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Michigan mailbag: State of the Wolverines' O-line

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Michigan running back Tru Wilson (13) rushes behind a block from offensive lineman James Hudson (55) against Western Michigan.

Not surprisingly, the theme this week among Michigan fans is the offensive line.

Check that. That’s most weeks.

But in light of the fact Ed Warinner, in his first season coaching the Wolverines’ offensive line, was fairly forthcoming during a media session this week about the state of the line, it seems appropriate to tackle O-line questions.

Well, you know, not exactly tackle them. Pancake them. Let’s pancake these questions.

■ Question: Do you think Hudson and Mayfield will be starting before Wisconsin? — @mike_logical

■ Answer: Logical Mike, that’s a logical question, especially seeing both James Hudson and Jalen Mayfield on the field with the backup line against Western Michigan. Interestingly, Warinner said Mayfield has been getting 25 percent of work in practice with the first team, while Hudson has been getting more than that. Hudson (6-foot-5, 302 pounds) is a converted defensive lineman who has completely bought in to playing offensive line, Warinner said.

I’m not sure I’m ready to say both will be starting, but I’m going to say Hudson, a sophomore, will move into the lineup. What Warinner saw from him last week against Western Michigan was a guy who wasn’t overwhelmed by the moment and was unflinching in his role and had a handle on what he was expected to do. Mayfield is a freshman who is coming along and I want to see how Jon Runyan improves these next few weeks. Look, SMU’s defense just isn’t very good and ranks near the bottom nationally in most categories, so there’s going to big an opportunity to see Hudson and Mayfield on the field again. I think Hudson will move into the starting lineup sooner than later, but I’m not yet ready to say Mayfield will.

More: Detroit News predictions: Michigan vs. SMU

More: Podcast: Chengelis talks with UM's Sklar comedians

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

■ Q: When will Michigan field a championship caliber offensive line? What will it take for Michigan to be considered among the CFB elite (Big Ten championship, playoff appearance, national championship)? — @MichiganMikeM

■ A: Michigan Mike, so many questions, so little time. OK, that’s not true. There’s plenty of time and these are very worthwhile questions. It’s been a long time, and when I say long, I mean looooooong time since Michigan has had a championship-caliber offensive line.

This is when I name drop — I used to spend a lot of time with Bo Schembechler. I would drop by his office, and pretty much every Saturday I would go to his box at Michigan Stadium and we would visit and chat. So many times we just discussed offensive line play and how, if you were starting a team from scratch, you’d start with that position group. Here it is, the most important group on the field — because Bo AND I said so — and yet, Michigan has struggled there for the better part of a decade-plus a year or so. I see Jon Jansen at Schembechler Hall all the time. I see Steve Hutchinson and Jake Long on the walls in the football building. I think back to so many great linemen and lines I’ve covered, and it’s amazing to me that hasn’t been the case for the last several years.

But — and this is a big but — hiring Warinner was a great step because of his track record, something that is not at all lost on the guys he’s coaching now. I had a conversation this summer with a Michigan defensive coach about the offensive line and his opinion is that Michigan now has the right guys, the right bodies, the right mindsets to become one of those great lines. But, he said, they’re young. With that in mind, maybe a year or two off? I don’t think it will take much for Michigan to be perceived nationally as among the college football elite. Win a couple road games, starting with Northwestern and Michigan State, and national pundits will be talking. Had they beaten Notre Dame, yeah, people would be all over Michigan now saying the Wolverines are back and how good that is for college football. They have the type of schedule if they win, people will consider them in that upper tier — not the very top, but in the ballpark.

■ Q: Is there a specific offensive identity that Michigan wants to use? Seems like they’re using a lot of different ones. — @Letsgoblueee

■ A: This is a great question and it seems like coach Jim Harbaugh gets annoyed a bit every year when he’s asked about the team’s offensive identity. Kind of like, really? An identity? Yeah, imagine that. An identity. After two games it’s tough to put a finger on what Michigan is trying to establish on offense beyond consistency. I agree with you that they’re using different ones, and maybe that’s not a bad thing as they evolve. Yes, Michigan wanted to run the ball against Western Michigan and it's going to do the same against SMU, but it doesn’t seem right calling them a power run team exclusively.

What they have in quarterback Shea Patterson is a guy who is extremely accurate and can make clutch plays while being elusive. This is what I think they need to seek as an identity — an offense that can grind the clock, get first downs with the run but also know that Patterson will come through if needed with a money throw. In the bigger picture, I think it’s more important this team’s overall identity is generated by the defense.

■ Q: Was ND just a glitch because it was game one, or was WMU just that bad? — @Fan6Mich

■ A: I still think Michigan wins that opener if the defense didn’t self-destruct early. Think about it — because no one considered the possibility entering the game — a new quarterback in the system who hasn’t played in a game since he was hurt in the seventh game last season at another school, an offensive line that is — drum roll, please— a work in progress, a receiving corps that lost one of its best weapons a week before the season and then … that inexperienced offense has to dig out from a 14-0 hole early. That is not how anyone scripted that, obviously.

So glitch? No, I don’t want to say that. Michigan didn’t play well and still had a chance to win. It was an opener, and the Wolverines just weren’t good enough against a decent team on the road in prime time. Western Michigan wasn’t a tough opponent, let’s put it that way, and Michigan should have its way with SMU, which is not a good team. Hey, what did Patterson say to fans on the radio this week — relax. It seems he thinks Notre Dame was a “glitch.”

■ Q: Any chance we’ll see Tru Wilson used more in the RB rotation? — @Denverwolverine

■ A: Denver, he’s considered the No. 3 back behind Karan Higdon and Chris Evans, but will he get big carries in a big game? Not so sure about that. He gives Michigan a nice change of pace and he will definitely get more carries on Saturday against SMU, but Higdon and Evans are going to get the bulk of carries going forward, especially as the schedule gets tougher.

More: De La Salle's Tru Wilson seizes walk-on label and runs with it for Michigan

■ Q: Update on linebackers other than Devin Bush — progression of other starters. — @bakingmom14

■ A: Hi Michele! It feels weird communicating “with” you and not ripping The Fan (of The Player and the Fan fame). So linebackers coach Al Washington spoke to reporters this week and he’s really pleased with the group. Not surprisingly, he didn’t talk much about Devin Bush because, hey, he’s been playing well. He likes Josh Ross and Devin Gil and the rotation there. Washington is pleased with Gil and how he’s just getting better and better, and Ross, who addressed this last week saying he’s learning from Gil and Bush, is making the most of his playing time. Jordan Anthony also got valuable playing time last week against WMU and likely will again this weekend. As for Khaleke Hudson, he has stepped it up as a leader, Washington said. Clearly he’s playing with confidence, even on special teams with that block last week.