Warinner fixes Michigan's O-line from the head down
Ann Arbor — When Ed Warinner inherited Michigan’s offensive line group, it did not take long for him to determine that psychologically, more so than physically, this was a battered collection of young men.
The Michigan offensive line for the past several years has been pointed to as the weakest of links on the team.
Last season they were considered — sometimes unfairly — unreliable and inconsistent, adrift among the nation’s worst in key statistical categories like tackles for loss and sacks allowed. Perhaps most glaring, the Wolverines were ranked 115th in third-down conversion percentage, unable to, especially late last season, get critical first downs late in games to keep the defense fresh.
Enter Warinner, who has made several college-football coaching stops, including Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame and was credited for building that top-shelf line while with the Buckeyes during their championship season. All became starters in the NFL the next year.
What did he discover upon first getting to know the Michigan offensive linemen?
“Lack of confidence,” Warinner said Wednesday before practice to continue preparing for Indiana on Saturday at Michigan Stadium. “They had a confidence issue, I think.”
It didn’t take long for him to pick up on what was missing among the linemen.
“You’re around people, you sense that they’re not sure if they can live up to or do what you want,” Warinner said. “The first thing was figure out what they can do and let’s make sure we’re giving them a chance to do that. I just think it was a lack of confidence in their ability to produce a result that you need. That’s just a process.
“You can tell now they’re much different than that. They walk down the tunnel with a little swagger.”
There are plenty of reasons the Wolverines have improved overall on offense. There’s quarterback Shea Patterson, for one and Karan Higdon running hard and already passing the 1,000-yard mark despite missing a game, but what has made it hum is the offensive line.
Michigan is 53rd in total offense (421.9 yards a game), 31st in rushing (215.4), 15th in pass efficiency and 20th in scoring (37.2 points). The Wolverines are ranked No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings and are 9-1, 7-0 Big Ten with two games left in the regular season.
The line has kept Patterson relatively unscathed this season. The Wolverines are ranked 31st nationally in sacks allowed, a far cry from being 110th after last season.
“Last game (at Rutgers), I don’t think I even got breathed on,” Patterson said this week.
The linemen have said since the spring that Warinner simplified the game for them and that’s in large part where they began to rebuild their confidence.
Warinner, initially hired by Harbaugh as an analyst, began his assignment by analyzing the offense to see how he could find improvements. He dug deep into the offensive line, picking it part, finding the small pieces that weren’t working that could be corrected to make the bigger picture more complete.
“It’s just a process,” Warinner said. “Having a lot of experience coaching at different places, coaching different programs. But when an offensive line comes down to a few basic things, those things you have to emphasize and stick with them and then build on it.”
He found a group that was eager to learn.
“That’s why they came here to be in the situation we’re in, they came here to be playing at this level of football. They came here for those reasons. That’s why you come to Michigan, because you want to play at the highest level. These games in November have significance and they all wanted that.
“It’s been hard, but it’s been fun hard, because you have to work hard at anything you do in this business and you have to work hard to get a bunch of guys to become what they are. It’s been fun because they’ve been very receptive and they work hard and they see themselves getting better and it just makes it a great environment.”
That doesn’t mean the results have always been immediate. Rewind to the season opener at Notre Dame and it’s clear the offensive line had issues in Warinner’s Michigan debut.
Left tackle Jon Runyan took the performance at Notre Dame particularly hard. It took time for him to go back and watch it again on his own, but he finally did.
“It kind of made me sick to my stomach looking at myself in that game,” Runyan said recently.
But since then, the improvement of the line, not to mention his play, has been obvious.
For Warinner, that’s what it’s been all about. He took a group with a broken spirit and rebuilt the players’ psyche. And along the way, Warinner has discovered how much he likes his new home.
“Michigan is what I thought it would be,” Warinner said. “ It was all going to be about how much could I impact the group I have. Could I get ‘em where they could help this team play at a championship level. But my expectation was this place is as good as it gets, and it is as good as it gets. I’ve been at some good ones now, so we’re not comparing them.
“But this is as good as it gets in college football.”