Getting physical: Practice change paying off for Michigan linemen

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — After Michigan’s crushing loss at Wisconsin to open the Big Ten season, Jim Harbaugh said the Wolverines had been outplayed, outcoached and out-prepared.

He didn’t say “out-toughed” but that was inferred.

One of the changes that the coaches are crediting for toughening up the team, particularly on the offensive and defensive lines, is having the first-team offense and first-team defense — good on good, as they say — practice against each other for the first half hour of practices on Tuesday. That has been in place since the Wisconsin game, and they believe it’s paying off.

The 16th-ranked Wolverines (5-1, 3-1 Big Ten) play at No. 7 Penn State (6-0, 3-0) Saturday night at Beaver Stadium. This kicks off a stiff six-game challenge that will most certainly test how much better Michigan has become, particularly both lines.

Strong defensive play begins up front, and evidence comes from how the defense stopped the run. Michigan's last three opponents — Rutgers, Iowa and Illinois — have gained 111 yards rushing on 102 carries and that includes the eight-sack performance against Iowa that yielded one yard rushing. The trio features two of the worst teams in the Big Ten, so that's also important to consider.

And since the Wisconsin game, when Michigan was held to 40 yards rushing, the Wolverines have attempted to run the ball more consistently. They’re coming off a 295-yard performance at Illinois which produced their first two 100-yard rushers — Hassan Haskins and Zach Charbonnet — in a game for the first time in two years.

“It was just good to establish a run game,” offensive line coach Ed Warinner said Wednesday. “We talked about being more physical since the Wisconsin game on both sides of the ball, every position, and we’ve emphasized that in practice. That’s starting to come to fruition being able to control the line of scrimmage and run the football and stop the run on defense. We feel good about that piece going forward.”

Harbaugh earlier this week praised more consistent play from the offensive linemen.

“(They’re) playing with a style of play that is physical, smart and tough,” Harbaugh said.

But to play more physical you have to practice more physical, and that all starts up front on both sides. Before the Wisconsin game, the good-on-good practices happened in the spring and in camp. Now, it’s a regular feature on Tuesdays.

“The starters go against each other for the first 30 minutes of practice and want heavy run emphasis and high competition,” Warinner said. “It’s not full-go, but it’s as close to full-go as you could get. That’s helped us because they need to see (offensive linemen) Mike (Onwenu) and (Ben) Bredeson and Cesar (Ruiz) block them just like we need to see (defensive linemen) Carlo Kemp and (Aidan) Hutchinson and (Kwity) Paye and those guys, because those are the caliber of players you see at our level that Wisconsin has and Penn State has and the (other) teams have.

"When those guys compete against each other every day, that’s a positive. We do that every Tuesday now. It’s helped us and them become better players at the line of scrimmage.”

Running back Christian Turner, middle, has been a part of a Michigan ground attack that has racked up 560 rushing yards over the last three games.

The evidence, Warinner said, has been obvious in games.

“Watch the production and how we’re blocking people and how they’re stopping the run on defense and how we’re run blocking and just the pad level and the energy you have to come off the ball with,” Warinner said, explaining what he looks for. “Just forces guys to develop that toughness. If you see man-to-man coverage all the time in practice, you should be able to play against man-to-man coverage in the game. If you see all zone in practice and it’s man-to-man in the game, it’s ‘Wow, how do we get open?’

"Just competition of good players against good players. It’s all about practice. If you practice well, you’ll play pretty darn well. By practicing the best we have against the best they have on defense, it raises the level of practice and it raises the level of your work.”

Maybe a half hour doesn’t sound like much, but Warinner said they’re cognizant of the fact that more good-on-good in practice can also mean injuries. Finding a balance has been key.

“You’ve got to practice to practice,” he said. “There’s risk in everything you do. The big thing is good players being smart without taking shots at the quarterback or shots at the running back when he’s running it. Just good, clean, physical practice play. We’re doing a great job of that.”

The offense, under the direction of first-time coordinator Josh Gattis, has also shifted its focus. Last year when Warinner took over as offensive line coach, the first thing he did was simplify everything for the linemen. Gattis hasn’t necessarily taken a page from Warinner’s book, but tight end Nick Eubanks admitted this week that the players may have been overthinking a bit. After all, this is a new offense and a lot of new to grasp.

“That’s when Gattis stepped in and was like, ‘Yo, we’re going to do things we’re good at,'” Eubanks said.

It hasn’t been pretty for the Michigan offense, although there have been moments — just not enough of them. Coupled with turnovers, it hasn’t been easy for the offensive players to develop a rhythm. So in a sense, Gattis decided it was time to simplify things and just use plays the Wolverines are good at.

At Illinois, Warinner said they went back to their top outside zone play from last year, which was their most successful run play.

“The first couple teams had schemed it up to kind of slow that down,” Warinner said of the early opponents this season. “So just a version of outside zone where you block down and zone pull people instead of just straight zone blocking.”

Warinner said it takes a few games to sift through and determine what works best for a team, and that’s what the coaches have done.

“Every team’s different. There’s no carryover,” Warinner said. “You’ve got carryover players, but you have to establish who you are and what you want to do and then you evaluate. At some point you have to say, ‘Here’s what we’re good at.’ This shows the strength of this position group, the tight ends are strong at this, the O-line is strong at this, the running backs, whatever it is, and you try to play to those strengths.

“After two or three games in with the preseason, you kind of evaluate. We’re feeling and figuring this team out and figuring out all pieces and it’s starting to come together to play to the strengths of, ‘Hey, when Hassan is in there, what’s his strength? When Zach’s in there, what’s his strength? When Nick’s in there and Sean’s (McKeon) out, what’s our strength at tight end? What’s our strength up front? What are we good at?' And we try to blend that all together. What are our best options in the passing game on how to get the ball downfield, how to throw the ball, what are they good at? That’s part of your job as a coach is assessing that and then playing to the strengths of your players.

“It becomes clearer what you can and can’t do and what you are good at and what you’re not good at. As that picture clears itself up, then you stick with that, do it more, build on it. We’re all into doing that.”

Michigan at Penn State

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Beaver Stadium, University Park, Pa.

TV/radio: ABC/950

Records: No. 16 Michigan is 5-1, 3-1 Big Ten; No. 7 Penn State is 6-0, 3-0

Line: Penn State by 9

Twitter: @chengelis