Ann Arbor — They’ve said it before, and they know you know they’ve said it before.
But that hasn’t altered the public approach the Michigan offensive linemen are taking this year. They say they’re a better group than they’ve been the last few seasons in part because they’re a year more experienced, but there’s something significantly different about the same message one year later.
They have heaped a large amount of credit on offensive coordinator Tim Drevno, who also coaches the line. They have spent an entire spring practice with him and now a full preseason camp, and there’s a renewed confidence, maybe even a swagger that hasn’t been all that evident.
“He’s taught us stuff we had no idea was even out there,” offensive lineman Kyle Kalis said during a recent interview. “His experience, his vast knowledge of O-line play and the way you have to do it and have that mentality every day has been huge for us.
“What we have in our tool bag right now, it’s awesome. It’s a confidence like we’ve never had before, and it’s cool knowing we have the guys to do it, how to do it and exactly when to do it in the right situations. It’s something we’ve never had before.”
Drevno has worked 11 years with Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh at three different stops, including handling the offensive line with the San Francisco 49ers from 2011-2013. His credentials are noteworthy, and the NFL experience gave him instant credibility with the linemen, who have been starved for positive publicity.
This is a group that has taken the verbal and written arrows the last two seasons and have shouldered much of the blame for poor offensive showings in 2013 and 2014 while Brady Hoke was head coach and Darrell Funk the offensive line coach.
“The past couple of years we’ve been good,” Kalis said. “It was hard to find, to look through the cracks and see us doing well. This year as a team us being able to have all the parts working as a cohesive unit is going to be huge to not only be successful as a team but to give the big guys some love.”
Offensive linemen are known to be the players who don’t need or seek praise.
They do the dirty work, they create holes for the running backs, they protect the quarterback, and they move on hoping to go play by play largely unnoticed.
But the gaffes the last couple of seasons were noticeable. The sacks allowed, the tackles-for-loss allowed, and, perhaps the most defeating comment a lineman can hear, they got pushed back more often than not. The linemen certainly were getting publicity.
Two years ago, Michigan finished tied for 123rd nationally in tackles for loss (8.77 average) and tied for 102nd in rushing (125.7 yards). It was 112th in total offense (373.5). Last season, the Wolverines were tied for 60th in tackles for loss (5.83) and 62nd in rushing (162.8). It finished 112th in total offense (333).
Kalis says they have a tool bag they’ve never had before, which seems to give some weight to the commentary the last few years that Michigan has talent, it just wasn’t getting developed. Is that how Kalis perceives it?
“Yes and no,” Kalis said. “For whatever reason, guys might be playing better than they were before. I know for me personally — like I said before, I love coach Funk and everything he did for me — but coach Drev is doing things that are helping me in ways I’ve never known before.
“There’s never been a doubt in my mind that I’m a great player, it’s just the fact coach Drev is letting it happen and he’s letting things work out the way they should be. I’m playing very confident right now, the O-line is playing very confident right now and because of that, the O-line is going to lead the team and make sure everyone is successful.”
The Drevno difference, Kalis said, involves stressing technique, footwork and film study.
“The way he coaches is different, the way he gets after us at meetings is different,” he said. “The amount of knowledge we have this year compared to years before is crazy. We know inside and out the offense now. Before we might just know what we were doing, what the offensive line was doing. We know everything now, and I think that’s a huge thing.”
Kalis arrived at Michigan with plenty of hype, and fulfilling that promise is all-important this fall if the offensive line is to make the improvements he’s suggesting. It’s not a how-Kalis-goes-so-goes-the-offensive-line type of situation, but there’s no doubt if he’s as good as what many thought coming out of high school, the line takes a big step toward improvement.
Whether he will grow into that role will be found out this fall, but Chris Wormley, his teammate from the defensive line, said he has seen a changed Kalis.
“Kyle is going to be one of our key parts of the offensive line,” Wormley said. “I can tell you that personally going up against him every day in camp. He’s big, strong, physical — he’s put in the work in the offseason to become that guy on the offensive line that we can trust and that we know will get the job done each and every week.”
Michigan at Utah
When: 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Rice-Eccels Stadium, Salt Lake City
TV/radio: Fox Sports 1/WWJ 950, WTKA 1050
Series: Utah leads 2-1
Line: Utah by 5.5