BY SETH KLEMPNER
Daily Sports Writer
Published March 5, 2001
INDIANAPOLIS Jeff Backus, Steve Hutchinson and Maurice Williams were drawn to Michigan by its tradition for creating NFL-caliber linemen. In 1997, they added to the Michigan football tradition by winning a national championship and were brought together as a unit in 1998 when coach Lloyd Carr moved Williams from defensive end to offensive tackle during spring practices. Four years later, as the final seconds ticked away at the Citrus Bowl, they finished their careers as Michigan football players by raising the level of expectations for Michigan offensive linemen.
On April 21-22, these three men will yet again create a new standard for excellence. Michigan could possibly have an unprecedented three offensive linemen drafted in the first round of the NFL draft.
"That would be great," Williams said. "It shows the kind of line we had this year, and the pride that Michigan has and the tradition of great offensive linemen coming out here."
During the grueling three days of the NFL combines, where many players were described themselves as being treated like meat, being pulled and pushed everywhere while getting little sleep.
Despite all of this, players are expected to be at their physical peak and perform flawlessly in probing interviews.
"Things are going well, but I am glad it"s over. It"s been a long three days," Backus said before leaving Indianapolis. "You interview with every team, (they go over) all your medical history, MRI"s, x-rays and whatnot"
During their senior season, the three allowed Drew Henson to sit back in the pocket, giving him time to find second and third receivers. The offensive line gave up just 18 sacks and helped Michigan quarterbacks combine for just five interceptions. They also opened up holes for the running backs, allowing Anthony Thomas to break the Michigan career rushing record and average 5.4 yards per carry.
Hutchinson, the most decorated of the trio, was named to his fourth all-Big Ten first team, becoming just the fourth Big Ten player to receive the honor four times. The only other Wolverine to receive that distinction is Mark Messner (1985-88).
Hutchinson is an All-American, was named Big-Ten offensive lineman of the year and was a finalist for the Lombardi award which is given to the nation"s top offensive lineman.
Hutchinson made 33 starts out of 35 games played. He gave up his last sack during the 1999 season in a game where his shoulder was hurt. It is the only sack Hutchinson can recall allowing in his college career.
According to his player representative, Darrel Wills, NFL scouts are very impressed with Hutchinson.
"He is big, tough and fast," he said. "He benched an impressive 31 reps at 225 pounds while running the forty-yard dash in 5.1 seconds (in the top half for offensive linemen)."
Hutchinson, who is expected to be the first of the Michigan linemen taken in the draft, has been projected to go as high as No. 8 in the draft.
Hutchinson and Backus cite former teammate and current Washington Redskins starter Jon Jansen as the offensive linemen they emulate and model their games after. Jansen made the jump from college to the pros smoothly and ended up starting every game his rookie year for Washington on an offensive line that allowed just 31 sacks.
"Jansen does everything the right way, he really works hard," Hutchinson said. (Jansen"s starting) gives me hope. He"s a great player, he deserves everything he gets," Hutchinson said.
After moving to offensive tackle following the 1997 season, Williams saw considerable action as a sophomore and junior while developing his skills as an offensive linemen. But it was not until his senior year that he began receiving national attention.
While several scouts have pointed out his need to bulk up, they also point out his natural athleticism and well of untapped talent after starting just one year on the collegiate level. Even though he was unable to work out at the combine, his excellent performance during the Senior Bowl and strong showing during Michigan"s Pro Day will help increase his draft status.
Wills, who also represents Williams, said Hutchinson and Williams are doing extensive training down in Florida to get stronger and prepare themselves for the NFL tests. They are also making sure that the players do not revert back to old habits while fine-tuning and polishing their technique.
"I am working, trying to get stronger in my 225 lift for Pro Day, three cone drill and technique stuff drill work," Backus said. "I am not in school so that keeps me busy."
Hutchinson "is a big, strong, powerful guy with great feet," Anthony Thomas said. "Backus is a big guy who can maul a guy pretty quickly. Maurice is a big guy with good feet, a good guy for the left side."