Michigan navigates challenges of injuries, youth on offensive line
Michigan offensive line coach Ed Warinner knew this season was going to be a challenge after losing four starters to the NFL after last year.
But then there was no spring practice because of the COVID-19 pandemic and when the shortened season was reinstated by the Big Ten, preseason camp was also abbreviated. Then, two weeks into the season, Warinner was down two more starters when tackles Jalen Mayfield and Ryan Hayes were sidelined by injuries. And then before last week’s game at Rutgers, he lost another starter when center Andrew Vastardis was unavailable because of injury.
The Wolverines (2-3) are entering Week 6 and face winless Penn State at Michigan Stadium on Saturday, and maybe, Warinner said, he’ll have one or both of the tackles back — they’ve been practicing — and maybe Vastardis, but what he does know is this has been one hell of a season for the third-year offensive line coach.
“You think about it, what group needed spring ball and August training camp more than my group losing four starters?” Warinner said Wednesday during a video conference with reporters. “Everybody needs it, but nobody needed it more. To not have that and they say we’re gonna play and then you have three weeks and then you’re right into game prep mode versus training camp mode, (that’s) a little bit different.
“It’s been challenging. Injuries has been the biggest one everybody knows about, but we’ve had a lot of guys miss a lot of time because of contact tracing because of this or that, you get the sniffles you miss two days because they’re checking to see and double-checking to see, which is the right thing to do whether or not you have COVID, so you’re out a practice. And then all of a sudden you miss the two work days of practice and you’re back in and are you really ready to go when you miss the two bulk days of practice, who knows? We’ve had all kinds of things going on that have interrupted continuity in training.”
Warinner’s approach when he arrived at Michigan was to simplify things for the linemen. It was embraced by the players, and they showed immediate improvement. With so many young and inexperienced players, and the limitations as a result of the pandemic, Warinner has kept things simple.
“We conceptually teach them,” he said. “They understand conceptually the offense, the systems, and then I just try to assess who would be best suited to move around. We practice them that way, too. They’ve been prepped up, but to get game experience is a different story.
“It’s definitely been the most challenging season I’ve had to incur as a position coach. I’m just proud of the kids, and I’m proud of our program, coach (Jim) Harbaugh, the way we do business. Everything about how we’re doing it is the right way to do it, and we do the best we can with the situation we’re in every day.”
He said his job as a coach is to make the complicated seem simple. He also has to ease pressure on these first-time starters.
“Like I told them, you don’t need to play perfect, but we do need to communicate, we do need to play with a physical nature, we do need to stick together and we need to make adjustments as the game progresses,” Warinner said. “We’ve got to keep it simple in terms of how much new can we add and how far can we go before we over-extend guys that don’t have a lot to fall back on. (Zak) Zinter has fallen back on two games and high school. Karsen (Barnhart) has fallen back on two games. (Zach) Carpenter is falling back on high school when he played last. When you’ve played three seasons, and you fall back on stuff, you get it.”
Warinner has had three different starting offensive line combinations in five games, and the latest that started at Rutgers in Michigan's triple-overtime win, features a freshman, Zinter at right guard; left tackle Barnhart, awarded the team’s best lineman in last week’s gam; and center Carpenter, who are both members of the 2019 freshman class. Andrew Steuber, who started the season at right guard before moving to right tackle in the third game, and left guard Chuck Filiaga, the only player to start every game at his position, are redshirt juniors.
The latest line played well in the second half of the 48-42 victory over Rutgers in which Michigan back Hassan Haskins led the team with 109 yards rushing on 25 carries and had a score.
Overall, the offensive line, Warinner said, is a work in progress, and he’s also figuring out as the goes the best way to coach this group.
“I’m not making excuses. I’m just stating facts,” Warinner said. “Whatever facts are, people don’t like facts, that’s fine. We’re learning a lot about our team and learning a lot about our guys. I’m learning how to coach them, how to make adjustments with them during a game, how to teach them in practice. Taking (former linemen) Ben Bredeson and Mike (Onwenu) and Cesar (Ruiz) through some drills on a Tuesday is totally different than taking Zak Zinter, Carpenter and Trevor Keegan through some drills on a Tuesday. That’s not the same.
“You have to go through and assess, ‘Am I doing the right thing and how do I help these guys be at their best to play competitively?’ And everybody’s got those same challenges. It’s not like Wisconsin or Rutgers don’t have those same challenges.”
Having Mayfield, the only full-time starter from last season to return, and Hayes back will help, but Warinner wasn’t saying Wednesday what the timetable might be for them. He was, however, encouraging.
“They’re both practicing, so we’re just working seeing how quickly they can come back,” Warinner said. “They’re both getting out there and doing practice reps, so it’s good to see them out there.
“I won’t say anything other than that, but they are not in the training room during practice. They are on the field in gear working out and we’re moving them along. They want to get back as quickly as they can, so we’ll see when that is. Both or one might be available Saturday.”
Michigan has three games remaining in East Division competition and then a crossover game during “Champions Week." Warinner’s work in progress will keep working.
“We’re not maxed out. We have a lot of room to progress,” he said. “As the players get more confident and more consistent and we understand what they’re best at, we’ll be able to help them have better success. We’re learning that as we go.”