The line has already shown great improvement. Fans who remember how painful -48 was to watch, or -21 the following week - this is not 2013's offensive line. It might feel like yesterday, but that's just the embarrassment and sting that still remains from the least Michigan-like team to ever play. This is different.
2014 was a building year. Jack Miller got stronger, Kyle Kalis got more consistent, and Mason Cole built a terrific first impression. But it still wasn't enough. There wasn't nearly enough depth, nor push at the line of scrimmage. They competed - and even did some good things - but it wasn't a Michigan line.
That will start to change. There is a chance - a small one - that a truly physical, pissed off, in-your-face, skilled front five makes an appearance this season. Tim Drevno has done it before, and the only question is how quickly he can get this group to gel. So, let's go underneath the hood at what Drevno has to work with, and what he has to change.
First off, the players have to get stronger. Michigan's line competed against Ohio State pretty well, a sign that they had grown over the course of the season. They also played effectively against Northwestern. But Michigan did not control the line early in the year against Miami of Ohio, or late in the year against Indiana. In fact there was only one time they consistently controlled another team, and that was in the opening game against a formerly FCS-level team.
Early returns here are promising. A couple linemen made drastic weight gains, like David Dawson and Logan Tuley-Tillman. Ben Braden also added some muscle. However, Drevno and Tolbert have gotten the others to actually slim down about five pounds across the board, dropping their body fat and adding both muscle and speed. Kyle Kalis, Mason Cole, Erik Magnuson, Jack Miller, and Graham Glasgow all reported to spring camp a little bit more athletic than last year.
Another important foundation is technique. This group was already pretty athletic, but they were not able to control their blocks or push the line of scrimmage. Technique is often a factor when players who should be able to win one-on-one battles (we'll talk about Kalis and Braden in a minute) aren't doing it. As a contrast, Mason Cole played underweight last year and yet was able to contain some of the best weakside defensive ends because he had the technique to pin them down.
Even a reasonable gain in these players' technique can produce a fairly dramatic effect, and therein lies the best hope for a dramatic improvement in just one off-season. For different players, the light bulb goes off at different times. But none of the players expected to compete for playing time are freshmen, and only Mason Cole is a sophomore. All of them have been in the weight room and the film room now for at least a couple years. Now is about the time that the light bulb goes off, and the linemen take the next step in their craft.
Finally, depth will be key. Michigan was a touch lucky this past year with injuries; but football is not a kind sport, and Michigan may have to rely on some new faces. In fact, that's already started happening. These six played most of the snaps last year:
Jack Miller is the only attrition from a group that got thrown into the fire, so to speak, over the last couple seasons. It's theoretically possible that the five remaining "starters" hold down the job again in 2015, with little or no help from Michigan's young talent. If that is the case, Glasgow would resume his duties at center, and he certainly is the only player on the team with experience at that position.
However, it's likely that, regardless of who mans the center position, there will be new blood and new faces on the line. And that's a good thing. Teams cannot win without depth up front, and that means that Michigan's season will partly be decided by guys like Tuley-Tillman, Dave Dawson, and Patrick Kugler. It's a scary proposition, but also an exciting one.
It's also not out of the question that some of these younger players actually steal starting jobs away from more experienced options. In fact, it happened last year with Mason Cole, and two years ago with Kyle Kalis. The chances that it happens are based in part on what happens at center, and also what Jim Harbaugh does with Erik Magnuson. Regardless, the right side of the line, which underperformed a year ago compared to the left side, will see improved competition for starting roles.
Last season's right tackle, Ben Braden, might be the most intriguing prospect on the team. He has good tools, and the kind of athleticism that would stand out in a combine. Taylor Lewan famously called him "the most physically gifted individual" he had ever seen. Braden struggled last year, though, for two reasons - his technique, and his comfort level with the game.
Braden lacks a mean streak, and too often he never even touched the man he was blocking. Despite all of his great footwork, Braden would freeze sometimes when faced with an oncoming lineman. He also has to learn to use his hands well and really get into his block, without screwing up or second-guessing himself. In a way these issues are all tied together; once Braden feels comfortable using his technique, he will settle into the game and be able to focus on dominating the man across from him.
Braden's partner a year ago, Kyle Kalis, is another who needs to show real progress. Kalis has also struggled with technique, and despite the number of times that Hoke used him as a pulling guard, Kalis was not comfortable in space. He doesn't control his blocks except by sheer strength, and quicker players could elude him easily. But, for a man whose best asset is his strength, he was not pushing people off the line of scrimmage with ease. Perhaps a lingering back issue had to do with this; reports out of spring camp have been positive. Regardless, Kalis was not the right guard that Michigan thought he would be a year ago.
Drevno will have several options. Similarly to a year ago, Michigan's coach will have to identify who the best players on his line are, and then work on getting them in sync with each other. Magnuson might get moved over to tackle, and Graham might play at either center or guard. One thing that Drevno seems to prefer is a strong side of the line with more beef. Braden gained muscle, and David Dawson and Chris Fox outweigh Kyle Kalis by 17 and 11 pounds, respectively. Logan Tuley-Tillman is also a physically dominating option at tackle, based on his 309 pounds.
Here's a very tentative two-deep, based on equal parts speculation and more speculation. The fact that the center position tends to be the most difficult, and requires the longest development, may keep Kugler out of the starting lineup.
It's also important to note that this group will have the course of a season to gel. Hoke's teams rarely improved as the season went on, but hopefully that becomes standard. The potential is there for this group, which has already gotten more athletic and deeper during the off-season, to work on that next step and develop cohesion and technique. This is one of the more talented lines in the Big Ten, and one of the best coached. There's a reasonable chance it will look like it very soon.