UM offensive line, led by Cole, a ‘locked-in group’

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Building chemistry along an offensive line is a key ingredient to any successful football team, and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has seen intense focus from this group.

Harbaugh made clear he and his staff feel good about the starting five, although he did not share the names on Monday during his game-week news conference in advance of Saturday’s season opener against No. 17 Florida in Arlington, Texas.

There will be three new starters on the line for No. 11 Michigan, presumably Patrick Kugler, a fifth-year senior, at center, Mike Onwenu at right guard and either Jon Runyan or Juwann Bushell-Beatty at right tackle. They will join veteran Mason Cole, a four-year starter who will return to left tackle after spending last season at center, and Ben Bredeson, who finished last season as the starting left guard.

“Their physicality has grown,” Harbaugh said. “The athleticism is very good. As we’ve gone, the amount of mental mistakes and mental error have been reducing by the practice. They’re a locked-in group. It’s a more focused group, and that’s been improving as well.

“Not as much fun and games and joking and laughing, that kind of thing. They are very focused and improving.”

Leading that group is Cole, voted by his teammates a co-captain along with Mike McCray. He took charge in the summer, holding what the lineman called “offensive linemen school,” where they’d meet and watch film, along with the typical summer workouts.

During Tuesday’s Big Ten call, Harbaugh raved about Cole’s character.

“He’s developed into a coach on the field,” Harbaugh said. “He is one of the most versatile offensive linemen I’ve ever been around when you play tackle, start there, then last season moved to center and was one of the best in the conference and now back to tackle. He can be an outstanding guard, as well. Intellect at a high level and ability at the highest level.”

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During the offseason, Cole reminded the linemen and his teammates how close the Wolverines came to achieving tremendous success last season. They lost three of their last four games by five points.

Cole knows that the offensive line was not playing with peak performance late in games in losses to Iowa and Ohio State.

“We were so close to being so great last year,” Cole said. “In terms of the seriousness, if it takes being a little more serious to win those games, then that’s what we have to do. Our focus this year was just realizing how close we were to being in the Big Ten champion and being in the playoffs. Really taking it more serious and understand the opportunity we had.”

There’s plenty of youth and inexperience in the offensive line position group, but Cole said they all responded during camp.

“We had so much competition this fall camp and the guys handled it really well,” he said. “They competed their butts off every single day. So many guys got so much better and just to see that happening through camp and going into Florida week is really exciting.”

While it’s a position group that will be watched closely in the opener, along with the all-new defensive secondary, Cole feels good about where his group is.

“We knew the depth we had, how talented we were, just a little inexperienced,” Cole said. “We feel great and confident.”