Offensive tackle has long been a trouble spot for the Michigan football team.
Midway through the 2016 season, Grant Newsome’s career-ending knee injury forced Ben Bredeson to start at left tackle. He played like you’d expect from a true freshman lineman in the Big Ten: poorly. Bredeson then moved to guard full time last offseason, moving now-NFL center Mason Cole out of position to left tackle in 2017.
Still, the Wolverines hoped to develop Nolan Ulizio, Jon Runyan Jr. or Juwann Bushell-Beatty into a bona fide starter in 2017; all three had been in the program for at least three years.
Instead, right tackle was consistently one of Michigan’s most glaring weaknesses last season. Ulizio started the opener but was pulled by halftime. Bushell-Beatty self-admittedly struggled with confidence. Runyan looked like he did, too.
So began another year of question marks at the position. Though redshirt freshman James Hudson and true freshman Jalen Mayfield generated buzz in fall camp, Bushell-Beatty and Runyan started at right and left tackle, respectively, two weeks ago against Notre Dame. Familiar issues returned. Michigan’s offensive line was out-manned by the Fighting Irish’s front seven, allowing pressure and hits on junior quarterback Shea Patterson throughout.
But the Wolverines didn’t panic after one game. They stuck with the same line, and it paid off with over 300 rushing yards against Western Michigan last week.
“(The line was) much better in week two than in week one but a work in progress still,” said offensive line coach Ed Warinner. “(It was) Jon Runyan’s first two starts as an offensive tackle. He’s played solid and continues to improve there. Juwann Bushell-Beatty has improved, and I think he’s played better as well. I still want them to push and develop.”
It doesn’t mean that Michigan’s offensive line is set, though. Warinner mentioned starting roles are evaluated regularly based off practice and game performances. In his words, “anything can happen moving forward.”
That should perk the ears of Hudson and Mayfield. Both have rotated with the starters in practice — Mayfield takes about 25 percent of his reps with the ones while Hudson gets a “little” more — and both could see larger roles if the starters’ struggles re-emerge.
Warinner already thinks Mayfield is “physically and mentally” ahead of where he should be, even without the luxury of enrolling a semester early.
“Over the summer they’ve come a long way,” Warinner said. “I wasn’t sure with Jalen how the summer would affect him, going through Summer Bridge, but he’s really come on and works every day with the twos and gets some work with the ones every day. His progress is great.”
Despite the extra year, Hudson is also just getting acclimated to the Wolverines’ offensive line. He switched to tackle from defensive end last spring — a change difficult for even the most athletic and cerebral players.
“His growth over the summer and then this fall has been tremendous,” Warriner said. “He’s fully invested now as an offensive lineman. In the spring he was putting a toe in the water to see what he thought. He gave us a good effort and showed some talent, but there were times it was frustrating for him because it was just so new. To go against our defensive ends every day, it’s challenging. He’s way beyond that. He’s gained confidence in himself and his ability to do the job, knowing what to do when he’s out there.”
Both Hudson and Mayfield saw action at the end of Saturday’s game. Given the lopsided score and weak opposition, they couldn’t show much of real significance.
But when asked about the offensive line during Monday’s press conference, coach Jim Harbaugh praised his young tackles unprompted.
“It was good to see Jalen Mayfield get in the game, it was good to see James Hudson get in the game and do well,” Harbaugh said. “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.”
Michigan undoubtedly has a delicate balance to strike with its tackles. Based on their age, neither Runyan nor Bushell-Beatty are long-term answers, and their lapses at Notre Dame put pressure to develop youthful reserves faster. But that can backfire, especially with offensive linemen.
“If you put a young guy in there before he’s ready, you could ruin him, really set him back,” Warinner said. “If you bring him along at a pace he can handle, then you’ve got something for a long time.”
There’s no easy answer for the Wolverines, and it’s still early for Hudson and Mayfield. But the pair do provide a glimmer of hope for Michigan at tackle — finally.
“They’re in the ballpark (of starting),” Harbaugh said. “So that bodes well for us. (We) want depth there. … Whether they’re the best player at the position? Time will tell.”