Through criticism, Michigan looks at silver lining with offensive line

Monday, September 10, 2018 - 8:14pm

Senior left tackle Jon Runyan Jr., came under heavy criticism after Michigan's loss to Notre Dame in Week 1.

Senior left tackle Jon Runyan Jr., came under heavy criticism after Michigan's loss to Notre Dame in Week 1. Buy this photo
Amelia Cacchione/Daily

When asked to evaluate his offensive line’s play thus far, Jim Harbaugh predictably offered a rosier picture than what one would have found on an online message board.  

But Harbaugh didn’t even mention the five guys who have played seven of the season’s first eight quarters.

“It was good to see (freshman) Jalen Mayfield get in the game, it was good to see (redshirt sophomore) James Hudson get in the game and do well,” Harbaugh said during Monday’s press conference. “We’ve got good hopes for both those tackles. It’s kind of a race to see how fast they can get up to speed.”

It’s no secret that the Wolverines’ offensive line is the offense’s — and perhaps the entire team’s — bottleneck capping its potential. But Harbaugh has steadfastly stood by his starting five. So why would Harbaugh mention two backup linemen unprompted?

“They’re in the ballpark,” he said of the competition at both tackle spots. “So that bodes well for us. Want depth there. … Whether they’re the best player at the position? Time will tell.”

With two games under Michigan’s belt, the time for Mayfield and Hudson’s possible ascendence is now. Junior quarterback Shea Patterson has flashed his savvy with accurate on-the-run throws and evading pass rushers, but it hardly seems sustainable.

Patterson’s mobility was relatively capped against No. 8 Notre Dame, with three sacks coming on the left side past senior tackle Jon Runyan Jr. The frequency of quarterback hurries allowed by the leaky o-line alarms the naked eye, but the Wolverines are protective of the starting rotation, trying to remain loose and disregard any ire from the fanbase.

“Most people do not understand fundamentally what offensive line play is and what it entails,” said junior backup center Stephen Spanellis. “Someone might perceive something as bad offensive line play that in reality is not on us or they don’t understand what our assignments are, so they don’t know what we’re supposed to do.

“It’s a complicated thing, so people often blame us but we just try to block that out and know that as a unit we’re solid and improving and we’re gonna continue to do that.”

Against Western Michigan on Saturday, the offensive line was being credited left and right for the success of the run game, which amassed 308 yards. Junior running back Chris Evans said “you could drive a car through” the holes they produced. Patterson said the offensive line “had a heck of a game.”

But even against an inferior team like the Broncos, pass rushers made it to the backfield several times. Spanellis admitted that even on some of the successful plays, like Evans’ 27-yard touchdown run, the offensive line missed blocks. Thus, frustration persists as eyes peer to future foes like Wisconsin and Ohio State.

The candid Spanellis, though, sees things from a more assured, theoretical point of view. One of the most intelligent players on the roster, Spanellis explained the nuances of the offensive line schemes academically.

“If we’re in a five-man protection and the call-side tackle has to come down on a blitzing linebacker and leave the end and let him go free, the average fan will say ‘What the hell is that guy doing? He just let up a sack,’ ” Spanellis said. “But no, that’s his assignment, that’s what he’s supposed to do. … You’re gonna have to take the most dangerous guy, in terms of if you’re gonna look at a Pythagorean triangle, the guy that’s inside is closer to the quarterback.”

Harbaugh boils down his offensive line in simpler terms. After praising Mayfield and Hudson, he later circled back to compliment the his starters. Sophomore center Cesar Ruiz was “really good,” junior right guard Michael Onwenu “made a lot strides,” and Harbaugh was “very pleased” with Runyan and fifth-year senior right tackle Juwann Bushell-Beatty.
Harbaugh’s words were a far cry from any animated, overjoyed commendation. But his team continues the wait-and-see approach to display pass-blocking improvement.

“I think we’re close,” Spanellis said. “I’m not an expert, I don’t know when exactly you’ll be able to tell exactly when. But I think we’re gonna get there. I’m not exactly sure what it’s gonna look like, but I’m sure it’ll be great.”

But through two games and with much still to improve, impatience can justifiably grow.