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An Early Look At 2017 Michigan Football: Offensive Line Preview

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Michigan v Penn State Photo by Evan Habeeb/Getty Images

The Personnel

Who’s definitely leaving? Three redshirt seniors are going to be saying farewell: Kyle Kalis, Erik Magnuson, and Ben Braden. We’ll... miss... y... eh, I can’t say it. Good luck in the NFL, though - the Shield happens to be desperate for more offensive linemen in this draft, so we’ll see if any of these guys has what it takes.

Who might, or might not, be around? A month ago, it would have seemed implausible that Michigan would be saying good-bye to fourth-year juniors Patrick Kugler and David Dawson, and yet here we are. Neither has made a big dent in the depth chart; Dawson will be taking a grad transfer to an unknown locale, and Kugler may or may not be doing the same. (From what I saw of Kugler in the Rutgers game, I’m certainly not expecting much either way.)

The other big name here is Grant Newsome, who is slowly recovering from a knee injury suffered on October 1st that then required a 38-day stay in the hospital. I would be surprised, and ecstatic, if he made an impactful return in 2017.

Also of note, the 2017 recruiting class - which has been a wild ride already - may have a couple more surprises in store. Michigan is chasing Chuck Filiaga, Mekhi Becton, and Toryque Bateman; I’ll share my thoughts on all of them below.

Photo credit: Joseph Dressler, MGoBlog

So, who’s definitely going to be in town, then? Let’s break this down into manageable chunks, because this might take a while. Mason Cole has announced his return, and he will likely take Michigan’s starting center position. Ben Bredeson did a fine job for a true freshman at left guard, and he’ll be back. Juwann Bushell-Beatty has also seen time at left guard.

Guys who haven’t seen as much much time, but who could still make an impact in 2017, are redshirt sophomores Jon Runyan and Nolan Ulizio, sophomore Michael Onwenu, and redshirt freshman Stephen Spanellis.

And as far as incoming freshmen, Michigan currently has commitments from five guys: Cesar Ruiz, Andrew Stueber, Kai-Leon Herbert, JaRaymond Hall, and Joel Honigford.

In addition to those guys, there are a few walk-ons worth mentioning: former two-star recruit Andrew Vastardis, and unranked recruits Anthony Kay and Greg Robinson. All of them will be redshirt freshmen.

Got all that? Good.

The Depth Chart

A complete shot in the dark as to who will start: Ah, this is the fun part. I will guess Juwann Bushell-Beatty at left tackle, Ben Bredeson at left guard, Mason Cole at center, Michael Onwenu at right guard, and Chuck Filiaga (who is currently not committed) at right tackle. I’ll break this all down in a second.

Right on their heels: Well, the good thing about this (and I mean the only good thing about this) is that Michigan has some young depth filtering into the program, so if you’re picking on young guys to bet on, there are at least a few options.

Cesar Ruiz is note-worthy as a high-ranked center recruit who could push Mason Cole out to another position. (Cole has experience at left tackle, but I’d feel comfortable with him at any of the five positions, to be honest.)

I’m much less optimistic about this scenario than some, even though Cole is a fine left tackle and Ruiz is a phenomenal center prospect. Given the challenges of the position, I simply don’t believe that Ruiz, regardless of his skill level and playing at IMG, is going to be able to lead this offensive line. And ‘leadership’ is the key word there. Playing center isn’t just about being strong enough or having college-level stamina, though it is about those things. It’s also about pressure-packed situations and blitz packages, looking out for teammates and holding them accountable, understanding the emotions of the entire line and keeping the right focus and intensity - in my mind, it shows a lot of confidence in Ruiz to say that he’ll be good in Year 2 of his college career. As a freshman, though, it’s too much.

I also expect someone to challenge the starting guards for playing time. Personally, I’m going to double down on my optimism that Stephen Spanellis (6’3”, 335) could make a mark. He’ll be a redshirt freshman, but I really liked his pad level, technique, strength and flexibility coming out of high school. Some other options at guard, again, I’ll break down in a little bit.

The Projected Starters

As I’ve said above, I’m not willing to bet on Cesar Ruiz making an impact in 2017. Mason Cole gives Michigan an anchor at center, but it still leaves four major question marks at the other positions.

Everyone has slotted in Michael Onwenu at right guard, and despite him being just a redshirt freshman next year, I think most of us are more confident in him than some other parts of the line. He was a phenomenal recruit, he’s as big as a house, and he’s had a full year now to drink lots of whole milk. He’ll be fine.

At left guard, I’d expect Ben Bredeson to continue what he started in 2016. Some have discussed moving him out to tackle, since he was a guard-tackle prospect coming out of high school. But I liked him more at guard then, and I like him a lot more at guard now. He has ‘heavy’ feet, he’s not quick enough laterally, and I don’t like his length out at tackle, either. For pulls and running around corners, he’s fine, but his lateral speed is just not good enough to survive on the outside.

He’ll also need to bulk up to be a real factor at guard. But, even if he’s not a dominant force yet, he’ll be fine, and he’ll only be getting better as time goes on.

Tackle is really the big point of concern. I’ve mentioned Mason Cole and Ben Bredeson at left tackle, but now I’m going to talk about Juwann Bushell-Beatty. Once Grant Newsome went down with injury, one of the things Michigan tried was putting Patrick Kugler in at center and moving Mason Cole out to tackle. But, after some ineffective series, they put JBB in at tackle instead, and the results were much better.

He has some strengths and weaknesses, but I feel like he can improve during the off-season and be a solid option for them next year. His best asset is his length; his foot quickness is far from great, but he can neutralize pass rushes by getting his hands on guys and bullying them around a little bit. He’s strong enough to be a factor as a starter, and his feet are okay enough that I think some practice could make a difference.

At right tackle, I’m extremely hopeful Chuck Filiaga ends up committing to Michigan. He’s a guy I’d be willing to bet on even though he’s just a freshman: 6’6”, 335, with quick feet and good pad level and technique. He moves well for a big guy, and he has the size to dominate defensive ends.

Other Players Of Note

I’ve already mentioned Stephen Spanellis as a guy I think could step out of the shadow and make a case for starting time during the summer. There are a few other options worth considering. One is Andrew Vastardis, a 6’3”, 305-pound walk-on from 2016.

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He’s a strong kid, with good lateral movement, pad level, and ferocity for a guard prospect. He was a two-star recruit out of high school, but I think he played like a three-star.

Another couple walk-ons are Anthony Kay (6’4”, 275) and Greg Robinson (6’6”, 290). Kay is a fireplug, and I really enjoy watching him play. I think he needs to bulk up quite a bit to be a real contender for playing time, but he’s got a lot of other things in his favor. Robinson, meanwhile, would be a very solid tackle prospect out of Hudson, Ohio if it weren’t for his slow footwork; he’s got the size and strength, and he’s athletic enough out in space for me to think he has it in him. Still, I’m not betting on him.

I’m not sure what to expect from Nolan Ulizio; he was a solid commit, particularly given the circumstances, in 2015, but he didn’t flash enough raw potential to bet on him as a redshirt sophomore. Jon Runyan is a guy who’s a sleeper, but he’s gotten a lot more athletic since his high school days and is a good bet to eventually see time at guard.

Let me wrap this up quickly with a couple more thoughts: among the currently committed freshman, the only one I could see getting playing time as a freshman is Kai-Leon Herbert, although the only senior film of Andrew Stueber I have is this and he’s reportedly been a champion of the off-season. Herbert is a solid darkhorse to get playing time, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s the back-up left tackle next year.

And as for the two uncommitted prospects I mentioned earlier, Toryque Bateman and Mekhi Becton are both solid prospects, but they’re not likely to make an impact right away, in my mind.

NCAA FOOTBALL: NOV 05 Maryland at Michigan Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Three Questions

Do they finally inject some manball into the identity of the team? Maybe this is a little harsh, but I feel like something has been missing in the first two years under Harbaugh: we’ve never found ourselves in a big game moment where we knew we could run the ball down the field.

Maybe that’s a lot to ask for, and we might not get it in 2017. But, gosh, I’m hoping.

How quickly is Tim Drevno able to develop the young guys? This is maybe the single most important question for this team. The athleticism is there; the experience is not. It’s that simple.

How much does Mason Cole help his NFL Draft stock? More of a footnote, but I hope that Mason Cole gets a year at center to help solidify his draft stock and make some noise in the NFL. Wherever he plays, though, I’m sure he’ll do well.

Final Verdict

Depth is slowly becoming a real strength of this team, for the first time in what feels like forever. Mason Cole is back at the most important position on the field. These are things to be thankful for.

And yet, even with a decent but underwhelming season for this group in 2016, I’m not sure that next year’s group will clear the bar and make noticeable improvement in 2017. The young guys will develop, sure, and that’s all that matters. But will they be strong enough against great defensive lines? I don’t think they will, and that puts us in a similar boat as 2016.

For what it’s worth, I’m cautiously optimistic about our possible starting five. Tim Drevno has done a great job in both 2015 and 2016 at building these linemen up - obligatory shoutout to pre-injury Grant Newsome, who was playing great, and to Ben Braden, who actually turned into a solid player! (Miracles are possible.) I think we have enough guys who can play well. We just don’t have enough of them, and it will take a lot of work - and no injuries - to even consider a noticeable step forward.