Rise of Mayfield, Hudson make UM offensive line ‘work in progress’

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
From left, Michigan offensive lineman Ben Bredeson, wide receiver Nico Collins, and offensive lineman Juwann Bushell-Beatty celebrate Collins' second-quarter touchdown reception against Western Michigan.

Ann Arbor — After the season-opening loss at Notre Dame, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said he would stick with the same starting five on the offensive line.

But after the second game, a rout of Western Michigan last Saturday during which the Wolverines rushed for 308 yards, the backup linemen were subbed in, the door seems to be opened for the possibility of personnel changes down the not-too-distant road.

Because the tackle positions were the biggest question marks entering the season, the two most intriguing players to watch in the fourth quarter when the backup line played were freshman left tackle Jalen Mayfield and redshirt freshman right tackle James Hudson, a converted defensive lineman.

Michigan first-year offensive line coach Ed Warinner, widely acclaimed for developing some standout Ohio State lines and now praised by Michigan linemen for simplifying their playbook, said Wednesday the offensive line is a “work in progress.” That means a few things, namely that the players are still learning, but also that the line is not set in stone.

The Wolverines play SMU (0-2) on Saturday at Michigan Stadium. The Mustangs rank 122nd of 128 teams in scoring defense (44.0) and 108th in total defense (461.0), so presumably Michigan will get a chance for the second straight week to work in some of the younger offensive players, including the offensive line.

Warinner explained his approach to developing a consistent starting five.

“Your job is yours for the start of that game,” Warinner said. “If you aren’t playing well in the game and somebody else is close, we’ll make a move in the game. If, after the game, we realized that you underperformed and somebody else is passing you up or even with you, then we’ll move on. It’s not like that’s the starting five for the season.

“It’s based on, again, performance in games, performance in practice and who’s the most consistent. Anything could happen moving forward. I think the thing Is is that the guys who are the next guys in at a lot of positions are young and (you) just bring them along at the right pace. You put a young guy in there before he’s ready, you can ruin him and you could really set him back. You bring him along and give it to him at the pace they can handle, then you’ve got something for a long time.”

The backups are seeing plenty of time with the first unit as they rotate in practice. Mayfield is with the first team 25 percent of the time and Hudson is a bit more, Warinner said.

“We have a set rotation we figure out how much we want to give them with the 1s and how much we want to give them with the 2s, so we’re giving them plenty of work to get ready,” he said. “The ones who don’t start, the next guys in, they rotate in with the first. Jaylen Mayfield is in the first group every day at practice, 25 percent of the time.

“If he jogs into the first group in a game, it’s not going to be like, ‘Who’s this?’ They see him every day in there. And James Hudson, they see in there every day and Steve Spanellis. We roll in guys we think are the next guys in at positions all through practice with the 1s, so it’s not like they’re looking around going, ‘I haven’t played next to this guy.’ They’ve played next to that guy since Aug. 2 till today in terms of being in the picture there.”

Hudson is 6-foot-5, 302 pounds and is an offensive lineman through and through now.

“His growth over the summer and then this fall has been tremendous because he’s fully invested now as an offensive lineman,” Warinner said. “In the spring I think he was putting his toe in the water to see what he thought. He gave us a good effort and he showed some talent. There were times, though, that it was frustrating for him because it was so new. You go against our defensive ends every day, that’s challenging. I think he’s way beyond that. He’s gaining a lot of confidence in himself, confidence in his ability to do the job, confidence in knowing what to do when he goes out there.”

Warinner did not think having Hudson play at Notre Dame in a primetime game would be ideal.

“When you talk about jogging out there to play against Notre Dame in the opening game and you’ve never played a snap in a college football game at tackle, that environment is a bit overwhelming for anybody,” Warinner said.

“He didn’t really play in that game, but in the last game he did play and when he went he didn’t look like he was overwhelmed emotionally or mentally. He looked very comfortable. He looked like he knew what he was supposed to do and did it well, so we need to give him a bigger sample size this week if we can and get him in there. The more he earns that right in practice — because I base it on how you practice, not, OK, he played good against Western — if he practices poorly this week, he probably won’t play. If he practices well this week he might play more. His practice yesterday was good.”

The interior of the line seems set with Ben Bredeson, who Harbaugh said played the best of the linemen last week, in his third season of starting at left guard. Sophomore Cesar Ruiz is starting at center.

“We put a heavy burden on him to make a lot of communication calls,” Warinner said of Ruiz, who he has spoken highly of since the spring.

And Mike Onwenu is starting at right guard.

“Mike’s improved a lot. He’s at talented guy,” Warinner said. “I like where he’s progressed. He has a ton of talent. He could do every job that you need to do. He has a high ceiling. We just keep pushing him and he’s gaining confidence.”

Generally speaking, Warinner is encouraged by the progress of the offensive line.

“Absolutely pleased with where we’re at right now. We’ve got to keep going,” he said. “If we don’t grow anymore from here I’ll be disappointed moving forward. When you watch practice and you feel what’s going on and you listen there’s a lot of things where other position coaches were saying, ‘Man, that’s pretty good. Listen to them talking, they’re really working together.’ Physicality of practice, we’re pushing that, too. Practice hard Tuesday and Wednesday and recover Thursday and Friday and go get it Saturday. We’re trying to develop that culture.”

With confidence generated by the line’s performance against Western Michigan last Saturday, there’s been a snowball effect, as the linemen are feeling better about themselves. Warinner said they communicated better than ever during Tuesday’s practice.

“The things I’m pleased about, we don’t have a holding call in two games — I know I just jinxed us,” Warinner said, knocking on the wood memorabilia case at Schembechler Hall. “We have one illegal procedure penalty in two games (knocks on wood again). We have four sacks but two of them aren’t really on the O-line, they would be considered other issues. In general,  those things are improvement to me. I would say those things are pretty good.”