TAMPA, Fla. — Michigan’s bowl practices have Tim Drevno in an interesting spot.
The offensive coordinator and line coach knows the Wolverines, quite simply, just have to put points on the board when they play South Carolina in the Outback Bowl next Monday.
Drevno wants to see immediate improvement up front. The Wolverines, after all, finished the regular season with a thud. Michigan rushed the ball 37 times for 58 yards against Wisconsin. It had 36 carries for 100 yards against Ohio State, a marginal improvement. It allowed seven total sacks between both games — both of which were also losses.
As an offensive line coach, though, he’s also responsible for developing the younger players. Bowl practices are a chance for Drevno to begin building for the future.
So far, he’s been pleased with what he has seen.
“I think (we’re) just getting better fundamentally,” Drevno said after practice Wednesday afternoon. “Understanding just passing off (linemen). Becoming better (at) picking up pressures. Getting our hats in the right spot in the run game. Using our hands and a strong physical punch. Working together in combinations. … I think we’ve really made a lot of progress here the last couple weeks.”
One younger player that has stood out is freshman Cesar Ruiz. The formerly top-ranked center ascended to the starting lineup when sophomore Mike Onwneu missed a handful of games due to injury. Onwenu is back and healthy. Ruiz has not relinquished the job, though. According to Drevno, “right now it’d be Cesar.”
“Mike was working through something there for a while, and then Cesar’s really grabbed ahold of taking the bull by the horns and just knowing his assignments and playing with great initial quickness, sustaining his blocks,” Drevno explained. “Not that Mike couldn’t do that. But (Ruiz) kind of did it over and over in time and really settled in nicely. And you want the cohesiveness up front with the line. Guys are working together. So that’s an important factor.”
Several other younger players have caught Drevno’s eye, as well, though none appear poised to play against the Gamecocks like Ruiz will.
“Really excited about their athleticism and initial quickness,” Drevno said when asked about younger linemen such as freshmen tackles Andrew Stueber and James Hudson. “All the things you look for in the skillset of a great offensive line with the physicality.
When asked about Hudson’s transition from the other side of the ball (he was formerly a defensive lineman), Drevno had high praise for the right tackle, saying the transition has gone “really good.”
“James has really got a bright future,” Drevno said. “He’s really athletic. He’s got a really good strong punch to him. Really heavy hands. Can really stop the bullrush and set anchor. Really sharp. He’s got a real good nose for the game, in terms of when the picture changes, he can adjust. So it’s really been a pleasure. James has a bright future here.”
Of course, Hudson can only get so much better by watching and absorbing. One goal throughout bowl practices, Drevno said, has been to increase the number of reps for younger linemen like Hudson. That may involve subbing them in with the first team, giving them a chance to take a play-call from starting quarterback Brandon Peters or pave the way for Chris Evans and Khalid Hill.
One of the more nuanced aspects of offensive line play is pass protection. And that’s just one of the areas Drevno has emphasized with this current group of linemen, explaining all the concepts he has tried to teach — understanding different alignments, understanding an opponent’s pass-rushing tendencies, footwork and balance.
“Those are things,” Drevno said, “that you’ve got to develop through the process.”
Which is why this current period is “huge,” according to Drevno. There’s a game to be won, one more opposing defense to go up against. But there are lessons to teach and good habits to form for the future.
“You go into a bowl game, you just see the advantage of how you can develop offensive linemen because they need reps,” Drevno said. “It’s a formed habit. Nobody wants you to go down the middle of the street and go push a car with a wide base. Nobody wants to do that. Working with a base underneath you, power-producing angles, getting your hands in the right spot, working it and feeling it, that’s an important thing. You’ve really got to work on that.”