In early March, as the Michigan football team geared up for a spring season that would never happen, the biggest question it faced was who would start at quarterback. But while that battle was destined to dominate spring ball discussion, the question of the Wolverines’ offensive line came a close second.
A year ago, Michigan featured one of the nation’s best offensive lines, allowing sacks on just over five percent of pass plays, a three-year low for the program. That offensive line, though, was anchored by a trio of seniors and junior center Cesar Ruiz — all four of whom were selected in last month’s NFL Draft.
So heading into spring ball, the Wolverines faced the daunting task of filling out the rest of the unit around returning right tackle Jalen Mayfield.
Then, of course, came the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the cancellation of all 15 spring practices. Now, more than two months after the NCAA shuttered all winter and spring sports seasons, the questions facing offensive line coach Ed Warinner and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis are myriad. The answers, not so much.
“We feel like we’ve got a good nucleus of guys that have played in games, whether it’s been late in games or contributed as starters,” Gattis said earlier this week. “… But that’s a big concern. We were going to have a huge competition to figure out who our best five was.”
Gattis, though, remains confident in Michigan’s ability to mold an offensive line by the scheduled start of the season, just over three months from now. Even with Mayfield as the sole returner from last year’s primary unit, Gattis feels that he has three starters coming back, citing redshirt sophomore Ryan Hayes and redshirt junior Andrew Stueber’s starting experience.
Hayes started at left tackle in two games last season for an injured Jon Runyan. Stueber, meanwhile, started two games in 2018 and was locked in a preseason battle with Mayfield for the starting right tackle spot last season before tearing his ACL in August.
And while all three of Gattis’ “returning starters” have primarily played tackle thus far, he isn’t concerned.
“That’s ultimately the number one job that we’ve gotta be able to decide is who is the best five,” Gattis said. “Not necessarily, this guy plays this position or maybe he’s played that position before in the past, but to mix them all in.”
The challenges, then, are filling out a top five and molding them into a cohesive unit — two tasks made significantly more difficult by the loss of spring ball. “I’m excited about the players that we have, but I think with missing spring ball, the challenge is getting those guys caught up to speed as a group,” Gattis said.
Still, Gattis remains optimistic. He knows replacing four NFL-caliber linemen won’t be easy, especially when the interior options all lack starting experience. But it’s also a challenge Michigan has prepared for in recent years, with improved offensive line recruiting and a focus on developing its next generation.
“I think actually, we could be a little bit more athletic up front, I think that’s going to help us significantly in the run game,” Gattis said. “But I think the challenge for this group will be catching up to our previous group in the pass protection game.”
And with each passing day the Wolverines are limited to Zoom calls and emails, that challenge gets a little bit harder.