How Michigan found Hassan Haskins and its prototype
The Wolverines took a chance on a two-way player and found a dominant force on the ground
Jake Sumner grabbed his phone to text Michigan Wolverines special teams coordinator and tight ends coach Jay Harbaugh.
The bond between this high school football coach in Eureka, Missouri, and Michigan’s longest-tenured assistant coach runs deep. Sumner has welcomed Harbaugh to the Eureka High School campus, where the Wolverines coordinator studies who to take a chance on next. The last time that happened, both men benefitted.
It’s the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, the pinnacle day of college football rivalries. Michigan vs. Ohio State, aka The Game, dominates the headlines. Ten years separated the Wolverines’ last victory over the Buckeyes. With Jim Harbaugh as Michigan’s head coach, the Wolverines had never beaten Ohio State.
Until Nov. 27. In front of a packed Big House, raucous Michigan fans saw something many considered unfathomable. The Wolverines finally defeated their archrival. This was a beatdown, 42-27.
Hassan Haskins made this possible. When it came time to unleash their running back, Haskins showcased his physicality, his relentlessness on the ground, steamrolling the Buckeyes defense. It was a career-defining performance for the young running back.
Haskins ascended onto the national consciousness with 28 carries for 169 yards and five touchdowns for the Wolverines.
Sumner, filled with excitement, knew who to text.
“I texted Jay saying, ‘Thanks for taking a chance on him,’ ” Sumner said. “What a journey.”
A week later, Haskins and the Wolverines secured the program’s first Big Ten title since 2004, with a dominant 42-3 win over Iowa. This earned Michigan a spot in the College Football Playoff national semifinal, taking on Georgia Friday night in the Orange Bowl.
To understand Haskins and the dominant force on the ground he’s become, you have to go back to his days at Eureka High School, in small-town Missouri, which provided the foundation for this natural athlete to blossom.
Hassan wasn’t the first member of the Haskins family Sumner coached at Eureka. Hassan’s brother, Maurice Alexander, also went through Eureka’s football program. Alexander, a former linebacker and safety, ended up getting drafted in the fourth round by the then-St. Louis Rams.
Having a brother who played high school football and achieved the NFL dream influenced Haskins to follow the same path. While Haskins didn’t boast loudly about his brother, it was evident the pride he had for having a sibling reach the highest level in football.
“He looked up to him so much that he was so proud,” said Tyler Wasson, Haskins’ offensive coordinator at Eureka. “He never talked or bragged about his brother. That family is so humble.”
Haskins entered Eureka High as a multisport athlete. Outside of football, the teenager shined in basketball and track, finishing second in the high jump at the 2017 MSHSAA Class 5 state championship, clearing the 6-foot-7 mark.
When football became his calling, Haskins transferred the skills he developed in basketball and track to playing offense and defense for Eureka.
“All of the things that he collected from all those sports helped get Hassan to the next level,” Sumner said. “It made him become the competitor and elite athlete that he is now.”
Haskins wasn’t the loudest player on the team at Eureka. He displayed humbleness, letting his performance dictate his impact. When he stepped inside the huddle and lined up pre-snap, his gaze toward the defense meant one thing.
Haskins wanted to beat you. During his senior season, Haskins carried the ball 255 times for 2,197 yards and 31 rushing touchdowns. Defensively, Haskins recorded nine sacks and two fumble recoveries. It was Haskins’ complete play that propelled Eureka to the Missouri Class 6 state semifinals in 2017, where it took on Christian Brothers College High School. With Eureka’s quarterback injured, Sumner remembers how Haskins filled the leadership role on offense. On one drive, Haskins ran the ball 13 times. Eureka didn’t win the game, but Haskins garnered a ton of attention from those in attendance.
Wasson recalls a game Haskins dominated against Marquette High School. Haskins put up 300 yards of offense in the first half alone and recorded five sacks on defense.
The combination of speed and toughness made Haskins an ideal prospect. Several programs came through Eureka to watch him play. Many left without offering. Despite solid numbers, the chip on his shoulder grew as Power 5 schools moved on.
“People were saying he wasn’t fast enough or he ran too uptight,” Wasson said. “I’m sure Hassan has this internal flame that nobody thinks he’s good enough. I know that bothered him. But you would never know. I never heard him complain once or say anything negative. He just kept working.”
Michigan got the last laugh. When Jay Harbaugh came through Eureka High School, he saw the potential in Haskins. The Wolverines decided to take a chance.
“Hassan is everything to us,” said Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. “We absolutely love him. He’s a guy that when you talk about a physical back and how you want to build your backs, he’s the exact prototype of what you want to build your running back room around.”
Coming in as a multiposition player, Haskins provided the Wolverines with flexibility. Initially, the youngster started as a linebacker. Over time, it became clear that Haskins belonged with the offense.
The experience as a linebacker wasn’t all for waste. Haskins transferred that knowledge going after the quarterback to seeing open holes to exploit for big yardage as a running back.
Haskins had to wait for his opportunity at Michigan, with Karan Higdon and Chris Evans ahead of him in the Wolverines’ backfield. He continued to work and learn from his teammates.
“It’s a testament to his character, his will and his desire to just continue to be great and to remain on point and focused,” Sumner said.
In 2019, Haskins took over as the Wolverines’ starting running back. In his first collegiate start against Notre Dame, Haskins posted 20 carries for 149 yards. Michigan fans have witnessed an all-encompassing athlete up close every Saturday since.
Despite the individual success, Haskins was still part of a team crippled with an inability to get past a vaunted rival. The Buckeyes were the class of the Big Ten, and there was doubt whether Jim Harbaugh could lead Michigan to the playoff.
Historic teams are born out of special players. In the big moments, Haskins showcased his talent on the ground, similar to his days at Eureka. His five rushing touchdowns against Ohio State this season tied an all-time Michigan single-game record.
The victory against Ohio State culminated a winding journey for Haskins.
“Moving to linebacker and coming back to running back, my journey has been a little different,” Haskins said. “The culture on this team definitely changed, and I’m loving it. Everybody has just been buying in, coaches, players, and we’re just all coming together. The energy is top tier.”
In December, Sumner gathered several of his coaches in his office. He compiled a tape of highlights from Haskins’ high school days.
As they watched, the coaches reminisced. The nostalgia turned to an eternal appreciation for what they were able to share with a special player.
“We sat there for an hour and we couldn’t stop watching,” Wasson said. “In the moment, we took it for granted. But when you go back and see the freakish plays he was making against guys that are going to colleges like Oklahoma … I’ll always consider myself lucky to have coached that kid.”
Friday’s game will be the most difficult and consequential for Michigan. The Wolverines take on a Georgia Bulldogs team with a stout defensive line. While the Alabama Crimson Tide found success against Georgia in their SEC championship rout, these Bulldogs won’t go down easy.
They’ll make life difficult for Haskins during the game. But the 22-year-old relishes the challenge of playing on the big stage for a chance to compete for a national title.
“We know they’ve got a good front seven, but we’ve got a good O-line,” Haskins said. “So, it’s going to be a fun, physical game. I like those types of games, so it’s going to determine who wants the game the most. We’re going to see on Friday.”
The quiet, reserved Haskins will be the spotlight of Friday’s Orange Bowl. Just like his days at Eureka, Haskins will want to run over the defense, hopefully creating another highlight to add to Sumner’s tape.