what other guys — what we could do together — to help the team,” he explained. “So I was making sure I was at my best, so I could give the offense my best. And this year, along with that, I’ve been able to find a balance between doing that for myself and the guys around me, because I know the game more. And when you know the game more, you can help more.”
Besides earning the captaincy, Higdon didn’t want to disclose any of his other goals for the season. But it’s safe to assume he feels the same way as Evans about how last year ended, and improving in pass protection and becoming a better leader is how he hopes to end his final season on a better note.
“(Donovan) Peoples-Jones just said after practice today, ‘We’ve got to remember the feeling after all the losses we had,’” Evans said. “We always keep that in the back of our heads, just roll with it. Remember the locker room quiet, everybody down. We’ve just got to remember that feeling through spring ball and work harder.”