For offensive line, it's a put up or shut up season
Hype is one thing, but results are another.
Eight months of dust from the Michigan football team’s 8-5 season have settled, baring sky-high expectations for what the more experienced, healthy and Shea Patterson-led Wolverines can accomplish in the 2018 season.
But perhaps all of that is moot if the offensive line doesn’t follow suit and complement a championship-level defense. Sure, the running back tandem of senior Karan Higdon and junior Chris Evans found success in the run game, but that’s where the 2017 offense started and ended. Blame John O’Korn and redshirt sophomore Brandon Peters for sloppy passing in the 2017 season if you’d like, but it was undoubtedly exacerbated by lackluster pass protection that ranked 117th in the nation in adjusted sack rate.
“I think they took a lot of blame for a lot of things that, maybe from the outside, lots of fingers pointed at that direction,” said new offensive line coach Ed Warinner, “but not always are the fingers accurate.”
Now, coach Jim Harbaugh has named a starting quarterback before game day for the first time in his four-year tenure at Michigan in hopeful wunderkind Shea Patterson. It is no longer give and take between the o-line and the man behind them — sophomore starting center Cesar Ruiz could tell you that.
“In practice you can feel the energy, you feel everything,” a hoarse Ruiz said, noting a sore voice from yelling at practice. “We’ve come a long way. … Our offensive line will be a strength of our offense this year.”
Given last year’s debacle, calling it a “strength” sounds far-fetched. But with the additions of nutritionist Abigail O’Connor, strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert and offensive line coach Ed Warinner, the group is unabashedly talking the talk about the physical and mental progress they have made.
“(I’ve added) 20-25 pounds since last year,” said junior starting left guard Ben Bredeson. “It's huge, it’s night and day, I love it. Just from a strength perspective, sometime you have to compensate with technique to add a little power in there, but now I don’t have to do that.
“If you look across the board, everyone looks a lot better, a lot stronger. The biggest strides are with the o-line … with coach Warinner simplifying everything, he’s an excellent teacher.”
Warinner’s track record is proven — 13 players he’s coached in the past 10 seasons have gone to the NFL. His oft-praised football wisdom and fiery attitude were welcomed by the linemen, who cite his methods of streamlined pre-snap reads as part of their developed chemistry and “simplification” of the offense. Redshirt junior Jon Runyan Jr. noted that a lot of the adjustments are now coming only from the center and quarterback as the offense looks to integrate more run-pass options. The shake-ups and apparent improvements have inspired confidence in a previously-rattled group.
“If I can win eight out of 10 times against (defensive ends) Chase (Winovich) and Rashan (Gary), I can do well against any one else that we play on the schedule,” Runyan said. “This is honestly the best the offensive line has been, the offense has been and camp — this is my fourth year here. We’re making strides and we’re doing well and this is the best I’ve seen us compete against the defense since I’ve been here.”
Raining claims of progress from guys like Bredeson and Ruiz, though, only carry so much weight. The two linemen, plus 350-pound right guard Michael Onwenu, are already the mainstay anchors of the interior. As far as the two tackle spots? It’s anyone’s game, for better or worse, primarily with Runyan, fifth-year senior Juwann Bushell-Beatty and redshirt freshman James Hudson rotating on both sides of the line.
Bushell-Beatty’s size made him a mauler in the run game, but was often caught flat-footed in pass protection, leaving the door open for Runyan to replace him on the right side in the Wolverines’ Outback Bowl loss last season against South Carolina. Bushell-Beatty’s experience — 22 games, including eight starts — could ultimately foist him into the left tackle spot.
That leaves Hudson and Runyan battling for the right tackle spot, with game-time experience and a handle of the position — Hudson moved from the defensive to the offensive line just last year — shaping it up to be Runyan’s job to lose. That placement makes Hudson, redshirt sophomore Stephen Spanellis, redshirt junior Nolan Ulizio and freshman Jalen Mayfield as the next men up.
With eight days until an iconic showdown with No. 12 Notre Dame, we will know the five starters, and we will know the merit of Warinner and his linemen’s claims soon enough. They understand they are the linchpin of a potentially dynamic offense, yet armed with little but words to show they will be better than last year. Talk is cheap, but maybe the grandiosity of their remarks isn’t unfounded.
Ruiz called the offensive line a strength. Why?
“You’ll see,” he said. “We’re gonna work, that’s all I can say.”