Last season, the No. 4 Michigan football team’s offensive line served as its backbone, steering a domineering rushing attack and winning the Joe Moore Award as the nation’s best unit. While the group lost center Andrew Vastardis and tackle Andrew Stueber in the offseason, expectations remained high heading into 2022.
Through three games, it’s apparent that replicating the success is easier said than done.
“There’s been some times where we’ve gotten beat in a one-on-one matchup,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday, offering a candid assessment of the offensive line’s performance. “This game, the game before. But sometimes — well, probably all the time — you don’t get perfection.”
The line hasn’t played poorly, but it hasn’t been flawless, either. Senior Trente Jones, a first-time starter, has struggled at tackle. Subpar pass protection across the board also befell senior quarterback Cade McNamara, who suffered an injury on a sack that will sideline him for multiple weeks. In all, the Wolverines have allowed eight sacks through three games.
Injuries have hampered the unit, too. Senior Trevor Keegan and fifth-year Ryan Hayes, two holdovers, have each missed time with injury; backup offensive lineman Karsen Barnhart is also on the shelf with a sprained ankle.
In the eyes of fifth-year center Olu Oluwatimi — a transfer from Virginia — the line has performed admirably, especially given the circumstances.
“We’re protecting the quarterback pretty well, we’re running the rock pretty well,” Oluwatimi said Wednesday. “We obviously want to turn it up another notch and make sure our quarterbacks are staying healthy and keeping them upright, but I felt like we did a pretty good job so far through the first three weeks.”
At times, they have. Oluwatimi himself has been as advertised, sliding seamlessly into Vastardis’ shoes at center. Keegan and junior guard Zak Zinter graded out as the Wolverines’ two best players in the Week One victory over Colorado State, with Harbaugh lauding their performances afterwards.
The consistency, though, has been absent. And as the Big Ten slate beckons, that routine dominance becomes even more essential.
Everything Michigan works on now is geared toward conference play. Oluwatimi said that Michigan co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Sherrone Moore routinely harps on the urgency that Big Ten play demands.
“Knowing that we’re gonna start facing better edge rushers, beter interior guys, faster linebackers, we gotta be technique sound every snap,” Oluwatimi said. “Don’t take any plays off.”
Maryland, the first respectable opponent, looms Saturday.
“They’re definitely bigger than what we’re used to in the first three weeks,” Oluwatimi said. “… They’re gonna know where to be, (they’re gonna) play with technique and give us a great challenge.”
Some players are taking the onus on an individual level. Sophomore lineman Giovanni El-Hadi — who saw significant snaps at left guard against UConn — took the non-conference slate to acclimate to the rigors of college football, after appearing in just one game as a freshman.
“Just getting used to the speed versus someone else,” El-Hadi said. “Being able to hit someone else in a different jersey, to be honest with you. Footwork, reading coverages, reading the safety rotation, calling out.”
Of all the areas that El-Hadi listed, most pertain to communication. An offensive line — perhaps more so than any other position group — is the sum of its parts. Five lineman functioning together, on the same page, is a requisite for a successful line.
At this point in the season, the Wolverines aren’t quite there yet. But there’s still plenty of time for this year’s unit to coalesce into a cohesive, dominant offensive line, one resembling last year’s powerhouse.