Last winter, when freshly-minted offensive line coach Sherrone Moore met with his unit for the first time, he made one thing clear.
In order for Michigan to avenge a grim 2020 season, the offensive line would not only have to be better — they would have to control the team.
“He told us we can’t do what we did last year, because that wasn’t Michigan football,” junior offensive lineman Trevor Keegan said in September. “That wasn’t Michigan o-line work.”
That sort of transparency isn’t always met with affection. But in that room, on that day?
“We all got excited,” Keegan remembered. “We knew we had a chance.”
Eleven months and twelve wins later, that chance has become a reality. The Wolverines’ offensive line has utterly dominated the opposition, whether that be maintaining a clean pocket or paving the way for a potent rushing attack. Look at the numbers — they’ve conceded the fewest tackles for loss and third-fewest sacks in the nation.
Earlier in December, the unit garnered national recognition, deserving recipients of the Joe Moore award as the best offensive line in college football.
Ask anyone — from Cade McNamara to Hassan Haskins to the late John Madden, who was so impressed with their performance against Ohio State that he sent a congratulatory text to Jim Harbaugh — and the answer is clear.
“The heart and soul of our offense is our o-line,” McNamara, the junior quarterback, said.
That’s not an accident.
“Every good team that I’ve been around,” Moore said on Sept. 23, “it’s the offensive line that’s controlled the team.”
Moore, who joined Michigan’s staff as a tight ends coach in 2018, speaks from experience. It’s hard to fathom now, with the 6-foot-4 Moore touting a slender frame, but the 35-year-old once lived in the trenches.
He was a two-year starter along the offensive line at Butler County Community College in El Dorado, Kansas. In 2006, he transferred to Oklahoma, where he won a pair of Big-12 championships and a national championship, blocking for the likes of Adrian Peterson.
“He was smart, tough and dependable,” James Patton, Moore’s offensive line coach with the Sooners, said.
Patton has coached offensive lines for 29 years. Each successful unit, he says, boasts a similar makeup and personality, stressing certain traits.
“They really don’t take any talent,” Patton said. “They don’t take the God-given ability that a lot of guys have, all these athletic abilities. But those things are the standard to develop your room.”
The first emphasis is on decision-making, sharpening one’s football IQ — a phrase that gets tossed around often but is seldom understood. Then there’s toughness, both in terms of physicality and withstanding the mental strain on, say, an obvious pass situation, like a third-and-long. The last one is accountability. A player may know what to do, but can he execute when it actually matters?
Those three traits are ingrained in Moore and, by association, Michigan’s offensive line.
Patton says Moore was never the most athletic lineman, and he does so choosing his words delicately — it’s not a slight or criticism, but a compliment. Moore didn’t possess those God-given athletic abilities and thus couldn’t fall back on natural talent. He had to work. So he trained harder and, sure enough, became just as good as everyone else, notching all-conference second team honors.
Michigan’s offensive line has parallels.
Sixth-year center Andrew Vastardis began his career as a two-star recruit and entered the program as a preferred walk-on, turning down a scholarship offer from Old Dominion. He bided his time and honed his craft in practice, competing with the likes of Taco Charlton and Maurice Hurst, All-Big Ten talents along the defensive line.
Fifth-year offensive tackle Andrew Steuber, a converted tight end, was a 3-star prospect. Junior Trevor Keegan, senior Ryan Hayes and sophomore Zak Zinter were all 4-stars, but the latter two have battled a myriad of injuries while the former mostly saw special teams action before this season.
Point being: none of this year’s dominance came easy. Last season was a ghastly performance, and there were few personnel changes in the offseason. So what gives?
“They’re always doing everything they can to get better to push themselves to that next step,” Moore said, noting that the position group lives in Schembechler Hall.
It’s one thing to do so individually. It’s another to do that as a unit, melding five chess pieces into one. For an offensive line, operating in lockstep is the core of the job description.
“That’s probably the biggest challenge for a coach,” Dave Borbely, Louisville’s offensive line coach while Moore was on staff as a graduate assistant from 2009-2011, said. “To get everyone on the same page and onboard with you. It’s not that hard to teach knee bend or hand placement or how to set on a 5-technique. Those things come with knowing the position. It’s really developing the culture of the room.”
Michigan’s offensive line culture is certainly thriving, a microcosm of the program’s seismic shift. Zinter conceded early in the season that this year’s group is far more cohesive than last year’s. Indeed, they play together.
“He brought us together as one,” Hayes said, lauding Moore.
Establishing a culture begins with setting the tone every day. At Louisville, Borbely says, Moore brought a high level of intensity at each practice. At Oklahoma, he approached games like an 80-play fist fight.
And at Michigan?
“Coach Moore says the o-line sets the tone, sets the tempo for practice and on game days,” Steuber said. “We really took that upon ourselves this year. We tried to bring as much energy as we could to practice every day and just kind of set the tempo, because when the o-line is firing on all cylinders, it’s really easy for every other position to fall in place.”
Moore began each practice throughout fall camp in the same fashion: by displaying a PowerPoint. The presentation contained a list of expectations, which reflected Moore’s vision.
“Where we need to be for this program,” Steuber noted.
According to Borbely, that’s one of Moore’s biggest strengths. He always knew where he wanted his unit to be, not just in the moment, but in the upcoming weeks and months.
So far, they’ve checked off three of those powerpoint boxes — a win over Ohio State, a Big Ten Championship and the Joe Moore award.
There’s just one more left to knock off: a national championship. And with Georgia’s stout front-seven looming in the College Football Playoff semifinal, the Wolverines’ front-five braces for its stiffest challenge to date.
“We take that on our shoulders every day to start moving the ball, moving the line of scrimmage,” Steuber said. “It really starts with us. They’re a great front, but we just have to play Michigan football, play our game, play what has gotten us here right now, and I think we’ll be fine.”
Perhaps McNamara said it best.
“I think if anyone in the country is going to block (Georgia), it’s going to be our dudes.”