One of the most discussed aspects of the Michigan football team throughout the offseason was how the offensive line would look in 2017, particularly the right side.
It’s been a unique journey for each of Michigan’s 2017 starters. Since they first stepped on campus last year, Mike Onwenu and Ben Bredeson have been poised to be an answer to a decade of underwhelming offensive line performance. On a completely different road to the starting job, it took until the tail end of fall camp for Nolan Ulizio to beat out Jon Runyan Jr. and Juwann Bushell-Beatty and emerge as the Michigan Wolverine’s new right tackle.
Meanwhile, senior Mason Cole has been the elder statesman who’s been through the fire several times before, but there’s also a fifth-year senior (Patrick Kugler) who’s just starting for the first time.
Saturday’s game against a good Florida Gators defense gave the Michigan fan base its first look at all of these players and how this new offensive line might do throughout the 2017 season. In particular, Michigan’s success running to the left side, and some lingering questions about pass protection from the right side, made me want to take a closer look at two of the five: Nolan Ulizio and Mike Onwenu.
I’ll begin with a breakdown of both Onwenu’s run and pass blocking game. Firstly, Onwenu is simply a force of extreme power. Watching the game film over again, he stood out as possibly the hardest hitting player throughout the game. Weighing in at about 350 lbs. (down 40 from last year) Onwenu has a surprising amount of athleticism and speed with a low-to-the-ground hitting force.
Continually, Florida defensive tackles were driven back on their heels into the next level. Every single time Onwenu and Patrick Kugler double-teamed a player, the defensive lineman stood absolutely zero chance.
But my favorite aspect of Onwenu’s game on Saturday was his pulling capabilities. Around eight times he had a perfect pull and block on the opposite side of the line that opened up massive holes for our running backs coming around the edge. Ty Isaac’s huge run for 35 yards and Evan’s electrifying run for 29 yards, both in the first quarter, happened because of Onwenu pulls. Only once did he fail to make a great block on a pull and that was because he was tripped up in the backfield on his way.
Onwenu’s center of mass is so low and solid, that if a player did not beat him with a quick move or a stunt scheme, they were not getting around him. These types of stunts, however, were obviously used in the game. And as soon as a player got a step past him, Onwenu did not have the speed or reach to make up his mistake. Luckily, the three worst times this happened to Onwenu, there was not much consequence: 1. Eddie McDoom dodged the defender and gained 4 yards on a sweep, 2. Isaac evaded Onwenu’s guy and ran 7 yards up the gut, 3. Karan Higdon sped pass the defensive tackle and scored a touchdown. So, these mistakes, thankfully, were not costly but were some of the only blemishes on Onwenu’s game.
At the end of the day, Onwenu is a great asset and he shows his abilities even on runs to the left. He’s better at pulls, in my opinion, than Ben Bredeson is, so expect Michigan to be strategic about that and run to the left a little more often if they need a good gain.
Now, let’s move on to Nolan Ulizio’s performance. Compared to a charging bull like Michael Onwenu, Nolan Ulizio is going to get overlooked in what he does in the run game. But he is so tall and broad, and just strong enough, that he was able to hold in place defensive tackles and ends throughout the day.
Particularly when defensive linemen did not try to rush the backfield and instead stayed home to defend the edge, Ulizio was able to force himself between them and the running lane, and anchor himself enough to protect the integrity of the play. Ulizio clearly has a tremendous amount of upper body power and hand strength, which stood out consistently during the game. He also did well on pulling to be the lead blocker on the right edge.
He is definitely not the fastest lineman on the team, but Ulizio displayed enough speed and athleticism to get out in front of our running backs and do his job. The only real issue I saw with his run blocking game was when he went to the next level to block linebackers. Ulizio struggled to keep in front of the linebacker for more than a split second if he failed to get a good grasp on the defender, which is much more difficult to do than against a defensive lineman. Luckily, we have quick and elusive running backs, and this split second was almost always enough to allow the RB to make a move, but it is a concern and something he will need to work on throughout the season.
The difference between Ulizio’s run and pass blocking was more noticeable compared to Onwenu. As I said in the previous paragraph, Ulizio’s game thrives on his upper body strength. So, when he was unable to get his hands on a player, he was in trouble. Almost all of his errors in pass protection came from a bad first step and slow footwork to make up lost ground. These two issues caused the sack on Speight by Jordan Sherit in the first quarter.
I counted eight more times a bad first step and slowness by Ulizio led to either forcing a rollout, a sack, or an early tackle, like the ankle tackle on O’Korn in the second quarter. This weakness became more pronounced as the Florida front seven sent complex stunts against Ulizio; though he did have a great pick up on a blitz at 11:10 in the second quarter. Florida did not send many safety or corner blitzes to Ulizio’s side so it will be interesting to see how he performs against teams that like to utilize those more in future games.
With all of these critiques being said, however, Ulizio still looked much better than I expected and post-game commentary has described. Unfortunately for him, a lot of defenders did come through the right side of the line, but upon closer analysis, it was actually the fault of poor blocking by tight ends, something Coach Harbaugh mentioned in his post-game presser. In sum, Ulizio really only struggled with his first step to stay in front of defenders, an issue that can be fixed with more playing time, and he looked good for a first game starter. I am confident in him at right tackle going forward, assuming he stays healthy and continues to grow, and shores up some of his footwork concerns.
What does all this mean? Well, it’s still September. Michigan has a lot of room to grow, and you can bet they’re going to call a fair number of plays that challenge certain linemen’s weaknesses to make them improve and keep a diverse run game. As long as these guys stay healthy, they should get game reps and become a better unit overall.