Mason Cole-led Michigan offensive line athletic but unsettled

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Karan Higdon

Michigan must replace three starters on the offensive line, but senior center/tackle Mason Cole says that with the influx of young talent, this is the most athletic line he will be part of in college.

Cole, one of three Michigan players to represent the team during Big Ten media days that concluded Tuesday, and sophomore Ben Bredeson are the only two returning starting offensive linemen.

“All these young guys are so gifted,” Cole said. “Being athletic isn’t something you can really teach. You either have it or not.”

You also can’t force a run game. You either have it, or you don’t.

And to have a successful run game, solid offensive line play is a must. With the three unknowns on the offensive line and a running back-by-committee approach that will further take shape when camp opens Monday, both areas are a bit of a question mark heading into the season.

They’re also a major focus.

Cole knows that Michigan’s slip toward the end of the season, losing three of the final four games, wasn’t on the shoulders of the offensive linemen and running backs, but the lack of production in the run game was a factor. That is something he hopes the Wolverines will remedy this fall.

“Looking back, yeah, we struggled running the ball, especially late in the season, late in games, so it’s definitely a focus and it’s always a focus for us as an offensive line to run the ball especially when it really matters,” Cole said. “Going into fall camp, that will be a focus for us.”

In those three losses, the road against Iowa and Ohio State and then in the bowl game against Florida State, Michigan was under 100 yards rushing in each and averaged 92.6 yards rushing. In the other 10 games, the Wolverines averaged 249 yards a game.

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After the season, Greg Frey, who previously worked at Michigan under Rich Rodriguez and most recently at Indiana, joined the staff as a second offensive line coach. He is handling tackles and tight ends while offensive coordinator Tim Drevno is coaching the interior line.

Cole said having two line coaches is an advantage since they can create the best strategy and help develop technique across the line, especially considering the influx of young players.

“The more tools you have in the bag, the better you’re going to be,” Cole said.

Michigan has multiple options in the run game. Coach Jim Harbaugh on Tuesday at media days said the three top backs as they enter camp are Chris Evans, Karan Higdon and Ty Isaac.

“Karan Higdon has had a heck of an offseason,” Harbaugh said.

“Looks like he’s in phenomenal shape. Ty Isaac has worked his way into it. He got a little bit heavy. We asked him to trim down. Fat is the enemy of speed and shows up a lot for running backs. He’s putting in the effort and is a very talented guy as well. Those three are the three mainstays. We’ll see what the two freshmen can do, we’ll see what Kareem Walker can do.

“Those three, as I look at it, are going to be there in the rotation if they continue to play well and stay healthy.”

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Walker, who missed last season while focusing on academics, could work his way into that group. But he needs to polish his pass protecting to make that move.

“He hasn’t unseated the three guys who are at the top right now,” Harbaugh said. “His opportunity comes July 31st day in and day out to do that. He has shown to be a very physical runner between the tackles. He may be our best guy doing that.

“The process of being a good pass protector is next for him. Get that mastery down. It’s not as good as the other three right now, but he’s a tough, physical guy, and I see it improving. He’s one of those guys that I talk about it that could make that jump from Year 1 to Year 2, shoot, he’s in it man.”

Mason Cole listens to a question during Big Ten football media days in Chicago.

With three spots on the offensive line open, Cole said the competition in camp will be “hot.” He said sophomore Michael Onwenu, who played on both lines last year, has dropped weight. Based on spring practice, he is penciled in at right guard, Patrick Kugler is at center and perhaps Jon Runyan Jr. or Juwann Bushell-Beatty at right tackle.

Stephen Spanellis and Andrew Vastardis have had their names bandied about this offseason, as has early enrollee freshmen center Cesar Ruiz, the No. 1 high school prospect at the position.

“Cesar is going to be a really good ball player, maybe this year, maybe next year, but he’s going to be a really good ball player,” Cole said. “He knows the game inside and out.”

It is not impossible to start on the offensive line as a freshman. Cole did it. And instead of heading for the NFL draft, he decided to finish his career at Michigan and has high hopes of being voted a captain by his teammates.

“I really wanted to come back and get my degree,” he said. “Wanted to play as a senior, have my senior day and have a chance to be a captain. Those are the kind of things that brought me back.

“I hope I can be (a captain). You’ve heard Tom Brady talk about the greatest honor he’s ever had, and it is. You look at the former captains at Michigan, you’ve got unbelievable, not only football players, but unbelievable guys, too.”