Michigan is in a bit of a crunch. The team currently has 20 commits, and only 18 scholarships that we know for sure are opening up. But that's not the crunch. Harbaugh and the Wolverines are recruiting Rashan Gary, Caleb Kelly, Kareem Walker, Isaac Nauta, Connor Murphy (a four-star defensive end out of Arizona in the mold of Joey Bosa), Jordan Fuller (a fantastic four-star cornerback/athlete from New Jersey who's 6'2", 200), and five-star athlete Mecole Hardman. But that's not really the crunch, either. Well, maybe it will be, but the odds are not in favor of all those prospects coming to Ann Arbor, even if they've spoken warmly about the program.
No, the crunch we'll talk about today is on the offensive line, because it's fairly important that Michigan gets another offensive line commitment in 2016 - yes, even over some of those other elite players who could soon be headed to Ann Arbor. The Wolverines have four offensive line commits right now, assuming that Michael Onwenu stays on the offensive side of the ball. And they're four good ones: the aforementioned Onwenu is one of the more athletic 330-pound men you'll see, Devery Hamilton is as agile as a basketball player on a football field, Ben Bredeson is a tough, mean, nasty enforcer, and Erik Swenson might just be the best one of them all (seriously, go check his Hudl video).
Those four players might be the most important guys in the recruiting class - they offer the potential to be the foundation of the program through the turn of the decade. There's no denying their potential. But looking at the numbers, four is simply a light amount of recruits for a class that bears the duty of replenishing Michigan's depth on the offensive line. Michigan already lost Jack Miller, a redshirt senior, this past March, and will also be without Graham Glasgow after 2015 ends. Following 2016, the team will lose Kyle Kalis, Erik Magnuson, and Ben Braden as well.
This means that the depth chart for 2017 will be filled by some combination of Mason Cole, Patrick Kugler, David Dawson, Jon Runyan, Grant Newsome, Juwann Bushell-Beatty, and Nolan Ulizio. Don't get me wrong, there's potential in that group. But those are seven names, and there's a constant potential for injuries or other, unforeseen problems down the road. Also, the offensive line is famous for having a high strikeout rate when it comes to projecting depth charts and development. You need numbers to insulate your team from possible disasters, and right now Michigan doesn't have it.
(Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)
Darrell Funk was often criticized at Michigan, but still managed to produce two Rimington-Pace Trophy winners.
Numbers is something this team has lacked for a while now. Michigan signed a grand total of three offensive linemen from 2010-11, then put a little too much trust in their 2012 foursome of Ben Braden, Kyle Kalis, Blake Bars, and Erik Magnuson. (Bars has not panned out, and Kalis and Braden have suffered from slow development.) Both 2013 and 2015 saw hurried additions at the tail end of the recruiting cycle to bolster the numbers; meanwhile, the 2013 class has been decimated by attrition. Only two of the six offensive line commits from that year even remain on the team.
The 2016 class carries the burden, to a large degree, of fixing this. The four current commits might lock down starting roles, but Harbaugh is aiming to build a fully functioning two-deep. It helps that Michigan now has Tim Drevno, who's truly one of the elite coaches in the game and can narrow the possible 'strikeout factor' when it comes to future prospects. But projecting years down the road is always difficult, and Michigan has to stop reacting a year too late to its roster development. It simply needs to put the numbers in its favor.
That is why Harbaugh, Drevno, and company are still recruiting Terrance Davis, Johncarlo Valentin, Jean Delance, and Boss Tagaloa, even with so many other great players still on the board. With a maximum of eight scholarships up for grabs, along with other positions in a state of need and several recruits still interested, there's probably only room for one of those four linemen to join, as things stand right now - which would be fine, as that would solidify the class. An intriguing exception to this, though, is Boss Tagaloa.
Boss Tagaloa, a 6'3", 303-pound lineman out of Concord, California, is a defensive tackle and offensive tackle for De La Salle High School. He has great strength, great quickness, and good technique. On the offensive line, he shows more tenacity than you might ever see in an offensive lineman. Harbaugh would love him on either side. Because his tools translate better to the defensive line, and because that would give Harbaugh two two-way linemen in the 2016 class, Michigan might consider a commitment from him and a commitment from one of Davis, Valentin, or Delance.
"(Defense) is where my heart is set at," he said to Scout in March. "Coach Drevno is actually talking about if I can play center or something. I think that is what changed it all up. I never thought of it like that before. He said I could (play defense) if I wanted to. He said I could play either. He said it is all up to me."
Michigan fans know the pain of struggling through deficient offensive lines, and depth offers the team protection in case of injury or any other kind of unforeseen problem. There's also the unfortunate consequence of smashmouth football, that linemen will get bruised and battered. Having capable subs - and replacements, if necessary - is a must. Overall, as Michigan fans well know, the line is what wins games.
So, expect Jim Harbaugh to invest one or two more scholarships in the offensive line over the next couple months - and expect that investment to blossom for Michigan down the road. As much as Jim Harbaugh has gotten attention from national pundits for his quarterbacks and his use of tight end-heavy sets, this group right here will be deciding if Michigan wins or loses big games in January. It may not be sexy, but it's Michigan football.