Has Michigan's offensive line improved? Time will tell

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Converted defensive lineman James Hudson is among the improvements along the offensive line for Michigan.

Playing consistently well on offense is not up to one player, although as the cliché goes, the quarterback gets all the praise and all the criticism. Michigan’s offensive line could argue that point, though, these last few years, as it has received a heavy dose of criticism but not much praise.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh hired Ed Warinner, who famously built a title-contending offensive line at Ohio State, this offseason. Warinner, from all accounts, has simplified things and the players bought in quickly.

“The offensive line is showing some signs there of coming together, believing in each other,” Harbaugh said this week during Big Ten media days. “More experienced, more athletic, I see stronger, I see them moving better, lower and quicker and faster.

“(Left tackle) Juwann Bushell-Beatty, I just see him more dialed in, more focused, working harder at it, losing weight, putting it on in better spots. Got real high hopes for him. Jon Runyan had a tremendous spring. Going to need him to be that right tackle and need him to consistently do what he’s doing and go be a real solid, good right tackle. Cesar Ruiz doing really good (at center). Might be some competition at that right guard spot. Mike Onwenu and Steve Spanellis. But overall, it has a chance to be better. I think they’re coming together. I think it’s been a good summer for them.”

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With Warinner, Harbaugh has found a kindred spirit.

“I don’t know that he was the right guy as much as I do now since he’s been here more than when I was first thinking about it,” Harbaugh said. “After being around him, I love talking ball with him, I like watching film with him, I like watching him coach. I also feel we’ve done a good job beefing up the coaching power, the brain power in that (offensive line) room.”

Michigan senior defensive end Chase Winovich has seen the transformation of the offensive line since Warinner’s arrival.

“Transition could be a bad or a good thing,” Winovich said during Big Ten media days. “Sometimes transition is good. In the case of the offensive line, they’ve transitioned into a bunch of people that were kind of unsure of what they were doing (last season), it didn’t seem like — and this is from my perspective as a defensive lineman on the team — it didn’t seem like they had as much confidence in what they were doing and bought into the protection schemes.

“This year, it seemed like we had some guys stepping up and identifying themselves, like ‘We are offensive linemen,’ like Cesar, Ben Bredeson, Juwann Bushell-Beatty. Even Jon Runyan. There’s some stuff to be excited for from that front. If you have an offensive line that dominant, even if you don’t have great quarterback play, you at least give yourself a chance to run the ball and make it possible for other guys. There’s a lot to be positive about the offensive line in general.”

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Michigan’s defense, under coordinator Don Brown the last two years, has been at or near the top of the national statistics.

Winovich wasn’t complaining, but said the defense has felt the burden of picking up the slack for an offense that clearly struggled last season for a number of reasons, not just because of the play of the line.

“You’re almost baptized, it’s sad to say, to the idea that it was always Michigan’s defense’s responsibility,” Winovich said. “It’s not bad-mouthing anybody or the offense, but it was always kind of our responsibility as a defense, no matter the turnout. It’s the truth. If they (the opponents) don’t score any points, no matter what happens, they cannot win that game. You learn from it and you just keep working.

“At the end of the day you can’t point fingers, but having an offense that’s even marginally better than it’s been will have huge dividends. That’s just my opinion. One humble man’s opinion. When you factor in the fact our offense is, at the very least, is going to be marginally better from a production standpoint than last year, there’s a lot of things to be excited about.”

In explaining how the line has improved under Warinner, Harbaugh used converted defensive lineman James Hudson as an example. Hudson has picked things up quickly at tackle and could contend for playing time.

“Still work to be done, but there’s real signs there,” Harbaugh said. “There’s been times where you go, ‘There it is. This is your position.’ He’s getting confident. Even getting a chin bob like, ‘I got this.’ I have no doubt that this is the right thing. Very little doubt the right position for him is offensive tackle.”

From his vantage point, Winovich said he has seen a difference in the offensive line, from attitude to understanding.

Those were characteristics he didn't see last year from a line that was among the nation's worst in sacks and tackles for loss allowed.

“Specifically in just how in general they’re grasping the schematics of the protection schemes,” he said. “That was a big thing last year. A big complaint from some of the guys that were playing last year, from what I gather as a defensive lineman, was that sometimes it was over the top or they’d try to implement all this stuff that may have been too advanced or people weren’t on the same page.

“There was a disconnect that caused some issues. This year, from what I can tell through spring ball, which isn’t as good as (they) will be, it seemed like guys were picking it up. I felt they were better to adapt on the fly.”

With a difficult schedule that features three rivalry games on the road, starting with the season opener Sept. 1 at Notre Dame, Michigan’s defense is going to need to the offense to carry more weight than it has.

“It’s a team game. You’re invested in the offense doing well,” Winovich said. “It’s tough to win a football game with an offense that isn’t very productive, it’s just the nature of the beast.”