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Michigan Spring Ball O-Line Preview: Who are the 2023 starters and contenders?

The Wolverines have a few holes to fill for their premier position group.

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 04 Big Ten Championship Game - Michigan v Iowa Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Michigan’s front five has been awarded the Joe Moore Award the last two seasons —presented annually to the nation’s top offensive line. The big uglies up front have embraced offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Sherrone Moore’s “SMASH!” mentality and paved the way to consecutive Big Ten Championships and double-digit victories over Ohio State.

However, in as many years, the Wolverines have fallen short in the College Football Playoff and in large part due to Michigan losing the battle in the trenches. How does this unit go from national recognition to national champion in 2023? Firstly, they need to replace some key pieces...again.

Last spring, Michigan had to replace starting center Andrew Vastardis and right tackle Andrew Stueber. Virginia transfer Olu Oluwatimi dominated as the new center in 2022 and was awarded the Rimington and Outland trophies.

Trente Jones initially handled the right tackle responsibilities, but an injury forced Karsen Barnhart into the role, and it was a role Barnhart never relinquished even when Jones was fully healthy.

The Wolverines find themselves in a similar predicament this spring; starting center Olu Oluwatimi and left tackle Ryan Hayes are both gone. Not to mention, the second battle for the starting right tackle position is set to resume between Barnhart and Jones, amongst others.

Three transfers are in the mix, but can they beat out Michigan’s rising talent? Let’s take a look at the possible Michigan offensive line starters in tiers.

Tier 1 - Locks: Trevor Keegan, Zak Zinter, LaDarius Henderson

Trevor Keegan and Zak Zinter are locks to start at left and right guard, respectively. These two have anchored Michigan’s offensive line for over two years and have returned to help propel this unit to the promised land. Zinter ranked third on Pro Football Focus’s (PFF) top returning interior offensive linemen.

Arizona State transfer LaDarius Henderson is not yet on campus (finishing his degree), but he is a lock to start on the left side of the line next season. The former Sun Devil team captain has 29 career starts (19 at left guard, 10 at left tackle) and was considered a top prospect in the 2023 NFL Draft if he had declared.

His scouting report per Pro Football Network:

There might not be an offensive guard prospect with a more exciting blend of physical tools than Henderson. At 6’5″, 310 pounds, Henderson has good height and above-average overall mass. But his chief defining measurable is his length. He has quantifiably elite length, with arms that measure safely over 35″ long.

With his length, skill set, and experience on the left side, Henderson makes perfect sense at left tackle next to Keegan.

Tier 2- Front-Runners: Karsen Barnhart, Drake Nugent

Barnhart has to be considered the leader in the fieldhouse for the right tackle position. Barnhart was named the offense’s Most Improved Player and was recognized as All-Big Ten honorable mention selection.

Stanford transfer center Drake Nugent is unable to go full-tilt in spring ball due to minor surgery, but he is as close to lock as a lock can get to start at center. The former Stanford team captain has 24 starts under his belt and was named PFF’s top returning center in college football.

Nugent is the highest-ranked center on this list and is the most valuable returning one in the Power Five according to PFF’s wins above average metric. The Stanford transfer’s 84.1 run-blocking grade ranked third among all centers in the country this past season. Between Nugent creating holes in the middle and two top-10 running backs in Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards, the Wolverines’ ground game should once again be deadly next season.

Injuries and inexperience with Zinter and Keegan are the only small setbacks keeping him from being marked as the starter right now.

Tier 3 - Contenders: Trente Jones, Myles Hinton, Raheem Anderson, Giovanni El-Hadi

Trente Jones is not going quietly into the transfer portal’s night. No, Jones is back to reclaim his starting position at right tackle. However, he will not be the only one making a run at Barnhart’s spot.

Stanford transfer Myles Hinton (brother of former Michigan defensive tackle Chris Hinton) is a mammoth of a man (6’7, 320 pounds) with 14 career starts at right tackle. He is also recovering from minor surgery so his full potential will not be revealed until the fall.

At center, Greg Crippen — who ultimately redshirted last season — is back for another battle with a transfer and perhaps another battle with a future Rimington Award winner. The redshirt sophomore appears poised for another season as a backup, but with Michigan’s history of injuries along the line, Crippen could be tasked to fill in on the interior as a reserve.

Giovanni El-Hadi is one of the most fascinating players on the team. As a redshirt freshman last season, El-Hadi appeared in nine games and made three starts at left guard. He is one of the fastest-rising internal players and the question for this season is, “Does he remain as a backup guard, or does he compete for one of the starting tackle positions?”

Tier 4 - Dark horses: Reece Atteberry, Jeffrey Persi, Raheem Anderson, Dominick Guidice

Reece Atteberry (right guard), Jeffrey Persi (left tackle), and Raheem Anderson (center) were all second-team Michigan offensive linemen in 2022. Zinter’s durability largely kept Atteberry on the shelf last season, but in crucial action in 2021 against Nebraska, Atteberry played a pivotal role.

Persi had his first career start at left tackle last year against Rutgers and played well in his first meaningful live action. Unfortunately, the path to him winning the starting position in 2023 is highly unlikely.

Anderson played as the second-team center last season after the decision to redshirt Greg Crippen. Anderson is a powerful interior lineman who will be a valuable reserve at center and guard.

Dominick Giudice was recruited as a defensive end. But last year, head coach Jim Harbaugh had an epiphany.

On the In the Trenches podcast, Harbaugh reflected, “I had the idea last Tuesday. Dom Giudice could be a good offensive lineman. I remember recruiting him. He played center. Hey, Dom, you want to go to offense? Yeah, coach, I really do. Dom’s dad texted me saying great move. Then we went to the practice field and in one day it was like, man, I’m not a very smart guy.

“It took me a year to think of this,” Harbaugh said. “I’ve never seen a guy pick it up that fast and play. Tuesday, he makes the switch. Saturday night, he’s pulling. He’s making calls on the right guard. The center, Raheem, was probably telling him what call to make but he’s making calls. He’s pass-protecting and he’s doing stuff. I wish I was a little smarter and thought of that sooner.”

Giudice was unfortunately shelved due to an injury in 2022, but with a full off-season of preparation, he could quickly work his way into the two-deep in 2023.

Tier 5 - Long shots: Amir Herring, Dan Taraboi, Connor Jones, Andrew Gentry, Evan Link, Nathan Efobi

Never say never.