Once a punching bag, 'special' Michigan offensive line now punching back
Michigan’s offensive line, once the convenient go-to when anyone wanted to blame the woes of the offense, is now in full strut, chests out and brimming with a confidence that began to evolve last season.
It’s like those before-and-after makeover photos. Gone is the paunchy, slouchy, lack-of-confidence look, and now, after a full season under position coach Ed Warinner and an influx of depth through pin-point recruiting, the after-version offensive line presents a big, bad, we’re-going-to-set-the-tone approach.
The Wolverines have four returning starting linemen and will determine the right tackle, either Andrew Stueber or Jalen Mayfield, in preseason camp that begins Aug. 2. Regardless who gets the starting job on the right side, this is a group that has gone from acknowledging its weaknesses and being the punching bag for critics before Warinner arrived to simplify their tasks and rebuild their confidence, to believing it could be the best position group on the team.
“Last year we were trying to prove what we weren’t, and this year we’re trying to prove what we are,” senior left guard Ben Bredeson said in Chicago last Friday during Big Ten media days. "We’re trying to be the heart and soul of this team, the position group everybody can rely on. Bring back those Michigan offensive lines of old. Bring that stance back.
"That’s what we’re working on now. ... We’ve got a lot of depth, and we’ve got the players to really be a special group this year and that’s what we’re working for.”
Bredeson started as a freshman in part because of his talent, but in large part because of need. Depth on the line had been an issue going back to Brady Hoke’s tenure as head coach, but now as his successor Jim Harbaugh enters his fifth season, there are numbers at the position and the ability to develop rather than just throw a young, not fully physically developed freshman into the lineup.
“First time in my time here that we’ve had this kind of depth,” Bredeson said. “It’s exciting. It’s a privilege and luxury to have. When the second-string guys and the third-string guys come in, the intensity is not dropping down at all. It’s still great to watch. They do a great job out there.”
Second- AND third-string linemen, imagine that. But depth was a big part of the issues the line had before Warinner arrived to take over last season. He is a noted developer of offensive lines as his resume, particularly at Ohio State where he built a championship-level line with players that moved on to starting roles in the NFL, has shown.
Warinner said last season that when he got to Michigan that his players were sorely lacking in confidence. That happens not only when you get pushed around on the field and rank among the lowest nationally in sacks and tackles for loss allowed, but when you get criticized incessantly by the media and fans.
He got to work immediately, and simplified their tasks. Under previous offensive line coach Tim Drevno, the players said they had massive amounts of plays to know, and that can be crippling for a young, inexperienced offensive line. Once Warinner took away all that pressure to think constantly, the linemen even last spring already seemed to get a swagger.
Now, there are more of them to make this line go.
“Coach Warinner has done a great job developing guys,” Bredeson said. “Really, it’s just getting the Harbaugh guys in. They’ve done a great job recruiting guys and getting people in here. Honestly, I think part of it was just that our numbers were low in years past. This year we have 20 to 25 linemen. It’s outrageous, but I love it. Part of it’s that, and part of it is the development.”
Bredeson said the right tackle competition is too close to call as the team prepares for camp. Harbaugh said both are great options. Stueber started at Ohio State and in the bowl game last year for Juwann Bushell-Beatty, but Mayfield always has been highly acclaimed.
“They are both attacking the summer program and are stalkers to the weight staff,” Harbaugh said. “It's to the point of, you like Stueber a lot. You like Jalen Mayfield a lot. And if you ever had to put them both in at tackle — (Jon) Runyan's an All-Big 10 tackle right now (at left tackle), but you wonder and maybe those are those are things that will even clarify more as you get into training camp, that if something happened to one of the inside guys that Runyan could be an inside guy and those two be the tackles.
“But we're not there right now, because we got really good guards and Ben Bredesen and Mike Onwenu and Cesar Ruiz at center. That's a good problem to have."
Bredeson said the young group of linemen are eager to learn.
“I love them,” he said. “This is a very hard-working class of O-linemen. They show up every day, don’t complain, don’t do anything to embarrass the room. They’re hard-working. They’re always bugging people to watch film with them, teach them stuff, work with them after practice. They’re making a lot of strides.”
This will be a unique fall as the Wolverines implement new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ up-tempo, no-huddle offense. This is a huge departure from the huddle and grinding Harbaugh offense.
“It’s definitely different than what we’ve been doing before,” Bredeson said. “I love it, though, I really do. As an offensive lineman I was very skeptical at first of what was going on, but I’ve fallen fully into this. I love Coach Gattis’ offense. I love the way it works. I love the way you can get playmakers the ball on any given play no matter what’s called. I’m fully on board with this. I speak for the entire O-line and offense when I say we’re all behind him.”
Why the initial skepticism?
“I just didn’t know, just the people we had, I didn’t know how a spread was going to work,” Bredeson said. “I ran a version of this in high school, but that doesn’t really matter. I didn’t know how everything was going to fit at first and then going through spring ball, the personnel we have fits this offense perfectly. It’s ideal. We really run it at an elite level so far throughout spring. I think it’s only going to get better through the summer and August.”