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5 questions on the offensive line for Michigan in 2018

Two starters inside are absolutely set. The questions start with the three other spots, as well as how much the whole unit can improve under Ed Warinner.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Jim Harbaugh provided a boiler-plate analysis of his offensive line during Monday’s media availability.

“The offensive line, I think, is ascending very, very nicely,” he said. “Coaching the heck out of it. The guys are working hard. I think we’re moving people better than we have. It’s been a big difference. That’s another position group that’s playing very well.”

With Cesar Ruiz and Ben Bredeson as locks at center and left guard, respectively, the questions come from everywhere else.

Even if the answers won’t emerge from the submarine, here are five questions for the offensive line 17 days out from Notre Dame.

Who protects the blindside?

No injury has thrown the Michigan offense out of whack as much as Grant Newsome’s multiple-year knee injury.

In 2016, it forced current New York Jet Ben Braden to slide to the outside and push freshman Ben Bredeson into key games against Iowa and Ohio State. In 2017, Michigan lost Mason Cole from his natural position at center — he already is the starter for the Arizona Cardinals — and moved him to left tackle, leaving Patrick Kugler to communicate blitz pickups for one of the worst pass-blocking units in the country last year.

Despite Newsome expressing optimism towards his return, he barely gets mentioned in either of the tackle competitions. That leaves senior Juwann Bushell-Beatty and fourth-year junior Jon Runyan Jr. to battle with freshman Andrew Stueber and D-line convert James Hudson.

Bushell-Beatty started seven games at right tackle in 2017, while Runyan started there in the Outback Bowl. The latter was fine, but the former traded thunderous run-blocking with “ole!” pass protection.

Aaron McMann at MLive reported Bushell-Beatty currently leads at left tackle with Hudson pushing. Ben Bredeson said this week Hudson needs to perform every down.

“He’s become much more consistent,” Bredeson said. “There’s been some days where James was lights out, couldn’t get by him. And then there’s some days that that was not the case. Overall, he’s been able to stack a few days.”

If Bushell-Beatty and Hudson aren’t ready, the 6-foot-4, 310-pound Runyan may become a Mason Cole-esque option. Not ideally-sized, but technically sound.

The other tackle?

Whereas Bushell-Beatty and Runyan started the last eight games in 2017, Nolan Ulizio manned the right tackle spot in the first five. It didn’t start well, as he allowed multiple sacks versus Florida. He eventually got the hook after Michigan State.

Assuming left tackle is figured out, Runyan looks to be a near-lock on the other side. First off, he’s one of the two linemen made available this week for the media. He talked extensively on the development of the offense to a more RPO/spread look, which fits his more athletic frame.

The staff is showing confidence towards the junior, and the only reason the answer here isn't a slam dunk is due to the uncertainty on the blindside. Should Runyan have to move, freshman Jalen Mayfield — at 6-foot-5, 296 pounds — is already the right size to play from Day One.

Rashan Gary has gone against the Grand Rapids Catholic Central product during camp, and says, “he’s seen the hunger.”

A safe choice might be Runyan takes over the left side, while Bushell-Beatty continues mauling as a road-grader on the right side. With the athleticism of the freshmen options, it would certainly be a fallback plan.

Why hasn’t Big Mike locked down the right guard spot?

The imagery is simply tantalizing. With Ruiz lining up next to Onwenu, that’s nearly 700 pounds of Big Ten smashing beef at center and right guard.

However, the 6-foot-3, 350-pound Onwenu is currently tussling with junior guard Stephen Spanellis.

With the concerns over the former’s conditioning, Spanellis may be the best down-to-down option. He started coming on late as a sixth linemen, caving a Minnesota defensive end here for a Karan Higdon touchdown.

At 6-foot-5, 300 pounds, he may also fit more with the new offense than Onwenu.

“It’s less 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end) and downhill running game,” junior running back Chris Evans said. “It’s more spread out a little bit for the quarterback. That kinda mirrors my game, what I did in high school.”

Expect some rotation, especially in short-yardage situations. Onwenu can push back the best of them, but until he proves he can play 100 percent every snap, Spanellis seems the more consistent option.

Can the line perform against an elite front?

In Michigan’s five losses last year, they averaged 87.4 yards a game on the ground, with less than three yards a carry. While some of those are mitigated by John O’Korn’s sacks, it still reflects an inability for the offensive line to perform against the better defenses on the schedule.

That’s not to say there were no bright spots in 2017. They gained over 200 rushing yards against Florida — the No. 25 S&P rush defense — and nearly 200 against the No. 6 unit in Purdue.

There were the dual 300-yard games against Rutgers and Minnesota, and when you remove the five sacks the Wolverines averaged nearly five yards a pop against Ohio State.

With top defenses on the horizon in Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Michigan State and the Buckeyes, Ed Warinner has been tasked with taking the No. 14 S&P rushing offense, and make it work against the big boys.

The obvious: Can they pick up a stunt?

Whether grading with the eye test or the stat sheet, Michigan was one of the worst pass-blocking teams in the nation last season.

There were the two quarterback injuries. We already linked one from above, but here’s the other one, in case you had forgotten.

By the way, that’s an obvious blown pickup from — yes, I’ll mention it, again — current NFL starter Mason Cole. Last year’s woes lie at the feet of the Drevno-Frey-Hamilton miscommunications.

The trio also fielded a unit that allowed nearly three sacks a contest, good for No. 114 nationally. Ben Bredeson stressed Warinner has boosted the line’s cohesion this offseason.

“From a personality standpoint, we all fit in really well together,” he said. “There’s no outcasts, you know, not anything like that. Sometimes it’s just playing next to somebody – is different than knowing a guy. Some play (a little different than others) so, it takes a certain number of reps I feel. And we definitely have that now. From last year to spring ball to now, I feel a lot better with it.”

There was also tons of talk of simplifying schemes, focusing on players simply getting a hat on a hat.

It’s been over a decade since Michigan fielded an all-around excellent line — probably since the Jake Long/Adam Kraus/David Baas lines of the mid-2000s. The final question is: can Warinner get these players to that level?

At first glance: no. However, Warinner took some castoff pieces on Ohio State’s lines, such as Billy Price and Pat Elflein, and turned them into professionals.

Never say never with Michigan’s line in 2018.