As a kid, I never really appreciated the offensive line, so it's a little weird for adultish me to be writing this preview. I always watched the Woodsons and Howards and Hensons and Perrys of the world, and basically completely ignored the line. I just kind of assumed they'd do their jobs and Michigan's RB would get his four-digit totals and the statuesque quarterbacks would be kept relatively clean. Sure, they were important, but I didn't really give them their due.
Jon Runyan, Rod Payne, Jon Jansen, Steve Hutchinson, David Baas. Then Jake Long. Michigan churned out All-Americans regularly. Even when the line wasn't up to its lofty standards of the late nineties and early aughts, Taylor Lewan, and one of my personal favorites, David Molk, were All-Americans. Michigan still had two draft picks on arguably the worst Michigan offensive line in decades in Schofield and Lewan.
In short, Michigan took large teenagers and molded them into large men with a very particular set of skills. But three coaching changes and a paucity of recruiting in a couple key years has decimated what was once one of the most consistent position groups in the nation. Blame transitions from zone blocking to power/pro style or coach X or Y's recruiting or forcing freshmen in too early if you like - I happen to think it's a combination of those things. Regardless of the cause, Michigan's line play over the past years has deteriorated save a few bright spots, but as the Lewan/Schofield line showed, all five guys need to be in-sync otherwise the team rushes for -31 yards at Michigan State and everything else disintegrates. But you know all this. Enough with the past. Let's talk the future.
1. Who's the MVP? Maybe not a player.
2015 brings renewed optimism across the board for the team as a whole, the offense, the line as a unit. Unlike previous coaching transitions, the cupboard is (fairly) stocked with (mostly) talented recruits waiting to be developed. Five starters return with a coach that has a reputation of developing talent, making the most out of individual linemen, and maximizing the contributions of the entire unit. And we're just talking about the head coach. We'd be remiss if we didn't mention the official YFD pick for Team 136 MVP(erson): New OC Tim Drevno, formerly of USC. At first, I scratched my head at this hire - but as the offseason has progressed, it's pretty clear Michigan fans have reason for optimism. His strength is in the trenches, and Michigan's offense and personnel will be just fine with that. With pretty close to an all-star coaching staff across the board - particularly across every aspect of the offense, Drevno's going to be free to work extensively with the guys tasked with keeping the to-be-determined QBs clean and opening up holes for the backs.
Drevno's best success came at Stanford, where the staff regularly took unheralded guys and turned them into maulers. It's unclear how much of this can be directly attributed to him, but given that he made the leap to the Niners and was regarded well enough to follow the rest of the staff to Michigan, I'm going to have to trust the process here. He had moderate success at USC last year despite a very inexperienced line; their leading rusher, Javorius Allen, still averaged 5.4 YPC, a number I'm sure most Michigan fans would take in a heartbeat.
Will the line play get more cohesive? Time will tell, but it sounds like Drevno's got the right approach to coaching toughness and building a "brotherhood," as he told the Detroit News:
"You demand it," Drevno said Thursday after the second spring practice. "You demand it from them. You love 'em up, you get 'em to trust you, you invite 'em over to your house for a barbeque, you tell them that you love them, you get them to play for you.
Sign me up. Check back tomorrow for more coverage on Drevno for Nick.
2. The Incumbents: Wow,
five four returning starters?
With the late-breaking news of Jack Miller's decision to forego his fifth year, Michigan's returning four guys who started together on the line last year. The big question: Will they keep their jobs, or will some hard-charging bench guys push them out? Will Drevno reshuffle anyone based on a new QB? A lefty, perhaps? With these questions in mind, let's dive into each of the four in order of their job security.
He's safe: Mason Cole, (Left) Tackle (So.)
Calhoun's pretty good at footballing, and Cole did a good job against him last year. Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
I put the (left) in parentheses because while Cole impressed as a true freshman last year and has the mental skills to succeed, he's a little undersized for a true destroyer of worlds at left tackle at 6'5, 287lbs. He performed adequately against elite ends last year and was arguably the brightest spot on the line. Depending on the handedness of Michigan's Game 1 quarterback, we could see him on either side of the line. I expect this to be resolved (at least internally) after a couple weeks of fall camp and some summer conditioning. But in short, the man can play, and he'll have a job, likely as tackle - but if I had to guess, he will eventually be pushed from the blind side or aided by a TE at times.
Most likely a starter: Graham Glasgow, Guard (RS Sr.)
This was a hold. Credit: Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports
Wow, a fifth-year guy -and one with 24 starts in the last two years? Cool. The other Glasgow brother wasn't the hyped prospect that some of his comrades were, but he's made up for it in the last two years with fairly consistent play. Another guy who doesn't quite have the elite physical tools but makes up for it by being a cerebral player. I misspelled "cerebral" the first time I tried to type it out, so maybe I'm not the best person to judge the mental aptitude of the offensive line, but Glasgow is technically sound and should serve at worst as a nice bridge to 2016 and at best as a top-five guard in the conference. Communication is key, and I give him a slight positive bump due to his familiarity with the rest of the offense. We'd like to see him stick at guard, but in the event things at center with Bars and Kugler (more on this later) are dire, he'd be our pick to slot inside. Dude is smart.
Will he break out? The elite talent: Kyle Kalis, Guardish (RS Jr.)
The beard game is strong with this one. Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
The first real question mark on Michigan's line might also be the guy with the most raw talent. Kalis was heavily recruited out of HS and flipped from Ohio State in a well-covered saga that only makes me root for him more. At 6'5, he's probably destined to stay a guard for at least this season, but the right side of the line is a little more unsettled. Kalis is still raw, and struggled with technique last year at times. Tim Drevno, do your job, and this ought to be a fun line to watch. I'd buy stock in the Kyle Kalis bubble - he's got elite upside. Look to see him make strides in his footwork and get a better grasp of his technique in his junior season.
Needs some more push: Ben Braden, (Right) Tackle (RS Jr.)
Hey man, the other image in the library is me and a concussed Shane Morris. No thanks. Credit: Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports
Braden's got the shakiest job security of any of the returning four, but part of that can be attributed to the upside of some of the guys pushing him. Unlike Cole, he does fit the mold of a tackle at 6'6, 331 lbs - but he isn't quite a mauler yet. When watching him play last year, he didn't quite have that "mean streak" that's so valued from linemen yet. In my book, that means he wasn't quite as assertive as he needs to be in hitting his assignments. He's certainly got an intense competition ahead of him with Magnuson and Tuley-Tillman pushing hard, so hopefully the three of them can help drive each other - it sounds like some elite competition is exactly what this line spot needs.
3. The Center Competition
Dammit, Jack Miller, I had this entire post ready to go ahead of time and then you went out and had the unmitigated gall to pursue your dreams beyond football. Good luck, and thanks for your four years. I was gonna say nice things about you and project you to an all-B1G team, but fine, don't. It's cool.
Where does that leave Michigan? Definitely in a hole, but not one incredibly large. Fortunately, Michigan's got a ready-made replacement for him - Patrick Kugler. Son of a former Steelers OL, he's got the bloodlines and by all accounts the temperament needed to succeed as a lineman in the Big Ten. At a svelte 297lbs as of last weigh-in, he's added a little to his frame. He isn't the biggest dude out there, but in looking at my since-excised preview of Miller, neither was the man he'll likely replace. Kugler's got a lot of talent. He's technically skilled, blocks downhill, can help on both run and pass plays, and is the right kind of nasty. The sky is pretty close to the limit with him - which is good, considering he's expected to inherit either most or the second-most technically and mentally demanding position on the field. Argue for quarterback; I'll hear you out. But he's got a huge job ahead of him.
Other options for Michigan include Blake Bars, a redshirt junior who profiles mostly at guard but looks to be a little undersized in the current scheme at 281lbs this spring. He is an inch taller than Kugler at 6'5, but he's pretty raw and should be viewed as more of a project at center than Michigan's immediate answer. I have complete faith in this staff's ability to develop O-linemen, but it seems like Michigan might want to go with someone who's played center before.
As I alluded to earlier, Michigan could also turn to Graham Glasgow. The veteran lineman has the smarts to play anywhere on the interior, but again, he isn't accustomed to snapping the ball and making the reads the center needs to make every play. I expect him to get time at center to provide depth, but it seems like he can help Michigan most at guard, which is where we're projecting him to stay.
In short, if we had to handicap this right now after just a few hours of losing Miller, your race would be Kugler, Glasgow, Bars. Fingers crossed Glasgow can stay at guard, because he's needed there.
4. The Challengers: Mostly Tackles
The two names to watch here are Erik Magnuson and Logan Tulley-Tillman, a consensus four-star who at 6-7 caused Brian Cook to remark that "This is what a left tackle from central casting looks like" in his original recruiting post. Since then, the book on Tulley-Tillman is that while the tools are there (and rapidly improving) he's struggled with his weight at times. Early reports out of spring camp are very positive - he will be in a three-way battle with Braden and Magnuson for a starting job.
Magnuson got some time last year due to injuries elsewhere and started in 2013, and he could bump Cole inside/to the other side of the line or Braden to the bench with a great fall camp. It wouldn't surprise me to see Magnuson at left tackle, Cole at one of the guard spots, and Braden on the right, but the most likely scenario here (and one Michigan is probably hoping for) is the experienced guards keeping their places.
5. The Backups: Dawson and Company
David Dawson is the name to watch on the interior, but his lack of starting experience puts him at least a notch behind, at least for now. If someone else (Glasgow) switches to center, then he's the next guy up on the inside.
Fox, Bushell-Beatty, and Samuelson could make some noise in the spring (particularly dependent on which Fox shows up and if he's healthy - if not, he's trending toward medical hardship land), but it's hard to see them running with the ones simply due to returning experience. Newcomers Jon Runyan the Younger (!), Grant Newsome, and Nolan Ulizio need a lot more seasoning before they get some playing time, but it's hard not to be excited about their potential under this coaching staff.
6. What to Expect: Sizeable improvement
I'll keep this short. Michigan needs major improvement from its line this year. Not that it was all that bad last year, but with the staff they've lined up and the experience they're returning anything short of some major strides will be a disappointment. Look for some major improvements in the running game - with QB still a work in progress, that's anyone's guess, but these guys can and should keep Michigan's next gunslinger clean.
There is a very outside chance that your line could radically different, but my hunch is that this staff won't reinvent the wheel much. In that radical scenario, LTT is your left tackle, Glasgow and Cole are your guards, Kugler at center, and Braden/Magnuson/Kalis on the right. But cross your fingers that this only happens due to everyone flipping a switch, not out of dire need.
7. tl;dr: Harbaugh? Harbaugh.
You didn't think I'd write 2300+ words without using his name once, did you? For shame.