Looking Ahead: The Men in the Trenches

We here at Maize n' Brew are all about fighting for truth and justice.  

I have heard a lot of people say that Michigan is doomed for the next few years because a new coach is going to have to rebuild a broken program.  Yesterday I wanted to test this theory, so I looked at the returning offensive skill position players to see how well the personnel could translate to a pro style system if the new coach decides that is the transition to make.  What did I find?

Things aren't so bad.

That isn't to say that we have the personnel of this year's Wisconsin team that pretty much steamrolled everyone in the Big Ten once they built up some momentum.  Michigan has a bunch of good football players, but they are still good football players who have played in a spread option system for three years.  There will be an adjustment. However, a good coaching staff should be able to make this adjustment a smooth one.

One of the biggest misconception surrounding Rich Rodriguez's time in Ann Arbor has been about his offensive lines.  The shift to a spread offense required more athleticism along the line.  However, many have taken "more athletic" to mean "275lbs ballerinas who push and slap instead of dropping pancake blocks like its nobody's business".  I don't care what kind of offensive system you run.  If a team doesn't have linemen who can knock defenses on their ass, you won't be successful.  Michigan didn't put together a top 10 offense by playing paddy-cake in 2010.  These linemen know how to be physical.

Today I want to dig a little deeper into the offensive line, as this unit more than any other will be the foundation for success no matter what offense is run next year.

First, many assume that Rodriguez sacrificed too much size on the offensive line in favor of mobility, and that this hampered the ability of the players to compete in the hard-nosed Big Ten.  The common refrain is "they are too small."  Let's look at the size of Michigan's starting line vs. some other Big Ten teams*:

Michigan: Taylor Lewan 6'8 294lbs, Perry Dorrstein 6'7 321, Steven Schilling 6'5 308lbs, Patrick Omameh 6'4 305lbs, David Molk 6'2 287lbs

Michigan State: J'Michael Deane 6'5 312lbs, DJ Young 6'5 298lbs, Joel Foreman 6'4 310lbs, Chris McDonald 6'5 295lbs, John Stipek 6'5 285lbs

Ohio State:  Mike Adams 6'8 300lbs, JB Shugarts 6'7 297lbs, Justin Boren 6'3 320lbs, Bryant Browning 6'4 313lbs, Michael Brewster 6'5 293lbs.  

Iowa: Riley Reiff 6'6 300lbs, Marcus Zusevics 6'5 295lbs, Julian Vandervelde 6'3 300lbs, Josh Koeppel 6'2 273lbs, James Ferentz 6'2 275

Wisconsin: Gabe Carimi 6'7 327lbs,  Ricky Wagner 6'6 322lbs, John Moffitt 6'5 323lbs, Kevin Zeitler 6'4 315lbs, Peter Konz 6'5 313lbs

*(Depth charts pulled from Rivals.com because while I am obsessed with college football, I'm not obsessed enough to know every conference team's 2-deep by heart.  If there are any mistakes or anyone I overlooked, please let me know so I can change it immediately.  Truth, justice, and factual accuracy are important here at MnB).

What can we learn from these numbers?  Well first, there must be something in the water in Madison.  Outside of the huge group of offensive linemen the Badgers roll out, most of the better Big Ten teams this year have an offensive line that is roughly the same size as Michigan's.  Furthermore, the smallest member of the Wolverine's offensive line is center David Molk, who just happens to be a 1st team All-Big Ten selection.  The only other Wolverine lineman under 300lbs is Taylor Lewan, who is still only a RS-Fr, and has plenty of room on his 6'8 frame to add weight in the coming years without losing his athleticism.

Now, let's look at the depth chart and assess each position.

Offensive Tackle

Upperclassmen: Mark Huyge 6'6 306lbs (RS-Sr. Started games at RT and RG in 2009, began 2010 at LT, but filled in at RT for the injured Dorrstein)

Underclassmen: Taylor Lewan 6'8 294lbs (RS-So. Broke into the starting lineup as a RS-Fr. and got eight starts. 5.8/4-star), Michael Schofield 6'7 293lbs (RS-So. 5.8/4-star).

Depth at this position past 2011 is a major concern that will have to be addressed through recruiting this year, but overall Michigan should have it's starters nailed down for the next three years.  Lewan has already shown a great deal of promise on the field, with the exception of his penchant for committing blindingly stupid penalties at the worst possible moment--which we will attribute to youth for now--he looks and plays the part of a franchise type left tackle.  Lewan has the size and strength to lock down the LT position no matter what offense is run next year. Opposite him next year might be Mark Huyge, a longtime contributor who is back for his final season, who also has experience at the LT position, and would be a solid backup at either tackle spot.  Most fans are hoping, however, that Michael Schofield makes the leap to the starting lineup.  Just as highly rated as Lewan coming out of high school, Scofield looks to be the long term answer at the opposite tackle.  He was reportedly pushing hard in fall camp for the starting job, and his losing out to a solid 5th year senior contributor isn't a red flag.  Three years of these two young tackles holding down the edges should be music to Michigan fan's ears.

Spread Option Grade: A.  Two highly rated tackle prospects who are still sophomores, and one senior to back them up until their RS-Jr. year should mean this position is in great shape for years to come.

Pro Style Offense Grade: B+.  Young tackles learning a new system could hit some bumps along the way, but they are both physically capable enough that long term worries aren't serious.

Offensive Guard 

Upperclassmen:  Patrick Omameh 6'4 305lbs (RS-Jr.  Started a few games at RG to end the 2009 season, and took over the starting RG job in 2010), Ricky Barnum 6'3 286lbs (RS-Jr. 5.8/3-star), Elliot Mealer 6'5 315lbs (RS-Jr. 5.8/4-star), William Campbell 6'5 331lbs (Jr. 6.1/5-star)

Underclassmen: (None)

After holding down the starting job at RG for a year and a half, Patrick Omameh has established himself as the player to beat for that position going fowards.  He came to Ann Arbor a low rated defensive line prospect, but switched to the offensive side of the ball to add depth.  One knock against him is his problems dealing with defensive tackles.  Omameh is a great downfield blocker, but sometimes struggles against defensive linemen.  The other guard spot comes down to three talented but largely unknown players.  Barnum has gotten the most time in games in 2010, but Mealer is a bigger player that could be better suited for a pro style offense.  The wildcard is Will Campbell, who switched to offense halfway through 2010.  Campbell was a blue chip recruit in 2009 who projected well on either side of the ball.  He struggled to master the technique needed to be effective on the defensive line, so the coaches moved him to guard where he created a bit of buzz.  He could be a career backup or an All-Big Ten caliber guard.

Spread Option Grade: B.  With only one of the four players on roster being a known quantity (Omameh), questions surround this group.  There should be enough depth to ensure a capable starter.

Pro Style Grade: B-.  This grade is probably low, but too many of these players have yet to see significant time on the field, and a change in offensive schemes could hinder their development.

Center

Upperclassmen:  David Molk 6'2 287 (RS-Sr. Three year starter who missed significant time in 2009 due to two separate injuries.  1st team All-Big Ten), Rocko Khoury 6'4 295lbs (RS-Jr. Played in three games in 2010, including extensively against Iowa.  5.7/3-star)

Underclassmen: Christian Pace 6'2 280lbs (RS-Fr. 5.7/3-star)

No matter what system is run next year, the center position should be in good hands.  David Molk has been the leader of this offensive line for the last two years, and should continue to be an effective force in the offense.  He is an excellent zone blocking center that can routinely make even the toughest reach blocks.  Behind Molk is capable backup Rocko Khoury, whose resume consists mostly of the 2010 Iowa game where he filled in admirably for an injured David Molk.  Khoury should be an effective replacement in 2012 when Molk graduates.  Behind them both is freshman Christian Pace who will have plenty of time to develop behind the upperclassmen.

Spread Option Grade: A.  A returning All-Big Ten 1st teamer and three year starter, backed by a RS-Jr who has seen game action.  This grade is a no-brainer.

Pro Style Grade: B.  This is where things get tricky.  Molk is excellent in a zone blocking scheme, which could still be employed by a pro style coach.  However, Molk's skills might not translate as well to a traditional assignment blocking scheme.  I'm not really too worried.  This position should be in good hands for the next few years.

*  *  *

The final concern to look at is the last coaching transition that took place, and the poor play of the offensive line under the new coaching staff.  The 2008 offense was record breakingly bad in terms of Michigan football history, and while most of the blame has fallen on the poor quarterbacking that year, there also needs to be something said about the state of the offensive line.  That unit was very frankly ineffective at most of it's pass and run blocking, which didn't make life easy for the young quarterbacks and injury prone running backs.

This is what Brian Cook had to say in his 2008 offensive preview (in which he rated the O-Line a 1 out of 5):

Perhaps the saddest indicator of the potential looming tragedy that is the Michigan offensive line is this: last year this depth chart went three deep. There’s no one but freshmen unlisted this year and, uh… four freshmen in the actual two-deep as hypothesized above.

The line took a hit it could not afford to sustain when certain starter and once upon a time touted recruit Cory Zirbel went down with a knee injury, forcing either David Molk or hastily converted defensive lineman John Ferrara into the starting lineup. Michigan is now one injury away from serious issues indeed.

 

Michigan lost a lot from the 2007 roster.  Of the five starters from the previous season, two graduated (one you might of heard of, I think he got a job playing on Sundays) and two left the team (again, one of these you might have heard of, I think he got a job plowing driveways in Ohio).  That left returning starter, sophomore RT Steven Schilling, to lead his merry band of misfits and castoffs.  Beyond junior Mark Ortmann (who became a average LT over the next two seasons) and David Moosman (who I still have nightmares about that all involve him snapping over the head of every quarterback on the roster while subbing for an injured David Molk, but was a solid offensive guard), there wasn't much upperclass talent waiting in the wings to takeover. Thankfully, Molk stepped up as a redshirt freshman to hold down the center position, a job he still hasn't given back.  On top of all that, if the starting five wasn't inspiring, the backups were a downright scary mix of youth and inexperience.  One RS-So., two RS-Fr., a true freshman (who wouldn't be on the team much longer), and a converted defensive tackle.

Contrast that to this year with three starters returning (four if you include Huyge):

 

  • The starting tackles will be two of these three players:  a 5th year senior who has experience starting at both left and right tackle over the past two years, a highly rated RS-So. who already grabbed ahold of the starting LT job as a freshman, or another highly rated RS-So. who challenged for the starting RT job through camp and should be a front runner for the job this year.
  • The starting RG returns, and the starting LG will either be one of two RS-Jr.'s or a former defensive tackle who was a five star recruit at either offensive or defensive line.
  • The starting center will be the same as it has since 2008.  His backup is a RS-Jr.

 

Things aren't so bleak this time around.  If the new coach can come in and hold together what is already a good recruiting class of offensive linemen while adding one or two more, there should hardly be a bump in the road for the offensive line going forward.  Unlike 2008 this unit has size, experience, and depth.  Now they just need a coach.

Next week I will continue my look ahead to 2011 (yay premature speculation) and try to establish just what this roster is capable of going forward.  There will be a look at the defense, and hopefully some answers from people more qualified than I am (but that is still in the works).  

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