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Wolverines feel 'really good' about options to reload along offensive line

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Breaking in a first-time starting quarterback is a big deal, but then there’s Michigan offensive line coach Ed Warinner who's in the unenviable position of replacing four starters.

It would have been a complete offensive line reboot if right tackle Jalen Mayfield had not decided to return when the Big Ten announced an abbreviated schedule would begin Oct. 24. Mayfield had opted out and signed with an agent shortly after the Big Ten's Aug. 11 announcement postponing fall sports, including football.

Mayfield’s waiver has been cleared by the NCAA, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday night on the “Inside Michigan Football” radio show, and he is back to practice with the team.

Andrew Vastardis is competing for the starting center job.

Warinner describes himself as someone who begins every day with a checklist, so check right tackle off that list. That leaves him with four starting jobs to fill.

“Replacing those guys is a challenge,” Warinner said on the radio show. “We have some really good players, really talented guys. We’re working through the process of who will become the starters. Some guys have an inside track a little bit, but we haven’t put the pads on yet, so it all separates itself. As we all know, there’s the helmets and shorts warriors and when the shoulder pads come on, the men come out. So we’ll find out where we stand as we go through more padded practices.”

Subscription: Five Michigan football players with something to prove this season

Michigan will begin padded practices Wednesday or Thursday, Harbaugh said, depending on the availability of rapid COVID-19 testing.

Harbaugh is “feeling really good” about the offensive line and said it’s shaping up this way as the team readies for practice to heat up — Ryan Hayes at left tackle, Chuck Filiaga at left guard, Andrew Vastardis at center, Andrew Stueber, who was at tackle the previous two seasons and missed last year after suffering a torn ACL during preseason camp, at right guard and Mayfield at right tackle.

But Warinner, while also mentioning those five, said nothing is set in stone.

Hayes seems to be locked in at left tackle.

“He’s a really smart player, very solid technique, very good athlete,” Warinner said, also mentioning that Hayes is going against defensive end Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson every day. “And he holds his own. It will be a fight. Someone will have to really fight and play extremely well to take that job away from him.”

Before Mayfield returned, Karsen Barnhart was playing at right tackle. Also standing out at tackle are Joel Honigford and Trente Jones.

“We have some more bodies there now, some more depth,” Warinner said. “My goal is to put the five best linemen on the field, so we’ll see how that all plays out. I feel really good we’re going to have some tackle depth. We won’t be thin there.”

The goal for Mayfield, a projected first-round selection in the 2021 NFL Draft by some analysts, is to get him in the shape he was in mid-March after winter conditioning and before the COVID-19 pandemic sent everyone home.

“Jalen really played well at the end of last season as he got more confident,” Warinner said. “He was around really good players and he didn’t have to be the bell cow of the offensive line, he didn’t have to be the leader. He could just listen, pay attention, watch the guys. He came in every day and worked really hard, extra film in here twice a day and it paid dividends for him, because he played well. The (NFL) projection was based on how he played at the end of last season, if he would have a great offseason, and then do that through this season that he could be a very highly drafted guy. I still think all that’s true.

“(But) the last time Jalen Mayfield had pads on was Jan. 1. I’m going to make this statement — don’t swing a golf club for 10 months, don’t hit a baseball live off a 90-mph fastball for 10 months, don’t shoot a 3-point shot for 10 months, see how you do. It takes a little time. It’s going to take some time to get back to where we were at. We’ve got to get him in playing shape now because he’s been away for a while. We’ve got to continue to develop his hands. He started playing better when he used his hands really effectively within the rules. He had really good pass sets at the end of the year so we’ve got to get him back in that groove. Jalen, when he has great footwork, when he uses his hands properly, he’s a very effective player, and I just want to get him back to where he was and build on it from there.”

Vastardis has the edge at center ahead of freshman Reece Atteberry and Zach Carpenter. Warinner said Vastardis is a natural leader who has worked his way into the role in his final season.

At left guard, Filiaga is competing with Trevor Keegan, and Stueber, who moved inside, is competing at right guard with Nolan Rumler and freshman Zak Zinter. Stueber hasn’t practiced in pads in 13 months after suffering the knee injury.

“I feel great,” Stueber said on the radio show. “I haven’t had any setbacks.”

Because Hayes and Stueber have made starts, the staff has not felt Michigan is beginning from scratch on the offensive line.

Ryan Hayes (76) appears to be the favorite to start at left tackle this season.

“For a lot of people, they assume that it’s new faces,” offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said. “But (there’s) a lot of old heads. A lot of guys that have been in the building, that have been around veteran-type players.”

Building depth has been important heading into this season because of the COVID threat that could potentially bench a position group and force a game cancellation. Warinner said his 18 linemen are divided into two rooms of nine players, all socially distanced, and one day he works with one group via Zoom and the next day the other.

“If one room got completely wiped out because of COVID, the other room could still win every game we play,” Warinner said. “That’s what I’ve told them, and that’s what I believe.”

During practices, the linemen wear a mask and also face shields on the helmet face masks.

“We call it being double-wrapped,” Warinner said.

Regardless who plays on the offensive line, Harbaugh likes how the group is coming together.

“There’s a real hope our offensive line could be bigger, could be more athletic, could be just as talented as what we’ve had in the past,” Harbaugh said. “The key is for them to jell. Very excited. I feel really optimistic about our offensive line.”

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis