Ann Arbor — Michigan’s offensive line was not good last year.
Michigan’s offensive linemen know that.
And now, they said, it’s time for everyone to move on.
“You can’t hide what happened last year, but it got to the point we’re not going to talk about it,” Kyle Kalis, a redshirt sophomore, said Sunday at media day. “It’s behind us, and we’re focused on this year.”
But let’s look back one more time just to see how far Michigan’s offensive line needs to go as it prepares for the upcoming season with critical rivalry games on the road against Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State.
The Wolverines averaged 125.7 yards rushing last season, ranked 102nd nationally, and they were ranked No. 121 of 123 teams in tackles for loss allowed. Certainly, it takes more than an offensive line to run an offense, but there’s no doubt the line, with three new starters in the interior, struggled and led to some of the inconsistency during a 7-6 season.
Those stats and the barrage of negative press regarding Michigan’s offensive line have helped galvanize the linemen. Jack Miller, a redshirt junior who started the first four games at center last season, said they are more than aware of the doubters.
“Between last year and this offseason, you’d be hard-pressed to miss that if you pay attention to anything,” Miller said. “You run into fans who say stuff — ‘What’s going on with that offensive line?’ But that’s the way it goes with any program of this caliber. We know that. We know that’s part of the gig here, and that’s OK. Some of it is rightly so. We need to live up the expectations that people have here.”
The offensive line was the question mark heading into last season, with a new interior, and this year, the question mark is in bold with two new starting tackles replacing Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, both NFL draft selections.
And then there was the change in offensive coordinator from Al Borges to Doug Nussmeier, hired from Alabama. Nussmeier, credited by the players for his high-energy, demanding style, has strategically simplified the offense, particularly because of the youth-heavy offensive line.
The offense all starts there, obviously, and while Nussmeier has taken time to install the offense so that everyone is on the same page, he and position coach Darrell Funk have tried different combinations this week in camp.
Graham Glasgow, for instance, has worked a bit at guard, although he was the starting center most of last season, and freshman Mason Cole has a legitimate shot, coach Brady Hoke said, of seeing time this season at tackle.
“I’m excited about that group,” Nussmeier said. “They’re really growing on a day-to-day basis. We’ve got young players there, and they continue to get better. When you talk about the learning curve, it’s going to much steeper for young players.
“We’ve got a long way to go but really pleased with how that unit has come together and where they’ve gone in a week (of preseason camp).”
The linemen said the spring and offseason have been about coming together. They’ve had paintball expeditions, gone to movies and fished together and had barbecues, all organized as position-group outings.
Kalis said the camaraderie feels different this season because the players are so close in age and have shared interests.
“We’re all pretty close,” Kalis said. “That makes for a lot of good bonding. I think that’s a big point of emphasis we made this offseason, getting closer. I think it’s paying off this year.”
Running back Drake Johnson, poised to play a major role this fall after sitting out last season with a knee injury, said the bonding has been noticeable.
“The offensive line has been incredibly solid,” Johnson said. “They’ve been working very hard this offseason, doing extra things. They’ve become very good friends. Chemistry is very important (with the) offensive line.”
As Miller said, the linemen know they’ve been talked about and disparaged, but they seem confident they will make steep improvements.
“I feel there’s not going to be any issue at all,” Kalis said. “We’ve had some practices where we are moving guys off the ball, and that kind of stuff we didn’t really have last year. (First day of camp) we were just pushing guys off the ball — we were breaking 10-, 15-, 20-yard runs every single time. Obviously you’re going to be stopped for (shorter yardage plays), but it was an awesome feeling to know, ‘Wow, if we keep working hard and do what we’re coached to do, on game day it’s going to be fun.’
“It’s going to be totally different. It’s going to be fun. We’ll be fine. Just wait til (the season opener against) Appalachian state. We’ll quiet everybody down a little bit.”