Position review: offensive line

Tuesday, April 2, 2019 - 6:53pm

The Michigan football team's offensive line demonstrated significant improvement between the 2017 season and the 2018 season.

The Michigan football team's offensive line demonstrated significant improvement between the 2017 season and the 2018 season. Buy this photo
Carter Fox/Daily

The Michigan football team’s most important addition for 2018 likely wasn’t a new recruit or even junior quarterback Shea Patterson. Instead, it was new offensive line coach Ed Warinner, hired to fix what was a major area of weakness in the Wolverines’ 8-5 season in 2017.

While the beginning of the 2018 season made the much-maligned offensive line seem like more of the same, the unit improved throughout the year under Warinner’s tutelage. And though the season ended with a thud in losses to Ohio State and Florida, the offensive line’s growth under Warinner bodes well for the future.

Junior guard Ben Bredeson became a leader on the line. Elected a captain by his teammates, Bredeson ended up an All-Big Ten Second Team selection. Bredeson flirted with entering the NFL Draft but ultimately told reporters at a pre-bowl press conference that he planned to return for his senior year.

Redshirt junior offensive tackle Jon Runyan — who made his first career start at left tackle in the season opener — was named to the coaches’ All-Big Ten First Team and joined his father in winning the team’s award for best offensive lineman after steadily improving through the course of the season. Junior guard Michael Onwenu was an All-Big Ten Third Team selection.

Though Michigan loses Bushell-Beatty to graduation, Runyan, Bredeson and sophomore center Cesar Ruiz — an All-Big Ten Third Team honoree — will be back to anchor the unit in 2019. Warinner returns as well, hoping to bring consistency back to a program once known for its bruising offensive linemen.

HIGH POINT: Karan Higdon sat at the podium and made a bold declaration.

“No question, we have the best offensive line in the country.”

Three times in eight minutes, the senior running back gave a variation of that quote.

To be clear, the Wolverines didn’t and don’t have the best offensive line in the country. But the fact that Higdon — Michigan’s top running back — felt like he could make that proclamation, after all the criticism the line received, spoke volumes.

The Wolverines were fresh off a win over then-No. 15 Wisconsin on Oct. 15. Higdon ran for 105 yards, partly thanks to the push generated by the offensive line. The unit had shown improvement in earlier games, but those were against far inferior opponents. This game was a sign that the improvement was the real deal.

For an offensive line that just a month before had to defend itself against all kinds of social media backlash after a season-opening loss to Notre Dame, Higdon’s declaration was a vindication.

LOW POINT: Michigan’s offensive linemen promised before the season kicked off that the unit would be a strength. Because the unit had notably lacked production the year before and needed replacements at both tackle spots, many were incredulous.

After the first game of the season — a 24-17 loss to the Fighting Irish — the incredulity reached a fever pitch.

The running game struggled, gaining just 58 yards. Patterson was sacked three times — one of those a strip sack that resulted in a lost fumble. Even when he got the ball off, Patterson constantly had defenders in his face, and his highly anticipated Wolverine debut ended with a thud.

After the game, the offensive line got the lion’s share of the blame. Fans blasted it on Twitter, laughing at the idea that this unit could ever be considered a strength. After a season when two quarterbacks got hurt behind a lacking line, it seemed like this would be more of the same. Linemen defended themselves, maintaining that fans didn’t understand the full story. But skepticism persisted until Michigan finally demonstrated improvement on the field against a quality opponent.

THE FUTURE: When fifth-year senior offensive tackle Juwann Bushell-Beatty got injured near the end of the season, he sat out both the Ohio State game and the Peach Bowl. The unit sagged a bit in his absence, leaving some question marks in the future. However, Runyan will return for his final season, providing stability and leadership at left tackle.

Sophomore offensive tackle Andrew Stuber earned the start at right tackle against the Gators, indicating that he could be the next man up. Freshman offensive tackle Jalen Mayfield, who saw limited snaps in 2018, is another who will fight for the open tackle job. With an extra year of development under their belts, the two former four-star recruits have plenty to potentially contribute.

Ruiz, Bredeson and Onwenu return for another year to anchor the interior offensive line. Their experience should help onboard younger and less experienced starters, and if Ruiz and Bredeson can continue the momentum from their breakout seasons, it could be a boon for the Wolverines.

Michigan also landed three four-star offensive line recruits in tackles Trente Jones and Trevor Keegan and guard Nolan Rumler. None are likely to start right away, but they give the line more depth and high potential for years to come.

Warinner, too, will coach the offensive line again in 2019. His results in 2018 — taking a unit that was a liability the year before and producing four All-Big Ten linemen — were promising for the future.

This time, with the Wolverines going into the season saying their offensive line is a strength, it’s a lot easier to believe them.