UM offensive line seeking stability in wake of challenging season

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

An already abbreviated season cut short by a COVID-19 outbreak wasn’t good for anyone on the Michigan football team last fall. But for a position group that was almost entirely brand new, the offensive line certainly could have used more playing time and experience.

Entering last season, Michigan had 17 starts among its five offensive linemen, including 13 by right tackle Jalen Mayfield. Ryan Hayes and Andrew Stueber, who had missed the 2019 season while recovering from a torn ACL, each had two. Four starters from the 2019 season were gone making this one of the more challenging position rebuilds.

During Michigan’s 2-4 season, injuries among the linemen disrupted any sense of continuity, and there were three different offensive line starting groups. The line that started the opener: Hayes at left tackle, Chuck Filiaga at left guard, Andrew Vastardis at center, Stueber at right guard and Mayfield at right tackle, was in place for two games. An injury to Hayes, moved Karsen Barnhart in for the final four games. Mayfield suffered a high ankle sprain, and Stueber moved to right tackle. Zak Zinter became the first freshman to start since Ben Bredeson in 2016 when he took over at right guard for Steuber. Those changes were in place for two games until Vastardis was hurt and Zach Carpenter, who has since transferred, started the final two games at center.

Michigan offensive lineman Zak Zinter (65) is a bright spot.

Filiaga was the only player to start all six games at the same position, while Stueber started every game but moved spots on the right side. For a position that benefits from consistency, this was a challenge. One positive, it seems, was the emergence of Zinter, the 6-foot-6, 334-pounder, who turned heads with his performance the final four games.

If the changes to the starting lineups last fall weren’t enough, there was a change of position coach when Ed Warinner’s contract was not renewed earlier this year. Sherrone Moore, who coached tight ends the last three seasons at Michigan and played the position in college at Oklahoma, is now offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator with Josh Gattis.

Moore is working with a group in spring practice that includes Vastardis, a fifth-year senior last fall who returned for another season. The departures include Carpenter, now at Indiana, and Mayfield, who is preparing for the NFL Draft and last Friday participated in Pro Day at Michigan.

“I was a little surprised, but they probably did what’s best for them and what’s best for the team,” Mayfield said last week during Pro Day interviews referring to Warinner’s departure. “Coach Warinner helped me tremendously develop more confidence and more skill in my game.

“Coach Moore, he’s definitely a guy who’s going to bring energy, definitely somebody who is gonna care about his players a lot, somebody who is gonna try to get the best out of you, so I feel like coach Moore is gonna be a great guy. He played the position, so he knows a lot about game. I know he has a lot to teach the young guys. He can bring so much to the table.”

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Mayfield said he sees a lot of positives in what Michigan has returning on the offensive line, and singled out Zinter, who made starts at right guard against Indiana, Wisconsin, Rutgers and Penn State.

"One guy that I think really stands out for me is Zak Zinter,” Mayfield said. “He’s a very talented guy, loves the game, he’s always looking for ways to get better. He has such a high ceiling. He’s very versatile, a very strong kid, he’s very athletic, as well. I think he’s gonna be a big part of what they have next year.

“But the other four guys that they bring back, just another year of playing together as a unit is really going to help them. They’ve got a talent up front, a lot of different skillsets that they can all bring to the table. I feel like there’s gonna be some breakout players for them up front. Ryan Hayes, Chuck Filiaga, those are two guys who are gonna have breakout seasons.”

Stueber, who has appeared in 20 games with eight starts, said he is mostly practicing at right tackle during the spring and is happy to be there. He praised Moore’s high-energy style and open environment in their meeting room where anyone is free to ask questions and encourage discussion.

Not much has changed scheme-wise, but the older players, he said, like the “new vibe”.

“We’re still focusing on establishing the run game,” Stueber said recently. “It’s a huge part of our offense. It’s definitely a cornerstone in our whole offense. The O-line has to set the tempo, the pace for the game. Obviously, we’re gonna have some blocks, some new wording, some new language, but overall, coach Gattis is still the offensive coordinator so the run game and the offense hasn’t changed too much.”

What former tight end Nick Eubanks thinks will change is the overall play of the line. Eubanks, in comments last week before Pro Day, said the players will feed off Moore’s energy.

“He brings the juice,” Eubanks said of Moore. “He brings the most out of you and your players or whoever he coaches. One thing for sure, you know when he’s in the building. I can say, the O-line, in general, will be 10 times probably better than it was last year because of coach Moore.”

Twitter: @chengelis