The 2021 Michigan Wolverines’ offensive line was the best at Michigan in the last...15 years? 25 years? Ever?
The transformation from above average to exceptional began last January when former offensive line coach Ed Warriner left for warmer Florida weather and tight ends coach Sherrone Moore took over the room. Moore inherited an experienced and improved group, but a group that had struggled to stay healthy and consistently produce in 2020. Moore re-energized the room and made it known he wanted every player to push each other.
When speaking to The Michigan Daily in September, Moore had this to say:
“We always say that the depth chart is a living organism, so it’s always moving, it’s always shaking, I think the best part of having really good players behind you is that it makes the guys that are the ones to be even better, because if you’re not, your spot can get taken. I think it’s always going to be a battle to see who’s going to be the one that week.”
The final starting group of left tackle Ryan Hayes, left guard Trevor Keegan, center Andrew Vastardis, right guard Zak Zinter and right tackle Andrew Stueber earned their positions by holding off the likes of Trente Jones, Chuck Filiaga, Greg Crippen, Reece Atteberry and Karsen Barnhart.
While coaches speaking about the importance of depth and the “next man up” mentality often feels like lip service, the veracity of these words were tested for Michigan on the road against Nebraska.
At the halfway point of the season, facing an aggressive Nebraska front seven, the Wolverines were battered and bruised. Michigan was a run-heavy team on its lesser work days and a run-only team on its heavy lifting days. Finally, this was catching up to the Wolverines.
Due to injuries sustained before and during the game, Michigan needed to use five different players at the two offensive guard positions. Filiaga, Keegan, Zinter, Barnhart and Atteberry all saw time flanking Vastardis at center. However, this revolving door on the interior did not slow down the offense.
Michigan passed for 255 yards and rushed for 204 yards in this comeback 32-29 victory. It wasn’t as if the Wolverines won by three scores and could coast. No. The Wolverines needed production throughout the entire game from the offensive line and the group responded by demonstrating a resilience in their depth that proved Moore’s words factual if not prophetic.
Resilience against an inferior opponent is one thing, but great players and units are measured by how they perform in the biggest moments of the season. And for Michigan, no moment and no game is ever bigger than Ohio State.
How would Michigan’s front handle its toughest test? The Buckeyes had allowed less than two yards per carry in their four games in October and had been a top three rushing defense in the country since their early season loss to Oregon.
Moreover, playing keep-away from the best offense in college football was imperative to beating the Buckeyes. The Wolverines did not dance around this perceived strength of the Buckeyes nor hide the fact that they needed to keep the ball away from Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud.
Michigan implemented and stuck to a simple game plan to beat Ohio State for the first time since 2011: RUN THE DAMN BALL.
Michigan’s offensive line paved the way for 297 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns, including five from Hassan Haskins. The Wolverines didn’t even face a third down in the second half or even attempt a pass in the final quarter en route to a 42-27 victory.
The performance earned praise and recognition from the late John Madden who called it “as good an offensive line performance as he’s seen.”
After a season of resilience and sustained dominance, the unit earned the Joe Moore Award, which is bestowed upon the best offensive line in college football. While the unit struggled against Georgia in the Orange Bowl, they actually fared better than Alabama in the national championship.
The most outrageous thing about this group is they could be even better in 2022. With Hayes, Keegan and Zinter returning, the line adds Virginia transfer and Rimington Award finalist Olusegun Oluwatimi to fill the void left by Vastardis at center, and an experienced player in Karsen Barnhart/Trente Jones will take over for Stueber at right tackle.
The 2022 offensive line could be the best at Michigan in 15 years, 25 years or maybe ever. But first, they have to be the best offensive line in one year to lay claim to the others.