College News & Analysis

The waiting game: Donovan Edwards’ journey to becoming a star running back

• Michigan running back Donovan Edwards sits down for an exclusive interview with PFF. 

• One of the best running backs in the country: Edwards is one of PFF’s top 10 running backs in college football, despite not being Michigan’s RB1.

• A top 2024 running back prospect: Edwards is the third-best running back prospect in the 2024 NFL Draft, according to PFF’s Trevor Sikkema.

Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes

Patience is a virtue, something Donovan Edwards learned the hard way.

He was one of the 35 best football recruits in the 2021 class, according to On3’s industry rating, but he still found himself stuck behind more experienced backs Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum for his first few seasons at Michigan.

“I was always used to being the man,” Edwards said in an exclusive interview with PFF. “When I got here, it was a humbling experience because I’m not the man anymore. There were times after games where I’d cry because I’m not playing that much.” 

Edwards’ strong bond with his father helps him get through the tough times. The biggest challenge the family faced was when Donovan’s mother died from cancer when he was just 2 years old.

“My dad really stepped up to the plate,” Edwards said. “He could’ve abandoned my brother and I, but he always stuck by us. He gave us love that he probably didn’t even know he had in him. He’s always coming to my games, whether they’re away, home and even when I wasn’t playing that much. I don’t think he recognizes how grateful I am that he’s always supported me.”

While he was riding the bench, Edwards inched closer to his opportunity to shine. That chance came in the penultimate game of the 2022 regular season, when Corum suffered a season-ending knee injury. Despite dealing with a broken thumb and a torn patellar tendon himself, Edwards was ready.

“I hated that my time came because Blake [Corum] got hurt,” Edwards said. “But I always prepared myself to rise to the occasion no matter what’s going on with me. [My injuries] don’t mean anything. I have to do everything I can to help the team win. You have to rise to the occasion that’s given to you. I was looking for an opportunity to showcase myself. I accepted it and completed the challenge that was given to me.”

To say Edwards completed the challenge would be an understatement. In Michigan’s three most important games of the season, the sophomore dominated.

Donovan Edwards in Michigan’s Final Three Games of the 2022 Season
Game Rushing Yds Rushing TDs Yds Per Carry
at Ohio State 216 2 9.8
vs. Purdue (Big Ten Championship) 185 1 7.4
vs. TCU (CFP Semifinal) 119 0 5.2

When asked what it is about his game that allows him to eviscerate opposing defenses, Edwards let out a laugh. 

“That’s a dumb question,” he said. “My patience is impeccable. I have the ability to hit the smallest of holes and break through them; it’s second to none. I’m the best dual-threat running back. I’ll catch a ball 50 yards down the field, over the shoulder. I’ll be the best slot receiver in the country if I was really mastering that craft, which I am this year. You can’t put a linebacker or safety on me. Shoot, you might have to double-team me or put your best corner on me. You can’t look at my game and go, ‘Oh, that’s weak.’”

With Corum setting the PFF single-season grading record for a Power Five player (96.2), it was all but certain that he’d forgo his senior season and enter the 2023 NFL Draft. That would finally vault Edwards into a starting role after he proved his readiness by leading all Power Five running backs with 7.1 yards per carry in 2022.

However, Corum announced in January that he planned to return to Ann Arbor for his senior season, a decision that shocked everyone, including Edwards.

“I told him, ‘Man, go to the league,’” Edwards said with a laugh. “Our career spans aren’t long. He already had like 300-plus carries in your career, like go to the league, bro. From a selfish standpoint, it helps me because it’s not putting a lot of strain on my body and I can do the same thing for him. I’ve always wanted to go to a college with two good running backs.”

So even though he’s a top-10 running back in college football, Edwards is once again Michigan’s No. 2 back heading into 2023. The Wolverines’ dynamic duo made them the no-brainer choice to lead PFF's ranking of the top 10 running back units in the country. When asked if he thought that was an accurate ranking, Edwards was taken aback.

“That’s a dumb question,” he said once again, this time meaning it. “If you have a Heisman Trophy contender, another player who had damn near 1,000 yards. What would you say? Let’s be honest here.”

PFF lead draft analyst Trevor Sikkema recently ranked his early top 10 running back prospects for the 2024 NFL Draft, with Corum and Edwards assuming two of the top three spots. While Edwards is certainly eyeing April 25 on his calendar, he’s solely focused on this upcoming season.

“I have to be where my feet are,” Edwards said. “I can’t be where I want to be, which is a first overall draft pick, if I’m not producing here. I can do everything excellent, but the only thing for me is the staying healthy part. If I can’t do that, that will be my only downfall. If I can do that and we go to the national championship, then everybody’s going to eat when it comes to the NFL draft. That’s the main goal: win games so everybody can eat.”

With a loaded roster returning in 2023, Michigan has a golden opportunity to capture its first national championship in 26 years. While Edwards is confident they can get there, he’s making sure the Wolverines are focused on the here and now.

“The only way we lose is if we beat ourselves,” he said. “There shouldn’t be any reason we can’t buy into what we talk about, which is winning the day today. I called up the offensive group after practice one day and told them, ‘If we want to win a national championship, we can’t look five months down the road if we can’t win today.’ I’m not worried about the defense because they’re the best in the country.”

Edwards likely won’t be the lead back this season, but that hasn't tempered his expectations. Even if it takes until he reaches the NFL gig to earn a starting role, he has his sights set on greatness.

“I will go down as one of the greatest running backs to ever play the game,” Edwards said. “I’ll be up there with Walter Payton, Barry Sanders. I believe I will revolutionize the game and the position. This is the perfect time for me because the NFL wants running backs who can catch. If the NFL wants a linebacker on me, good luck with that. I don’t care who you are. Good luck guarding me. I see all the stuff right now with how the running backs aren’t getting paid. I believe that I’ll get paid for how I play the game.”

As is apparent, no struggles on or off the field will deter Edwards’ confidence in himself, which is the exact advice he’d give to kids looking up to him.

“Always believe in yourself,” Edwards said. “Always strive to be the best version of yourself. Life is never going to go your way. I realized that early. Everything we go through is a battle. It’s like a school with tests — either you pass or you fail. If you recognize what you’re going through and get over it, you’re passing and doing something right.”

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