UM mailbag: Nolan Ulizio surges in Wolverines’ camp

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Nolan Ulizio

Finally. Finally the season is upon us. Michigan opens against Florida in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Saturday, and it can’t come soon enough. Until then, how about a Michigan football mailbag, no postage required. Kicking it off this week is one of my favorites – Mary Garrett aka @garretm1.

Question: Biggest concern (in my opinion) is the offensive line. Who do you project starting and what is your assessment of what to expect? -- @garretm1.

Answer: I’m with you, although I throw the secondary in there when talking biggest concerns. But you’re right, the offense line absolutely is the key. Despite losing three starters, I think – and the linemen have said this – it’s a more athletic group across the board.

And speaking of across the board, the starters: Mason Cole, Ben Bredeson, Patrick Kugler, Michael Onwenu and Nolan Ulizio. If the last name surprises you, it should. Frankly, the players kept mentioning him during interviews throughout camp, but I was hung up on Jon Runyan Jr. and Juwann Bushell-Beatty in a head-to-head battle. While this group should be more athletic, it still features three new starters. The left side will be solid. Bredeson, from all accounts, really improved during camp. Kugler is a smart guy eager to make the most of his opportunity to finally start as a fifth-year senior. The right side? That will take time to develop, and that’s why Tim Drevno has all the linemen practicing at different positions. Is it possible Runyan could play some at guard? Sure. Bushell-Beatty could back up either tackle. It’s clearly not a finished product, Mary, but the ingredients are there. This game will give a real indication what to expect from this group against physical defensive lines.

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Question: How did Nolan Ulizio rise to the top at RT? -- @GoBlueAlum86

Answer: You mean, without anyone talking about him all camp? That is a great question. So many of the players mentioned Ulizio competing hard during camp, but that always seemed to get glossed over. Offensive line coach Tim Drevno said this week that Ulizio has a solid grasp of the offensive and more importantly, “He likes to play physical.” And perhaps even more important, “He likes to finish.” He is technically sound and has good footwork, vital for playing the position. Clearly, the coaches saw something when they were putting together that first class early in 2015. He had been a Connecticut commit with Cincinnati and Kentucky as finalists, but what Michigan saw in him then is materializing now.

Question: With so many suspensions do you see this game as a lose-lose for Michigan now? You win, Florida didn’t have their starters. Michigan loses and Michigan is a bad team and Harbaugh is on the hot seat. -- @HBWolverinesfan

Answer: Tony, I know what you’re saying, but a win is a win is a win – who cares if half the opponent’s players were suspended? Now, as for the alternative … I think fans and football observers will scratch their heads and wonder how Michigan, despite returning only five starters, could lose to a team missing its top running back and receiver and with a quarterback making his first college start. It would be a black eye for sure, but don’t sweat the rankings. Those don’t matter until mid-October. Besides, an early loss – if that were to happen – wouldn’t be a huge penalty. Remember Ohio State lost to Virginia Tech a few years ago.

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Question: Prolly a stupid one: Do you think with the suspensions it will be a lopsided Michigan win? -- @loganj1999

Answer: Brian, c’mon, there are no stupid questions (except the ones Bob Wojnowski asks). I’ve been thinking the same since the latest suspensions. If I had a better feel for this offense, particularly how the offensive line will perform, I’d lean toward thinking Michigan will win by a larger margin. But there are too many unknowns. Sure, there’s a group of talented, young receivers, and Wilton Speight is an experienced quarterback, but what if … what if the line underperforms? So, long story short, I don’t think it will be lopsided.

Question: If you were Big Ten commissioner for a day, what would you change? -- @oldmancoyote22

Answer: I would immediately take Friday night games during high school football season off the board. And I would say teams can have more say in night games. Also, I wouldn’t respond to questions from someone called Old Man Coyote.

Question: Aside from the starters and (Carlo) Kemp, who all do you expect to see playing time on the D-line in the opener? -- @johnfidence

Answer: Aubrey Solomon and Lawrence Marshall. I would have said Luiji Vilain, but he’s dealing with some “nicks,” as defensive line coach Greg Mattison said this week, and Kwity Paye could play.

Question: I hear Ulizio is a mauler ready to tear up that strong side run game! … Why are all the national writers (sleeping) on year 3 under Harbaugh? -- @EconomixMusic

Answer: By sleeping on, you mean not a lot of hype heading into the season? I think that’s understandable with so few returning starters and so many younger players and several players without college-game experience, about to get into the mix. My hunch is this defense is going to have to control games until this offense figures things out. That might take time. And … I just went off on a tangent. Back to the question. Who cares what the national writers think? There. That’s how I should have answered it to begin with.

Question: Any word on Bryan Mone’s play in camp this year? He’s definitely been under the radar. -- @wesleyweberjr

Answer: Teammates and coaches said he’s been outstanding. Appears he has lost some weight; not a lot, but some. He’s still a massive human capable of being extremely disruptive. Rashan Gary couldn’t say enough about Mone this past week, what a force he is at the nose. But you’re right, with all the talk about Maurice Hurst and Gary, not much has been said about Mone, and I think he prefers it that way.

Zach Gentry

Question: Thoughts on secondary – have we improved since Coach Zordich spoke? -- @bakingmom14

Answer: A few days after Zordich’s rant, he apparently got what he wanted. The players read the comments, absorbed them, and got their acts together. Several players and even defensive coordinator Don Brown said the defense as a whole clicked toward the end of last week, and reading the tea leaves, I think that means the corners got the message loud and clear and took steps to address Zordich’s critique that too many talented players were not stepping up.

Question: Who is your breakout player this season? Not being an obvious name. -- @mattbbs3

Answer: I can’t offer an obvious name? You’re no fun. OK. How about this – punter Brad Robbins. Yes, I’m going with a punter. Why? Because I think punting is undervalued. Kenny Allen was such an asset, and I think Robbins can have that kind of effect on field position. And for a non-kicker, I’m going with tight end Zach Gentry.

Question: Who is starting QB? Speight? How do TEs look? -- @Stanczyk_

Answer: Speight, but John O’Korn really improved during camp, so the position should be solid. As for the tight ends, Gentry is an enormous target and extremely athletic, and he’s fully adjusted to tight end after arriving as a quarterback. Sean McKeon also has had a very good camp, and I expect him to play a big role, not forgetting at all Ian Bunting and Tyrone Wheatley Jr. Wheatley dropped some weight and is still their best blocking tight end.