After tackles Jalen Mayfield and Ryan Hayes both went down with injuries during the Michigan State game, Michigan’s patchwork offensive line struggled to open any holes.
Mayfield and Hayes both missed the last three games — backbreaking losses to Indiana and Wisconsin and a triple-overtime win over Rutgers. But there’s some hope that the cornerstones of the unit could be back for Penn State on Saturday.
“They’re both practicing, so we’re just working, seeing how quickly they can come back,” offensive line coach Ed Warinner said Wednesday. “They’re both getting out there and doing practice reps so it’s good to see them out there and I won’t say anything other than that but they are not in the training room during practice, they are in gear working out and we’re moving them along and they want to get back as quickly as they can so we’ll see when that is. Both or one might be available Saturday.”
When asked about the injury status of the two tackles, along with center Andrew Vastardis and defensive end Kwity Paye, on Monday, Jim Harbaugh was largely mum, saying only: “Some are possible. Questionable is the word everybody understands.”
If Mayfield, Hayes or both are able to go Saturday, it will be a huge boost to a struggling team. The health of the offensive line has likely led to struggles in the run game, which has produced just 208 yards over the last three contests. The passing game, too, has been inconsistent, unable to produce the same success on short passes and bubble screens that it did with both tackles healthy.
But questionable by definition includes a question, and if Hayes and Mayfield still aren’t ready by Saturday, it will be up to Warinner and the Wolverines to make do. Against Rutgers, Michigan started sophomore Karsen Barnhart and senior Andrew Stueber at tackle, senior Chuck Filiaga and freshman Zak Zinter at guard and sophomore Zach Carpenter at center.
“We’re doing the best we can,” Warinner said. “We lost four starters last year and three starters this year so we’re down seven starters since the Alabama game, but we’re doing pretty good. I’m pretty proud of the guys how they’re sticking together and working.”
The Wolverines’ run game did find more success against the Scarlet Knights after sophomore Cade McNamara replaced Joe Milton at quarterback. If McNamara can carry his momentum against the Nittany Lions, he could give the offensive line a boost even without Mayfield or Hayes.
For now, Michigan’s offensive players are keeping the faith — after all, what else can they do? Warinner has proven himself as an offensive line coach through over 30 years of experience. But if Mayfield and Hayes can get back on the field sooner rather than later, it makes Warinner’s task a whole lot less daunting.
“Coach Warinner does a great job of getting these o-linemen ready,” sophomore tight end Erick All said Monday. “And then produces like crazy and watch him in practice and stuff like that, you can just tell we won’t ever have to worry about our O-Line because he’s got it down for sure.”