Taylor Lewan returns to headline Michigan's most talented position on the offensive line. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Football is less than two weeks away and it is time to get down to the real nitty-gritty and talk about the team (the team, the team).
Over the next few days we here at Maize n Brew will be breaking down each position group, grading them, and giving our expectations for the season. Today we kick off with the big guys up front. Look for a defensive line post later this afternoon.
Michigan might have the best starting offensive line in the Big Ten, but it also has arguably the least depth in the entire conference. When the drop-off from starter to backup goes "potential all-conference player" to "um, well he's a freshman, but Rivals really liked his mean streak" then you know you are in for a season of sitting nervously on the edge of the couch repeating "don't get injured, don't get injured, don't get injured" under your breath while your family and friends shoot you sideways glances and talk about you losing your mind in hushed tones from the kitchen.
Yeah, things look a little scary. Gone is the ironman in the middle, Rimington Trophy winner David Molk, and with him the solid and un-benchable Mark Huyge. Despite this Michigan returns a potential all-American at tackle, a potential all-Big Ten level player at the other tackle (albeit after a shift outside from guard), a 29 game starter at right guard, and a highly thought of (but injured in 2011) lineman now at center. This group, with serviceable play at left guard, could do wonderful things. It could also get banged up and thrust a bunch of true freshmen into the lineup.
At no position on the offensive line is the ceiling for production higher with the starters and lower in the case of injury than at the tackle position.
On the left side, protecting Denard Robinson's blind side, is two-year starter Taylor Lewan, fresh off garnering second-team all-Big Ten honors a year ago. Lewan seems poised to have a break out year in which his draft stock explodes and he finally lives up to his recruiting hype as the heir apparent to Jake Long on the left side.
Lewan earned the starting job as a RS-Fr. and struggled with penalties while showing an ability to block pretty much anyone anywhere at any time. When he was on he was on that first year -- Lewan shut down Adrian Clayborn in the 2010 Michigan-Iowa game -- but when he was off it was maddeningly so. Too many boneheaded plays hurt his overall performance. The physical potential was there, but the game had yet to slow down for him.
Last year that finally happened as Lewan cut out the stupid penalties and became the most consistent player on the line outside of David Molk (and considering the MSU A-gap blitz debacle, that one might be up for debate).
Lewan has the physical tools to be a dominant college left tackle and eventually challenge for a top-ten draft position, and there is various levels of hype rolling in for the tackle this off season from different corners of the college football world, but one thing is generally agreed upon: Lewan is one of the best linemen in the Big Ten. If Lewan stays healthy and makes a seamless transition to leader of the offensive line (as has been reported so far this summer) then the LT spot is set and the biggest worry Michigan fans will have this season will be whether Lewan sticks around for his senior year or cashes in on his draft stock.
On the other side of the line Michigan looks to be in great shape as well. Lewan's classmate Michael Schofield is making the move outside to RT -- a more natural position for the long, athletic lineman -- from the guard position he was pushed into a year ago because of injuries to Ricky Barnum.
Schofield, like Lewan, is a prototypical tackle with great athleticism and NFL-approved length. As a guard last year it was Schofield that earned the lion's share of the pulling duties, and he executed them very well. If it weren't for Lewan having an iron grip on the starting job at LT it is likely that Schofield would be a strong contender to get that job, and if there are any injuries to Lewan you can believe that it will be Schofield sliding over.
Those two are as good a tackle combo as you will find in the Big Ten, and are probably up there in the top-ten nationally. Behind them? Let's not talk about it.
What? We have to talk about depth? Even when it is non-existent?
If something happens to either one of the starters at tackle, the first guy off the bench will either be a true freshman or a walk-on with one more year of experience.
The top candidate is Kyle Kalis, one of the most college-ready offensive line recruits in the country, and former Ohio State commit. Kalis ultimately projects to guard down the line, but with no depth to speak of and Kalis being physically the most ready player in the 2012 class, he looks like the odds on favorite to get the call up.
If not Kalis it will be a pick your poison proposition between the larger but raw Ben Braden or the smaller (285lbs) but more highly regarded Erik Magnuson. The last option would be walk-on Graham Glasgow.
So there you have it, the top of the tackle depth chart is a wonderful combination of size, athleticism, and NFL-level potential. The bottom end is, well, all of that two, just four years too soon.
If one starting tackle misses any time Michigan should still have a serviceable line. If both starters miss any time? Head for the hills. It'll be a long season for everyone involved.
Grade: B (A+ for starters, D for depth)
Backups: Joey Burzynski (RS-So. walk-on) 6'1, 295lbs; Kyle Kalis (Fr.) 6'5, 294lbs; Chris Bryant (RS-Fr.) 6'4, 318lbs.
The two sides of the line at guard couldn't be much more different. On one hand you have the longest tenured starter on the offensive line. On the other you have a game of roulette between a fifth-year senior, a walk-on, and a true freshman.
The starter that we know, and have known now for years is Patrick Omameh. Omameh broke into the starting lineup three years ago as a RS-Fr. when Michigan's offensive line was falling apart with the season-ending injury to David Molk. Omameh took over late that season as the starting RG and has yet to give up the starting job.
In Rich Rodriguez's offense Omameh was a linebacker crushing terror that won himself internet fame by bulldozing Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o on Denard Robinson's record setting run in 2010. From there Omameh continued as one of the better pieces on the Wolverine's line until Hoke and Co. came to town, wherein Omameh struggled in the transition early before eventually establishing himself as a solid contributor.
He will never be the big, road-grading guard that Hoke and Borges are transitioning the offense toward, and he has shown a tendency to struggle when matched up against very good DTs, but Omameh is as solid a starter as the Michigan offensive line has outside of Lewan.
Behind Omameh is RS-Fr. Chris Bryant. Oddly, it was Rodriguez who recruited the massive guard, but it seems that Bryant fits much more comfortably in Borges' pro-style attack. Desptie this, Bryant still hasn't shown much in practices or spring games and is probably a year away from being a solid option for meaningful playing time. Although with his weight down to the 320lbs range it seems like he is heading in the right direction.
On the other side both of Michigan's left guard options from a year ago, Ricky Barnum and Michael Schofield, have shifted to other starting positions, leaving an eclectic mix of players to try and fill the position.
Option number one and nominal starter as of this point is fifth-year senior Elliott Mealer. Mealer is still somewhat of an unknown quantity despite having been on the team for nearly half a decade. He has extensive experience on special teams units during his last few years, and has seen some time as a backup on the offensive line in the last two years, but what we know about Mealer is admittedly little. We do know he has a beard. If he plays as good as his beard looks, he is an all-American. Sadly, beard thickness and guard play don't correlate.
This is better than what we know about Joey Burzynski. Namely that he is a walk-on. And he is small*. Not like my size, but small for a starting Big Ten offensive lineman. Still, Burzynski has continually seen his name mentioned by coaches and teammates, and his effort is unquestioned. Lower rated project linemen are the types of players that great programs build a foundation on, but that usually doesn't extend to those players getting a starting job as sophomores while still being shy of 300lbs.
*(He also has a beard, but his beard at this point is the walk-on of beards -- undeveloped and a little old-fashioned)
The last option, and the one most likely to win the starting job and never give it up again, is Kyle Kalis. If Kalis isn't needed at tackle (pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease) then he seems to have a somewhat open path to early playing time at the left guard position.
The comforting thing about the competition at guard is exactly that: there is some competition. While the level of play at the top might not be ideal, the fact that the coaches have a few players in mind that could play significant time means that the situation isn't as dire as it is outside at tackle where the depth chart reads: "Awesome, awesome, OH MY GOD WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?!"
The ceiling isn't as high, but the worst case scenario still probably includes at least two guys that the coaches have given a serious look to hand the starting job to. On this offensive line, that's something.
/holds middle finger up in direction of Arizona
Grade: B- (Starters B+, backups C+)
Starter: Ricky Barnum (RS-Sr.) 6'3, 296lbs
Backup: Jack Miller (RS-Fr.) 6'4 288lbs
Perhaps the most boring position to preview on the Michigan offensive line.
You mean to tell me there is a highly thought of fifth-year player moving into the starting lineup for the first time with a second-year player that the coaches are high on as his unquestioned backup? Where's the drama? Where's the excitement? Where is the ulcer inducing worry that will keep me awake at night?
Sorry Ricky, but you are a downgrade. No offense or anything, but when you step into the starting lineup for a Rimington Trophy winner, four-year starter, and Michigan fans' favorite curmudgeon, people are naturally going to reach with an indifferent sigh. Meh.
Still, there are worse ways to fill a starting role than moving a player like Ricky Barnum over to it. Barnum has been a reserve guard for years, and last year was poised to break out and seize the starting spot at left guard...until a high ankle sprain sidelined him.
Still, he was a highly sought after recruit that spent his career behind established starters before bad luck robbed him of his first opportunity to take over as a starter.
Once Rocko Khoury left the program last winter -- or probably well before, at least to the coaches -- Barnum became The Guy at center. While he was a guard for most of his career, Barnum has spent plenty of time working on snaps to help out at a position that the Wolverines never really had a lot of depth in the past few years.
While he won't be David Molk, Barnum has the makings to be a solid Big Ten-level starter. That should be enough.
If there are any problems, the next guy in line is Jack Miller. Miller was the Molk-iest of offensive line recruits. An undersized guy that wasn't highly thought of by the services but was consistently praised for his smarts and his disdain for the guy across from him. Miller spent his first year on campus bulking up, learning the offense, and getting physically abused by David Molk.
While Miller is probably a year away from being a legitimate option to start, he is a dedicated backup at a specialized position. End of the world? Probably not.
Grade: B (Starter B+, backup C+)
If the starters remain healthy during the season Michigan should field the best offensive line in the conference, paving the way for the most talented backfield in the conference. The Michigan offense in this situation is very, very good, thanks for asking.
If there are injuries -- and there are always injuries, even if they are the nagging kind that keep players performing at just 75 percent -- then Michigan's offense will struggle accordingly depending on the severity of the injury. The struggles will be worse if it is a tackle.
However, even when we take into account the bumps and bruises, this offensive line should pave the way for a very good offensive output, and help Denard Robinson and Fitzgerald Toussaint (please?) improve on their 2011 performances.
Overall Grade: B