Jim Harbaugh needs a road-grading offensive line to succeed. The stats at Michigan don’t lie.
Since 2015, the Wolverines are 3-10 when averaging less than three yards a carry. The visions Michigan would smash teams in the mouth a la Stanford just hasn’t fully materialized.
Last year, these struggles combined with shoddy pass protection — nearly three sacks a game allowed — forced Tim Drevno and Greg Frey to find work elsewhere. Enter Ed Warinner.
He inherits a line short on success, but filled to the brim with size and talent. Can the same guy who made 3-stars at Ohio State into NFL draft picks do the same in Ann Arbor?
Let’s get the scary out of the way first: The tackles range from an underachieving fifth-year, a converted defensive lineman, an under-sized stopgap and a smattering of freshmen.
The good news is that each possess a quality on which Warinner can build a foundation.
Juwann Bushell-Beatty looks to be the presumed starter at left tackle. At a position that requires pass-blocking prowess, he...has underwhelmed.
That’s not even close against all-Big Ten end Shareef Miller. Yes, O’Korn steps up in the pocket and completes the pass, but that’s immediate pressure in a one-on-one matchup.
It’s not the size for the 6-foot-6, 318-pounder out of Paramus, N.J. It seems to be a combination of indecisiveness and technique. On the clipped sack above, he leans too far over his feet as Miller rips by him. On this run block against Wisconsin, he simply doesn’t know who to block.
With Warinner’s reported simplification of the blocking scheme, the awareness issue might fall to the wayside. Technique, on the other hand, seems to be a long shot for a player entering his fifth year. You make leaps like that as an underclassman, but for a player his age, it can be hard to learn new tricks.
No matter what, he is an ox in the ground game. Watch him wash away the entire right side of the Minnesota line with Cesar Ruiz.
Realistic improvement for him would be to do that against the Wisconsins of the world, while acquitting himself adequately in pass pro.
His immediate competition this summer is redshirt freshman James Hudson, who arrived in Ann Arbor as a 4-star defensive end in the mold of Willie Henry. The 6-foot-5, 301-pounder from Toledo is incredibly strong and agile for his size.
“Power is his strength at this stage and will likely be greatest asset in his arsenal in college,” ESPN said of him in as a DL prospect. “When fires out low and can get into blockers frame can deliver a pop with hands and push them back.”
Naturally, his main hurdle is understanding the playbook and adjusting to the position switch. Ben Bredeson recently praised his play in camp.
“Absolutely,” he said. “The jump from James from spring to now is huge. From a maturity standpoint, he’s growing up. He knows the playbook better, he’s really gotten into football, really bought into the O-line.
”He’s been killing it.”
Camp praise is only camp praise, but there’s a reason a fifth-year senior has not been announced the starter at this juncture. Hudson may be neck and neck for a starting spot against Notre Dame.
Legacy Jon Runyan Jr. is either the contingency plan at left tackle or the solidified starter on the other side. He is decidedly shorter than Bushell-Beatty and Hudson, measuring at 6-foot-4, 310 pounds. This makes him more in the mold of Mason Cole, who played fine at left tackle out of necessity, but struggled against the better ends of the conference.
Watching Runyan against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl, you notice he is far more disciplined as a pass blocker. The play at 6:45 below is one of many against the Gamecocks.
He keeps his body square and gets under the lineman’s pads. What he lacked last year was great strength, as he fails to push back a linebacker on the sweep at 7:03.
Under Ben Herbert’s strength program, he gained 12 pounds of (hopefully) muscle. While not ideally-sized, he might be the best fit on the blindside with his plus-abilities as a pass blocker. This would give Hudson a year to flourish into an excellent prospect for 2019, and place Bushell-Beatty at his more natural position on the right edge.
The other tackles in contention are either redshirt or true freshmen. Grand Rapids Catholic Central’s Jalen Mayfield earned praise for physically molding himself into a college-ready tackle at 6-foot-5, 296 pounds. Rashan Gary pointed him specifically as someone he’s battled during camp.
Darien, Conn. redshirt freshman Andrew Stueber is a mountain at 6-foot-7, 323 pounds. He is likely one year away from hitting the field consistently, as he needed to adjust from New England competition to the rigors of the Big Ten.
The two other tackles to mention are 2017 opening day starter Nolan Ulizio and the ever-recovering Grant Newsome. Ulizio got pulled after Michigan State, even though his struggles were obvious as early as Florida.
With nary a mention of him throughout the summer, you have to wonder what his future is in Ann Arbor.
Newsome, meanwhile, apparently knows less about his own health than a certain intrepid reporter.
Can someone update me on my medical status. I heard medical and reporter guru @Jamestyoder had the breaking scoop but he blocked me so I can’t see it. Was hoping to find out how my recovery is going and maybe also the next powerball numbers. Thanks in advance James!— Grant Newsome (@grant_newsome) July 23, 2018
In all seriousness, his injury against Wisconsin in 2016 almost led to an amputation. The fact he is doing agility drills this summer is a victory in itself. The chance he sees the field to once again man the blindside? Minimal.
Like Brock Mealer before him, his story is incredibly inspirational.
Final mention is redshirt freshman Joel Honigford, who put on 20 pounds during the spring and summer, but still weighs under 300 pounds. The former 3-star needs more time to develop.
Two of the three spots seem to be locks.
Cesar Ruiz will start at center as a sophomore, and already has the trust of his position coach.
“He did a great job at center. I’m excited about Cesar,” Warinner said to The Michigan Insider. ($) “He’s a leader, he’s very smart football IQ, very, very talented. He has a chance to be a really good player and he took every snap this spring at only one position – center. He will be the quarterback of the offensive line and he’ll be a really good one.”
From New Jersey, Ruiz entered Michigan as the rare lineman whose sole focus in high school was at center. He started there in his final season at the prestigious IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. He now stands a squat 6-foot-4, 319 pounds, much heftier than newly-minted NFL starter Mason Cole.
He had his biffs in pass protection, notably below against Minnesota.
He also formed a dominant run-blocking right side of the line until Wisconsin. The long Karan Higdon touchdown clipped above doesn’t happen without the double-team from Ruiz and Bushell-Beatty.
Once he faced elite linebackers such as T.J. Edwards, though, he fell short.
As a true freshman, though, he forced his way onto the field and contributed to some mashing performances on the ground. By all accounts, he is a far better “quarterback of the line” than Patrick Kugler, so he might be the key to limiting stunt miscues.
To Ruiz’s left is junior Ben Bredeson, possibly the surest bet to succeed on the team. He’s a former top 40 prospect per 247. He hails from Hartland, Wisc., and the home state Badgers wanted him badly. The recruiting pedigree and offers tell the story of a talented dude.
He also has a season and a half of starting experience under his belt. The Newsome injury in 2016 forced Ben Braden outside, thus necessitating Bredeson’s playing time at left guard.
Flash forward to this summer and he is the face of the line. He and Runyan were available to the media, showing trust in their upperclassmen leaders. Already a bull, he gained 12 pounds to tip the scales at 6-foot-5, 320 pounds.
He combines that strength with advanced awareness, as shown on one of the few good runs against Wisconsin. Watch him flare out to stall a free hitter after a pull.
He is the best combination of leadership, size, strength and intelligence on the line this year.
The right guard spot is — perhaps surprisingly — a battle this summer. Junior Michael Onwenu is the 350-pound planetoid Michigan fans all know and love, but he is neck and neck with Maryland junior Stephen Spanellis.
If you need a short-yardage option at guard, look no further than “Big Mike.” Watch Joe Bachie — a very, very good linebacker for the Spartans — get stopped cold when run-blitzing against Onwenu.
He lost playing time due to poor conditioning last year, and the battle with Spanellis signals two things. One, he needs to legitimately weight under 350 pounds to be in his best shape. Two, the offense’s move towards shotgun and spread concepts means a need for quicker linemen like Spanellis.
At 6-foot-5, 300 pounds, Spanellis showed power and feet as a sixth lineman last year, earning a start against South Carolina at center. His growth continued over the last several months.
“After the spring game we sort of slid Steve in (at guard),” Warinner said to 247’s Steve Lorenz. “He had earned the right to have some snaps with the first unit. So he started rotating there with Mike. They’re in a competition there.”
Both will play, but whose style will win out?
The backup pool is deep. Former Army All-American Chuck Filiaga moved down to guard, and is a hoss at 6-foot-6, 341 pounds. He may be in a similar position to Onwenu, where he needs to lose weight to play in the new offense.
Phillip Paea is still transitioning from high school for a few reasons. First, he came to campus as a defensive tackle in the vein of smaller, twitchier Maurice Hurst. He moved to guard and is still learning the offense. Second, he needed to pack 21 pounds onto his frame, and he still weighs under 300 pounds. He is a long-term project.
Walk-ons Andrew Vastardis and Jess Speight both are on the verge of scholarships from Harbaugh. Both are candidates to rotate either at center or guard, since both are under 6-foot-4. By the way, yes, Speight is the younger brother of Wilton (probably the starter at UCLA this year).
For those — including rival fans — that doubt Warinner’s ability to fix the Michigan offensive line, remember what he did in Columbus. Ohio’s 247 scout Bill Greene told this story to Sam Webb about what he accomplished during the 2014 national title season.
“He came to Ohio State and he really took over an offensive line that was depleted in terms of talent, in terms of numbers, and depth,” Greene said. “They were in pretty bad shape, and he just took d-linemen that were failures. A guy like Billy Price, who now is the 23rd pick in the draft...When he came to Ohio State, he was recruited as a d-linemen, and that ended after about three days because he couldn’t play. And Ed Warinner was like, ‘I’ll take him.’ He plays a guard, then they put him at center and the rest is history.”
Minnesota Vikings center Pat Elflein was a similar story as a low 3-star. Simply put, Warinner finds ways to succeed with the parts he has.
With a potential line of all former 4-stars, he already has plenty of talent. Whether it congeals in time for Notre Dame and beyond remains to be seen.