One of the most holy contributions of sports to society is the unanswerable barroom sports superlative. Usually discussed between a group of good friends in the corner of some seedy bar, no discourse can reach a higher plain than high school buddies going toe-to-toe on what kind of numbers John Havelicheck would put up in today’s NBA, or co-workers knee-deep in the weeds arguing about whether or not 2006 Boise State has a claim to a National Championship (they do).
Arguably the best of these superlatives is the “position group university” argument that has raged rabid among fan bases ranging in relevancy from current powerhouses to those trying to forcibly insert Doug Flutie and Ron Dayne into the conversation. It’s so prevalent that ESPN decided to weigh in with their very linear take on the subject earlier this month, with Michigan ranking No. 5 for offensive line, and unranked for defensive line — rankings I intend to disprove.
In the College Football Playoff era, discussions of positional dominance have typically revolved around the college football elite, but there are some schools that have been able to scrape and claw with the typical powerhouses to enter these conversations. For example, Wisconsin could make an argument as either running back or offensive line ‘U’. Or how about the Iowa tight ends, who seem to have access to some type of hybrid super corn not available to the general population.
If Michigan has any claim to one of the coveted spots under Jim Harbaugh, that would undoubtedly be along one of the lines. Even before Aidan Hutchinson was physically abusing offensive tackles on his way to being the No. 2 pick in the draft, and the offensive line was regarded as the best in the country, Harbaugh was recruiting and developing elite talent along the offensive and defensive lines.
Taking over for Brady Hoke — who was a good recruiter but lackluster developer of talent — the first order of business for Harbaugh was salvaging the talent he had on the roster.
Jon Runyan was a three-star who looked outclassed in his first game against Notre Dame but is a fringe Pro Bowler in the NFL now, and Ryan Glasgow was only mentioned by the most committed of Michigan fans before his breakout season in 2016. The track record is there, the accolades are there, one just needs to know how to frame the argument.
The following two-part article is my best attempt to present this argument in a way that would allow you to hold your own in the deepest of superlative debates in favor of Michigan’s positional dominance along the offensive and defensive lines in the last half decade or so.
Any somewhat credible position should be founded in concrete facts and the argument itself should be based around a clear criteria. Most of these barroom arguments I have taken part in are formulated around the general premise of “which school has produced the most dominant players most consistently throughout the history of that program?”
While this is a perfectly fine argument, the conversation can devolve into sports debate purgatory rather quickly when you start arguing Heisman winners who were already grandfathers by the time of the Tet Offensive. Depending on the age of your target audience, the accolades of Steve and Chris Hutchinson (no relation) might mean little to nothing.
So this will focus only on the Harbaugh years beginning with 2016, when he was able to bring in his first full recruiting class and had an entire year of development with what remained of Hoke’s players.
As far as metrics of success, I will keep it relatively simple and measurable, and will value a combination of high draft picks and national and conference accolades. NFL production will not come into play here, as there are way too many other factors that determine success at that level. Anyone you were positive was going to be an impact player drafted by the Lions or Jets during this stretch immediately saw their odds of success diminish drastically once they put on that jersey.
2016 Season (‘17 Draft)
Jonathan Allen (DE): 1st Round Draft Pick, First Team All-SEC
Cam Robinson (T): 2nd Round Draft Pick, All-American, First Team All-SEC
Dalvin Tomlinson (DT): 2nd Round Draft Pick
Jonathan Allen (DE): All-American, First Team All-SEC
David Sharpe (T): 4th Round Draft Pick
Caleb Brantley (DT): 6th Round Draft Pick, Second Team All-SEC
Joey Ivie (DT) 7th Round Draft Pick
Martez Ivey (G) : Second Team All-SEC
Garret Bolles (T): 1st Round Draft Pick, First Team All-Pac 12
Isaac Asiata (G) : 5th Round Draft Pick, Second Team All-Pac 12
JJ Dielman (C): 5th Round Draft Pick
Sam Tevi (T): 5th Round Draft Pick
Hunter Dimick (DT): First Team All-Pac 12
Best of the Best
Taco Charlton: 1st Round Draft Pick, First Team All-Big Ten
Chris Wormley: 3rd Round Draft Pick, First Team All-Big Ten
Ryan Glasgow: 4th Round Draft Pick, Second Team All-Big Ten
Erik Magnuson: First Team All-Big Ten
Kyle Kalis: Second Team All-Big Ten
Ben Braden: Second Team All-Big Ten
Mason Cole: Second Team All-Big Ten
Choosing to start with the 2016 season as opposed to 2015 (Harbaugh’s first season) could easily be considered cherry picking my data, but I could not talk myself into either giving him credit for the successes (Graham Glasgow drafted in third round and Willie Henry in the fourth round), nor could I fault him for a lack of star power in the draft or a lackluster recruiting class that was cobbled together late in the process.
After an impressive 10-win campaign that was played almost entirely with Hoke’s players, the 2016 season was the first season Harbaugh was really able to inject his DNA into the team, and it showed on both the offensive and defensive lines.
Noteworthy successes such as Chris Wormley and Taco Charlton were already productive players along Michigan’s competent defensive line before Harbaugh arrived, but improved steadily on his watch. The offensive line was given new life playing under Harbaugh and Tim Drevno, and players like Erik Magnuson and Ben Braden were completely transformed from their early years under Hoke.
While the 2016 season played out similar to Game of Thrones — beginning beautifully and ending in complete disaster — it cannot be forgotten Michigan was 9-0 going into the Iowa game and were the No. 2 in the country in November. The depth and quality of this class, particularly on defense, can be credited to both Hoke and Harbaugh. But the on-field success of this team and the reclamation of the offensive line is why Harbaugh ultimately gets credit for these accolades.
The defense in 2016 was flat out elite, finishing fourth in the nation in yards per game and sixth in scoring defense with 16.4 points per game. They only allowed more than 30 points twice, in losses to Ohio State and Florida State. Before those disappointing results, Michigan was holding opponents to 10.9 points per game.
In terms of overall drafted players, no one in the country, not even Alabama, could compete with Michigan, who saw a program record 11 players taken in the 2017 NFL Draft.
There were some other really strong classes along the line in 2016. Some coming from predictable powerhouses like Florida and Alabama, while some other schools like Utah and Pittsburgh were surprising in their depth and quality.
Michigan tops them all though, with a whopping seven first- and second-team Big Ten players along both lines, and three defensive linemen taken before the fourth round. Headlined by a pair of First-Teamers on the defensive line in Charlton and Wormley, this season was a masterclass in talent development and team improvement.
2017 Season (‘18 Draft)
Mason Cole: 3rd Round Draft Pick, Second Team All-Big Ten
Maurice Hurst: 5th Round Draft Pick, All-American, First Team All-Big Ten
Rashan Gary: First Team All-Big Ten
Chase Winovich: First Team All-Big Ten
Ben Bredeson: Second Team All-Big Ten
Mitch Hyatt (T): First Team All-ACC
Tyrone Crowder (G): First Team All-ACC
Justin Falcinelli (C) : First Team All-ACC
Clelin Ferrell (DE): First Team All-ACC
Christian Wilkins (DT): First Team All-ACC
Dexter Lawerence (DT): First Team All-ACC
Best of the Best
Bradley Chubb (DE): 1st Round Draft Pick, All-American, First Team All-ACC
BJ Hill (DT): 3rd Round Draft Pick
Justin Jones (DT) 3rd Round Draft Pick
Kentavius Street (DT): 4th Round Draft Pick
Will Richardson (T): Second Team All-ACC
Tony Adams (G): Second Team All-ACC
Coming off back-to-back 10-win seasons, there was a confident optimism surrounding the program going into 2017. Michigan was once again stout on both lines with some of Harbaugh’s recruits such as Rashan Gary and Ben Bredeson beginning to see meaningful playing time and make a serious impact.
It was a combination of Harbaugh and Hoke players that ultimately make this 2017 class special, headlined by consensus All-American Maurice Hurst and several All-Conference players including Gary, who was a unanimous First Team All-Big Ten player.
What stands out about this class to me is the absolute dominant penetration in the backfield by the defensive line. Gary (11.5), Hurst (13) and Chase Winovich (19) produced the best tackle for loss total from any Harbaugh defensive line to date. These are uncommonly high numbers and cannot help but raise the question — what on earth would this 2017 team have looked like with even semi-competent quarterback play?
This Michigan group is not as deep as the Alabama or Clemson classes primarily due to turnover on the offensive line from Hoke guys to Harbaugh guys. The switch to guys like Bredeson, Cesar Ruiz and Runyan Jr. would take some time, although Bredeson making the Second-Team as a sophomore was foreshadowing things to come.
The rushing numbers were still solid, and Karan Higdon emerged as a legitimate No. 1 running back, finishing six-yards shy 1,000. Though Michigan finished as the 33rd ranked rushing attack with 212 yards per game, it was fifth in rushing touchdowns with 41.
The top class was for me a three-team race between Alabama, Clemson, and the surprise winner NC State. I ultimately valued NC State’s combination of high draft picks (four defensive linemen taken before the fifth round) and All-Conference honors as the strongest resume.
Clemson may feel slighted here because its insanely talented defensive line decided to return for one more year and lacked the requisite draft picks, but its patience in 2017 would be rewarded the following year. Notre Dame also had two All-Americans on the offensive line in Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey but if they wanted to be respected in any type of honest debate, they would stop hiding behind their NBC deal and join a conference. I said what I said.
2018 Season (‘19 Draft)
Rashan Gary: 1st Round Draft Pick, First Team All-Big Ten
Chase Winovich: 3rd Round Draft Pick, First Team All-Big Ten
Jon Runyan: First Team All-Big Ten
Ben Bredeson: Second Team All-Big Ten
Cody Ford : 2nd Round Draft Pick, First Team All-Big Ten
Bobby Evans: 3rd Round Draft Pick
Ben Powers: All-American, First Team All-Big Twelve
Dru Samia: 4th Round Draft Pick, First Team All-Big Twelve
Quinnen Williams (DT): 1st Round Draft Pick, All-American, First Team All-SEC
Jonah Williams (G): 1st Round Draft Pick, First Team All-SEC
Ross Pierschbacher (G): 5th Round Draft Pick, Second Team All-SEC
Isiah Buggs (DT): 6th Round Draft Pick, Second Team All-SEC
Best of the Best
Clelin Ferrel (DE): 1st Round Draft Pick, All-American, First Team All-ACC
Christian Wilkins (DT): 1st Round Draft Pick, All-American, First Team All-ACC
Dexter Lawerence (DT): 1st Round Draft Pick, First Team All-ACC
Austin Bryant (DE): 4th Round Draft Pick
Mitch Hyatt (G): All-American, First Team All-ACC
Tremayne Anchrum (T): Second Team All-ACC
Sean Pollard (G): Second Team All-ACC
The 2018 season was the first season that felt like it was fully Jim Harbaugh’s team. Arguably the most talented team to take the field in the last decade for the Wolverines, this 2018 team had stars and impact players all over the place — so much so, it makes what happened on the field that season all the more perplexing.
Michigan was denied elite status in this class due to the outrageous strength of the senior-heavy Clemson class, and some elder statesmen lingering along the offensive lines in the Big Ten that kept Ruiz and Onwenu from registering high marks here.
There is no shame in what Michigan accomplished on the lines this year, in fact, it was downright impressive. Gary, Josh Uche and Winovich (along with Devin Bush and Khaleke Hudson) provided strong pressure on the quarterback despite lacking some of the more eye-popping stats registered the previous year. The defensive tackle position took an obvious step back after the graduation of Hurst and would remain one of the “weaker” position groups on this team.
Michigan’s offensive line also showed tremendous improvement and paved the way for the first 1,000 yard runner (Higdon) since 2011, and was probably the most cohesive unit under Harbaugh up to this point. The overall rushing numbers were not eye-popping (4.37 yards per carry, 177 yards per game, 26 touchdowns), but demonstrated consistency that would become expected from the offense every year.
Alabama is in the most inarguable period of dominance since Yale was really cooking around the end of the Civil War (15 National Championships between 1876 and 1907), so I admittedly tax them slightly for their own success. Ultimately, even with the Bama tax and a slight knock on Clemson for miraculously getting its entire defensive line to return despite first round projections on several players — I could not possibly give the edge to Michigan over Clemson here.
If it weren’t for All-American Beau Benzschawel getting in the way of Bredeson and Tyler Biadasz in front of Ruiz, Michigan would have had somewhat of an argument this year, albeit a fruitless one. As it stands, the Wolverines have to settle for a tie for second place behind what is probably the most dominant linemen class that will be mentioned.
Even if you remove the governor on this argument and open it up to Clemson and Alabama, Michigan still has a strong case as “Lineman U” during this run. I give a lot of credit to Harbaugh here for coming in and squeezing every drop of talent from both lines while putting seven of Hoke’s linemen into the NFL, when none but Gary seemed like a lock for that honor upon their arrival.
Look for Part 2 of this series next week as I really round this argument into shape with some of Michigan’s most impressive classes to date.