Position Previews 2016: Offensive Line

Sunday, August 28, 2016 - 10:46am

As the final days count down until game week — starting Aug. 29 before the Michigan football team opens the 2016 season against Hawaii on Sept. 3 at Michigan Stadium — the Daily breaks down each position group heading into the upcoming season. We wrap up the offense with the unit’s protection on the line.

After a rough series of years that leveled constant criticism against the offensive line, this is the situation the Michigan has been looking for, to some extent: four starters back, three fifth-year seniors, on a unit hoping to pave the way for the running game that has brought success in the past.

There is one hiccup, though. The one starter the Wolverines lose is a big one, literally and tactically: third-round NFL Draft pick Graham Glasgow was the unit’s star at center last year.

Here’s how Michigan looks in his absence:

Who’s back: Fifth-year seniors Erik Magnuson, Kyle Kalis, Ben Braden and Ben Pliska; redshirt juniors Patrick Kugler, David Dawson, Greg Froelich; junior Mason Cole; redshirt sophomore Juwann Bushell-Beatty; sophomore Grant Newsome; and redshirt freshmen Jon Runyan and Nolan Ulizio.

Who’s not: Glasgow and Blake Bars

Who’s new: True freshmen Ben Bredeson, Michael Onwenu, Stephen Spanellis, Anthony Kay, Greg Robinson, Anthony Vastardis and Carl Myers.

Stats in 2015: Magnuson (right tackle), Kalis (right guard), Braden (left guard) and Cole (left tackle) each started all 13 games.

Contenders: It’s a mixed bag for the Wolverines, with a lot of talent returning but also a lot gone in the form of Glasgow. How they replace their leader from last season will go a long way toward determining their success this season.

Offensive coordinator Tim Drevno said last week that four of the starters would be locked in if the season had started that day: Magnuson at right tackle, Kalis at right guard, Cole at center and Braden at left guard.

Magnuson (6-foot-6, 305 lbs.), Kalis (6-foot-5, 305) and Braden (6-foot-6, 335) have all grown up on this line. They each took their lumps as young players during the 2013 and 2014 seasons, when the offensive line was a severe weakness and the team sputtered to a combined 12-13 finish. They admit those were rough years, but with experience and coaching from Drevno and Jim Harbaugh, they have made big strides.

Cole will be tasked with replacing Glasgow at center after moving there in the spring, and he may also have the job of being the unit’s leader, as Glasgow was. That role will be critical — when they had success last season, Harbaugh and the rest of the line credited Glasgow with much of it. For a unit that relies on chemistry and consistency, it’s tough to overstate how important the main cog is. The 2014 opener against Appalachian State, when Glasgow was suspended, was the only game Michigan has played without him since 2012.

Meanwhile, former coach Brady Hoke surprised many by naming Cole the starter at left tackle for his first career game in 2014, and Cole hasn’t relinquished the spot since. Though the 6-foot-5, 305-pound junior has made all 25 of his starts at left tackle, the coaches have praised his intelligence and versatility. They say he can play any position on the line, and he’s one of the team’s most important players, because after him, the depth of the line drops off. Magnuson, Kalis, Braden and Cole have 104 career starts combined. The rest of the team has one.

Which brings us to the left tackle position. Sophomore Grant Newsome has that one remaining start, from last year at Minnesota, when he opened the game as a sixth offensive lineman outside of Cole. The 6-foot-7, 318-pound sophomore came out of spring camp as the favorite to start at left tackle, but the coaches have been impressed by Bredeson, a 6-foot-5, 310-pound true freshman. When Drevno spoke last week, left tackle was the only unsettled spot.

Whoever wins that competition could play almost all of the snaps this season along with the other four. The offensive line almost never rotated last year, but for a minor injury here and there, choosing instead to maintain the continuity.

But outside of the main six, Harbaugh said 6-foot-3, 350-pound freshman Michael Onwenu — the biggest player on the team by 15 pounds — is one of his favorite players. Redshirt junior Patrick Kugler has always provided depth, though he has seen very little game action. Redshirt sophomore Juwann Bushell-Beatty could also add depth, but he’s also unproven.

Edge/Prediction: From right to left, Magnuson, Kalis, Cole and Braden are settled at their spots. Drevno said the competition at left tackle is tight, and he hasn’t been afraid to play true freshmen on the line, most recently in his last job at Southern California.

We’ll predict Newsome gets the nod, though. His consistency and experience from last year are assets. But Bredeson could see the field at some point, too. It could be in relief of an injured player at any position — Drevno said he, like Cole, can play in multiple spots. It could also be in a role similar to Newsome’s last year, as a sort of sixth lineman. Harbaugh proved last year with Newsome that he won’t necessarily sit a freshman just to preserve his redshirt if he can help the team. If that’s the case with Bredeson, he’ll find playing time one way or another.