As Michigan’s offense stalled to a halt on Saturday, prompting worry and disbelief from everyone except coach Jim Harbaugh, one area emerged without widespread critique — the offensive line.
Shea Patterson was sacked just twice, and any pressure on him usually felt like a result of his standing in the pocket too long. Michigan’s run game vacillated between solid and slightly below-average with 3.6 yards per carry. On the few drives where the Wolverines moved the ball, the line got a noticeable push. AJ Epenesa, the Hawkeyes’ stud edge rusher, had a relatively quiet day, with two tackles — albeit a sack and a TFL.
All of this is to say that the line wasn’t much of a story in Michigan’s 10-3 win over Iowa. It played just fine — a line that has held firm for most of the year. It did for most of last year, too. An area that, during a week one loss at Notre Dame in 2018, seemed poised to halt any progress the Wolverines had made, is now the least of anybody’s concerns.
Saturday was an apt time to think about this, because an alternate history came with it. Alaric Jackson, a 6-foot-6 junior from Detroit, lined up in an Iowa uniform. Jackson will be in the NFL one day — if not next year, then in 2021. If Michigan’s line hadn’t figured itself out in the last year, he might have been standing there on the sideline Saturday as one of the most glaring recruiting misses of the Harbaugh era.
As 2016’s recruiting cycle came down to the wire, Harbaugh had Devery Hamilton, a four-star tackle from Baltimore, signed, sealed and delivered. He was supposed to be the next big thing. Then he got into Stanford late in the process.
Hamilton flipped. Michigan, suddenly, was left with a spot to fill. “It looked like a need,” Steve Lorenz, a recruiting analyst for 247Sports, said this week.
Jackson was local and well-regarded, a high-level 3-star prospect. Michigan kept an eye on him in case this scenario came to pass, though it hadn’t extended an offer. That’s the luxury of being the biggest program recruiting a kid in-state. Jackson would have gone to Michigan with an offer, and Michigan knew it.
After Hamilton flipped, Michigan offered Jackson. Then, at the last second before signing day, the Wolverines pulled the offer.
“It’s still up to (Michigan),” Lorenz said. “They still have to send the letter in for him to be able to sign with them.
“… I suspect it was much more of a numbers type thing (than Jackson’s ability). Not that they were full, necessarily, but sometimes the decision is, do we bank a scholarship for next cycle or do we take this guy? And there were a couple (players) at a couple different positions that Michigan did not send a letter to that same day.”
There’s nothing particularly untoward about Michigan’s behavior. The Wolverines likely told Jackson of the situation ahead of time, knowing he had an Iowa offer in his back pocket. It comes down to the reality of recruiting, and the reality of where Michigan thought it was at that point — in the second year of the Harbaugh era and ascending.
Judging by the next class when it signed, you wouldn’t have batted an eye at the decision. On the line, it featured center Cesar Ruiz, tackles Andrew Stueber and JaRaymond Hall and guards Joel Honigford and Chuck Filiaga — all highly-touted. Of that group, only Ruiz starts now. Stueber got hurt before this season. Filiaga and Honigford are backups, though there still is a notable optimism around the former. Hall is no longer with the program.
On the first day of the 2017 season, Michigan started a group that lacked in experience. It didn’t go well. The Wolverines finished that season 117th in adjusted sack rate, and the problems seemed to carry over into the 2018 opener against the Fighting Irish.
It’s easy to imagine a scenario where Jackson grabs a starting tackle job from Jon Runyan Jr. or Juwann Bushell-Beatty after that game, then runs with it. It’s easy to imagine he does so before then.
“You go across the line, Runyan’s (class of ) ‘16, Bredeson’s ‘16, Ruiz is ‘17, Big Mike (Onwenu) is ‘16 and then Mayfield is ‘18, right?” Lorenz said. “So, you look at that, it’s hard not to imagine Jackson wouldn’t be one of the starting tackles right now.”
Instead of Jackson starting, Runyan flipped a switch and turned himself into one of the most dependable tackles in the conference. Bushell-Beatty had a fine senior year and now, Mayfield seems to be a long-term starter.
On Saturday, Mayfield sat at a Crisler Center podium taking questions following Harbaugh who, minutes earlier, went out of his way to highlight the line.
“I thought our offensive line played really good. Played really physical,” Harbaugh said. “And played against some really good players, too. They got some really — they got guys who can put pressure on the quarterback. That showed up a few times.”
So, hypotheticals, what-ifs and future NFL tackles passed over aside, Michigan is pretty happy with what it has.