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Can Michigan’s offensive line replicate the blueprint from 1997?

2023 and 1997 share a lot of similarities in the trenches, but can Team 144 replicate the ultimate team success?

Jon Janson #77

The 1997 Michigan Wolverines are the gold standard of maize & blue-clad football for one simple reason – they won a national championship. Although shared thanks to a whiny Nebraska quarterback named Scott Frost, since 1948, the 1997 team remains the only Michigan team to claim the sport’s ultimate prize.

Similar to this year, the unit paving the way to victory was the offensive line.

Michigan’s offensive line in 1997 is widely considered the best in the history of the program, but it didn’t start out that way. Following the 1996 season, the Wolverines and head coach Lloyd Carr were tasked with replacing three-of-five starters including All-American center Rod Payne.

The only two returners were right guard Zach Adami and right tackle Jon Jansen. Jansen was an iron man who would eventually set a U-M record by starting 50 consecutive games. Adami was a team-first player who had started at left guard in ‘95, right guard in ‘96, and moved to center in ‘97.

At left tackle, Michigan turned to redshirt freshman Jeff Backus who would become a stalwart on the blindside in the state of Michigan as a collegiate and a professional with the Detroit Lions. On the interior, the Wolverines took a less conventional path to fill out their guard positions.

Carr had switched Steve Hutchinson and Chris Zieman from the defensive line to the offensive line to compete for the starting jobs due to depth concerns on the roster. Both would eventually win the jobs with Hutchinson becoming a Hall-of-Famer and one of the greatest ever to play the position.

The combination of Backus-Hutchinson-Adami-Zieman-Jansen was an unexpected unit in terms of talent and an unparalleled unit in terms of chemistry. When speaking in 2018, Jansen reflected upon the bond that extended beyond the obvious talent.

“We had a lot of talent, but what made that team special was that we truly loved each other. We wanted to succeed for everyone who had gone through winter workouts and summer conditioning — we were fighting for the coaches too. All our coaches were a part of us — they were our brothers.”

Those five paved the way for Michigan to reach the pinnacle that no other team has been able to replicate. Team 144 this season will hope to share this distinguished honor and it starts with the offensive line.

But unlike the 1997 team, the Wolverines are concrete at the guard position. Returners Trevor Keegan and Zak Zinter both spurned the NFL in pursuit of a national title. Zinter – widely regarded as the best guard in college football – understands that offensive success begins in the trenches similar to the ‘97 squad.

“We say on the offensive line, ‘the team’s gonna go as far as we go,’” he said. “So, you know, we got to be better and we got to lead this team.”

Surrounding these two – just like Jansen and Zieman – will likely be two new faces, one familiar one, and the daunting task of replacing an All-American center. Drake Nugent and LaDarius Henderson didn’t switch over from the defensive side of the ball, but they did switch sides of the country to join the Wolverines.

Nugent – along with fellow transfer Myles Hinton – came from Stanford and will be the starting center, and Henderson, who came from Arizona State, will likely fill the vacant left tackle position.

Hinton will compete for the right tackle spot, but it is more likely to go to the initial 2022 starter Trente Jones, with Karsen Barnhart becoming the multi-faceted back-up at four positions. Does this collection of five starters possess the same potential as one of the most decorated units in the history of the sport? That is a tall task, but where they can match the 1997 unit is in terms of chemistry.

“They hang out together. They’re all like best friends, said offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Sherrone Moore. You can’t see one without the other. They’re a crazy group. I try to stay away from them, because they’re nuts. I love them to death. It’s an amazing group to be around. The spirit, the joy, the fun that they have together is really awesome. And you can just see the chemistry getting built, but you’re really going to feel the full chemistry happen in the fall.”

Team 144 faces the initial expectations of the 1997 team and will also have to win three more games in order to reach the same heights. But with better running backs, a more dynamic quarterback, and a similarly flashy No. 2 on defense, this team has a chance to replicate.

And somewhere Scott Frost will be furious.