Of all the grievances that could be laid at the feet of Rich Rodriguez at the end of his tenure, there was perhaps no larger one than the state of the offensive line depth going forward. Yeah, I hear what you're saying, "but that defense was so baaaaaaaaad." It was bad. Horribly bad. Historically bad. But as evidenced by last year it wasn't completely hopeless.
There was the requisite senior leadership (Martin, Van Bergen, Woolfolk), the gritty success stories (Kovacs), the malleable parts (Demens, T. Gordon), and the talented youth (Countess, Ryan, Morgan). There were pieces to work with, and once someone came along that didn't presumably spend a childhood ruining puzzles box by box, jamming wildly different colored pieces together with the butt of his palm, what you saw was a solid defensive cast coached up, rather than drowned in a flood of incompetence. This isn't a defense of Rodriguez, simply an acknowledgement that as bad as things were there was at least some semblance of depth built up.
Unlike the defense under Rodriguez, the offensive line was viewed as somewhat of a strength on the field, if not the best offensive position group outright. That isn't hard to fathom when you trot out an eventual Rimington Award winner at center and build around him with various four-star recruits.
The well, however, is set to run dry very soon. Not only were Rich Rodriguez's last two classes painfully thin when it came to offensive line recruiting, half the kids that committed aren't even around anymore.
The 2010 recruiting haul had just one offensive lineman: Christian Pace.
Read that again. One. Offensive. Linemen.
There is no position group as a whole that puts more players on the field at the same time than the offensive line and in one year Rich Rodriguez brought in just a single player.
The following year, 2011, was a bit more kind to the offensive line, but not by much. At one point Michigan had four commits, but Jake Fisher didn't stick after the coaching change and Tony Posada didn't last once he hit campus. That left just center Jack Miller and guard Chris Bryant.
Two years. Two recruiting classes Three offensive linemen.
Next fall four scholarship seniors will take the field with two scholarship juniors behind them. Past that depth will come from a pair of redshirt freshmen and a slew of kids who will have been in Ann Arbor a scant two months by their first collegiate snap. A two deep filled with true freshmen? I've seen this movie before and I know how it ends.
Brady Hoke has too. He and his staff know the importance of offensive line play* and that has become clear in his continued recruiting efforts over the last year. Thanks to his renewed commitment to building an offensive line capable of moving mountains, Michigan should be able to weather the 2013 season (the one with just two scholarship linemen that are also upperclassmen) without too much trouble and be well built for the years after. Granted, a line filled out with first and second year players isn't optimal, but hey, at least they aren't walk ons, amirite?
What might the offensive line look like in 2013 and beyond? Let's try to sort that out.
*(I realize that saying that Hoke knows "the importance of offensive line play," and has "a renewed commitment" is a bit disingenuous. There isn't a coach alive that would look at the state of the offensive line depth in January of 2011 and not immediately make that priority number one --- this includes Rich Rodriguez who partially ignored the offensive line because similar depth existed in the defensive back seven his final two years. The difference is that even in 2010 when offensive line was still a huge need, Rodriguez largely failed to address it whereas Hoke has certainly set the team up better going forward by recruiting better players. Mark another point for Hoke.)
There is one candidate we can be sure of, and that is current redshirt freshman Jack Miller, the undersized Molk protege that spent last season learning everything David knew and then promptly having that information knocked out of his head as part of David's twisted pregame head butt ritual. Miller, of all the linemen left from the previous staff, is probably the most affected by the change of scheme. He's tiny --- relatively, not literally --- at just 6'4 263 lbs (his listing as a true freshman), and was brought in to be the kind of mean, reach blocking machine that outside zone-blocking schemes depend on.
However, he will have two things going for him compared to the next guy on the depth chart, 1) an extra two years in a college weight program and 2) an extra two years experience in the offense.
Center is the one position on the line where a player can get away with being undersized. Molk himself wasn't very big, but still played at an extremely high level because he was strong, smart, and agile. Miller will be the front runner in the competition for center in 2013 simply because he will be the only true center on the roster with any experience.
However, the job might not be safe for long with 2013 commit Patrick Kugler coming on board. After losing out on two potential centers in the 2012 class (Caleb Stacy and Alex Kozan) the position was a priority heading into the 2013 class, and Kugler looks to be a potentially great option.
Already a consensus four-star prospect, Kugler is listed as a tackle by three of the four sites (Scout lists him as a guard) despite having the size and game of an interior player (6'4, 270lbs). One of the reasons Kugler is so universally praised is his already highly developed technique courtesy of his father, Sean Kugler --- aka the offensive line coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers. With a head start on footwork and another year to add weight and strength it isn't impossible that Kugler could be the most college ready lineman of next year's class. While learning the center position might be too much for his first year, you can rest assured that if Jack Miller holds on to the starting job in 2014 and beyond it won't be for lack of competition.
One half of the 2013 depth chart at guard could be set in stone if current redshirt junior Michael Schofield continues to play on the interior. After presumed starter Ricky Barnum went down with an injury early in the 2011 season Schofield --- previously a tackle --- moved inside and even had a more consistent year than the established starter, Patrick Omameh, on the other side of the line.
Why might Schofield stick on the inside? Given the opportunity to shift the somewhat limited Mark Huyge inside in 2011 --- a position Huyge had already played extensively in 2009 --- the staff opted to keep him at right tackle and move Schofiled inside instead --- this despite Huyge's struggles with the speed rush through the year. However, Schofield has the size (6'7 300 lbs.) that projects to tackle and with a plethora of guards to choose from in 2012 --- an no depth at tackle --- one has to expect that Schofield will slide outside this coming season and beyond.
Another reason Schofield could stay inside is the recent chatter that incoming five-star recruit Kyle Kalis has been told he will get the chance to compete for the aforementioned right tackle job. Kalis hails from Lakewood, Ohio and held offers from all the heavy hitters: Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Iowa, LSU, Miami, Notre Dame, Penn State, and Ohio State --- the school where he was committed before backing out and switching to the Wolverines. Kalis is big (6'5 300 lbs) but given his skills as a pounding run blocker and the cursed "lack of length" deigned by scouts, he has long been projected as a potential NFL guard. That we can mention those three letters is a testament to just how highly thought of Kalis is. Kalis is considered one of the most college-ready offensive linemen in the 2012 class, and given depth issues he will most likely either start from day one or seriously challenge for a job through the year.
With three guards on the roster ahead of him in 2012 (Patrick Omameh, Ricky Barnum/Rocko Khoury (one is likely destined for center), and Elliot Mealer) it isn't a surprise that he could move outside for a year. However, his long term future looks to be on the interior of the line and in 2013 the need for bodies will shift inside.
The other candidate that sticks out is massive redshirt freshman Chris Bryant, the 6'4 340 lbs guard from Chicago. Bryant is the kind of big-bodied mauler that Hoke has been pursuing in the last two classes, and if Bryant can control his weight his extra experience in the offense could give him a leg up.
Providing depth will likely be class of 2012 lineman Blake Bars. Bars is a high three-star/borderline four-star prospect out of Tennessee. Considered a tackle to the recruiting sites, Bars is most likely headed to the inside once at Michigan. The knock on Bars is mainly technique at this point --- he was a high school starter for just one year --- and given his relative lack of size at 6'5, 275 lbs he figures to be a developmental prospect that will require a redshirt and a couple years of backup duty.
The two true-freshmen that will be stepping into the depth chart in 2013 are Kyle Bosch and David Dawson.
Of the two, Bosch looks to be more capable of an early impact. Currently ranked as the 60th overall prospect to Rivals and the 44th overall to 247, Bosch could easily end up as a five-star linemen by the end of the process, and for good reason. Already 6'5 285lbs, Bosch has been catching the eyes of scouts for the past few years based on excellent technique and great physicality. Bosch could easily play tackle, but with the makeup of Michigan's 2013 class that seems unlikely.
Dawson, however, isn't that far off. Currently a four-star across the board, Dawson is a big larger at 6'5 305lbs and also could project to either tackle or guard at the college level. Dawson comes to Michigan from the Cass Tech pipeline after spending a year going to high school in Texas. Dawson is also praised for his technique and Josh Helmholdt of Rivals considers Dawson to be in close competition with Notre Dame commit Steve Elmer for the honor of Michigan's top offensive lineman.
Taylor Lewan, barring some unforseen circumstance will be Michigan's starting left tackle in the fall of 2013. Full stop.
Past that, there are the options at right tackle that we've already discussed --- Kyle Kalis and Michael Schofield --- and four first- or second-year players coming in in the next two recruiting classes.
The 2012 class boasts consensus four-star Erik Magnuson, a tackle recruit out of California. Magnuson has a pretty generic high-rated tackle build and scouting profile: 6'6 275lbs as a high school senior, praised for his frame and athleticism, better in pass protection than run blocking, etc. Magnuson got offers from pretty much the entire Pac-12 as well as Notre Dame, Oklahoma, and Miami, and finished the year as a top-100 prospect on Rivals.com. Magnuson seems likely to be a career right tackle given the upside of the two tackle prospects in the next class.
The other member of the 2012 class is in-state recruit Ben Braden; the first commitment of the 2012 cycle. Braden is a big kid (6'6 285lbs) that was not heavily recruited --- offers from Michigan State, Syracuse, and Wisconsin (a good sign) --- due in part to his early commitment. Braden is the kind of player that strong programs depend on: a solid in-state prospect that has potential to grow and should at least provide quality depth and insurance.
Following these two on campus will be the most touted pair of tackle recruits that Michigan has brought in in a very, very long time.
First, Colorado lineman Chris Fox chose the Wolverines on commit-a-palooza a few weeks back despite not being on campus. Fox also happened to be the highest rated offensive line recruit in the class. Already standing 6'6 and weighing 297lbs Fox is the prototype for what a team looks for in a tackle prospect. Praised for strength, size, and the always somewhat discomforting-in-this-context term "violence", Fox is relatively new to the offensive line --- just began playing it last summer --- and therefore is short on refined technique and long on physical attributes that leave scouts drooling. With the right coaching this is a guy that could end up on the short list for some pretty prestigious awards in a few years. However, he will most likely require a year or two on campus to develop the skills of a college offensive lineman (vs. the skills of a high school offensive lineman: be really big and beat the crap out of smaller people).
Just a day after Chris Fox joined the class the Wolverines got a second blue-chip offensive tackle prospect in the form of Logan Tuley-Tillman, Rivals.com's 109th overall player. Tuley-Tillman is developmentally at a different place than Fox. Both were relatively recent revelations at tackle on the national circut, but whereas Fox's game is based around strength, Tuley-Tillman has shown more promise gaining leverage and moving his feet. On top of that he is listed at 6'7, 300lbs and has the kind of frame that makes NFL scouts drool, and is even left-handed --- a plus for left tackles. Tuley-Tillman is another developmental prospect that could use a redshirt year on campus to solidify his technique and work on his strength, but like Fox he looks to be a potentially dominant bookend for the Wolverine line in the years to come.
What does this mean for the Wolverine line in the coming years? Well, with the 2012 line already fairly full on upperclassmen, things won't start to get too scary from an experience standpoint until 2013. Going off general scouting reports and projections, this could be the depth chart over the next three years (year in program in parenthesis).
|LT||Lewan (5th)||Magnuson (2nd)|
|LG||Kalis (2nd)||Bosch (1st)|
|C||Miller (3rd)||Kugler (1st)|
|RG||Bryant (3rd)||Bars (2nd)|
|RT||Schofield (5th||Braden (2nd)|
That would be a solid line with Lewan and Schofield both being excellent options at the tackle spots, and an interior trio of Kalis, Miller, and Bryant should be solid as well. Having three second year players and two true-freshmen as backups is terrifying to consider. C'est la vie.
|LT||Magnuson (3rd)||Tuley-Tillman (2nd)|
|LG||Kalis (3rd)||Bars (3rd)|
|C||Miller (4th||Kugler (2nd)|
|RG||Bosch (2nd)||Bryant (4th)|
|RT||Fox (2nd)||Braden (3rd)|
With the loss of both tackles it will be time for the younger players to step up. I would expect a heated battle for both spots between the slightly more experienced duo of Braden and Magnuson and the redshirt freshmen Fox and Tuley-Tillman. I give the nod to Magnuson and Fox but could be persuaded either way. Tuley-Tillman to me seems like the heir apparent at right tackle and could need two years to step up. I give Miller the nod at center because of experience, but it isn't a stretch to say that Kugler makes a move because of size. Bosch jumps into the starting lineup because he seems like a potential All-Big Ten player and should be competing for time very early. Depth is much less of an issue here with no first year players needed to fill in as backups.
|LT||Magnuson (4th)||Tuley-Tillman (3rd)|
|LG||Kalis (4th)||Dawson (3rd)|
|C||Kugler (3rd)||Miller (5th|
|RG||Bosch (3rd)||Bryant (5th)|
|RT||Fox (3rd)||Braden (4th)|
This is what a fully formed offensive line should look like. Two prototypical tackles and an interior line that should have considerable NFL draft stock. The second string is composed of entirely juniors and seniors.
Now, admittedly this is the best case scenario that relies on a few assumptions:
- Chris Fox quickly picks up technique enough to break into the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman.
- Logan Tuley-Tillman takes time to develop and can't beat a multiple year starter, Magnuson, for the starting job until Magnuson leaves..
- Kyle Kalis and Kyle Bosch are both college-ready enough to get significant time in their first or second year on campus.
- Patrick Kugler picks up the admittedly difficult task of playing center enough to win the starting job as a third year player, supplanting an experienced starter.
Now I will grant you that those are some high hopes for a number of players who haven't even begun their senior year of high school. A lot can happen between now and then. But the beautiful thing is that after a relatively thin year in 2013 this team is going to have a lot of options. Tuley-Tillman or Fox don't pick up technique quickly? Braden should at least provide solid options at the tackle spot opposite Magnuson. Kugler needs more time to develop? Miller already knows the offense and has drawn praise. Bosch struggles to adjust? Bryant has been in the system for years.
There have been a lot of rumblings on message boards across the Big Ten that Michigan has devoted too much attention to the offensive line over these last two classes. "Only five players can play at the same time," and "these kids won't want to stick around once the early playing time they were promised is gone"**. That doesn't take into account the separation on redshirts. Consider
Probable redshirt - Braden, Bars
Probable first-year contributor- Kalis, Magnuson
Probable redshirt - Fox, Tuley-Tillman, Dawson
Probably first-year contributor - Bosch, Kugler
That means that in 2015 the class breakdown will be something like:
|Kalis||Braden (RS)||Fox (RS)|
|Magnuson||Bars (RS)||Tuley-Tillman (RS)|
The inevitable redshirting of a few players will create a good deal of separation between classes and afford some of the younger or less developed players a chance to start later in their career. Not all nine of the linemen can play at the same time, but those nine linemen can form the basis for one of the Big Ten's best lines over a period of a half decade.
In a situation like this Magnuson and Kalis will graduate and open the door to a pair of highly touted redshirt juniors in Tuley-Tillman and Dawson. What's more, even if Braden is a starter as a redshirt player, odds are Fox will have at least one year to win the starting job by himself. With so little depth in front of these two classes of lineman, a little overlap is necessary.
**(The classic he just committed there because they promised him early playing time, and he will leave when a little competition comes in line. First, any promises of early playing time are largely conjecture and internet rumors. Second, does the fear of competition mean that schools like Alabama, Texas, Ohio State, Florida and USC suffer down classes every other year? These kids want to compete against the best and play with the best. End of story.)
In a little over one year Brady Hoke has taken one of the thinnest positions on the team and set it up to be the backbone of the offense for years to come. If this team can weather the lack of depth ahead of it in 2013 then the prospects in the 2012 and 2013 classes have the potential to develop into the best offensive line in the conference, stocked with NFL draft picks and All-Big Ten picks. Even with the kinds of injury problems and busts that accompany any offensive line in the country there should still be enough talent to stock this position for the foreseeable future.
Given the strength of the rest of the conference, this will be a very welcome development in the near future.