Junior defensive end Rashan Gary has noticed a trend with the opposing offensive line in practice.
If Gary and his crew of All-America-level defensive line talent win a rep, the offensive group wants another.
“ ‘Let me get that rep back,’ ” Gary recalls hearing. “ ‘We’ll do it again.’ ”
Added Gary: “Iron sharpens iron.”
It’s part of a broader attitude Gary and much of the team have started realizing: the offensive line is confident and only gaining confidence each week.
“We’ve been saying it all year,” said junior guard Ben Bredeson, “that we’ve all gotten a lot better.”
Bredeson isn’t wrong; they have been saying it all year. Some — those in the media included — just haven’t been willing to listen. Last week, senior tackle Juwann Bushell-Beatty pushed back against fans who judge offensive line play without understanding its nuance.
“The public doesn’t really understand the inner-workings of how things go on in here. I think there were mistakes, and when there’s mistakes — and there’s always — everyone wants to point fingers and there are things that happened,” he said. “It’s football. I understand, regardless of what happens, O-Line is going to take blame for whatever.”
In week one, that criticism was defeaning, after the offensive line took the brunt of the heat for a 24-17 loss against Notre Dame. The Wolverines averaged just 1.8 yards-per-rush in that game, and managed to score 10 offensive points.
In the three games since, Michigan has averaged over 278 yards rushing and 50 points per game. And after being sacked three times (and pressured countless more) in the opener against the Fighting Irish, junior quarterback Shea Patterson has been sacked just three times in the three games since.
You might say it’s unfair to judge the offensive line against three inferior opponents. Bushell-Beatty and other offensive linemen might say it was just as unfair to judge them after one game, the season-opener.
It works both ways, which is why the group up front doesn’t get too bogged down in outside perception.
“We don’t have any stats to go with the work that we do, but just seeing it on film,” Bredeson said. “If you’re an O-Lineman, you understand, you can see what you’re doing well, what you’re not doing well.”
While increased repitition among the starting unit — Bushell-Beatty, Bredeson, sophomore Cesar Ruiz, junior Michael Onwenu and fifth-year senior Jon Runyan — has players and coaches encouraged, much of the optimism regarding the offensive line has to do with those working behind the starters.
In Saturday’s 56-10 annhiliation of Nebraska, 10 reserve offensive linemen saw game action, including promising freshmen tackles James Hudson and Jalen Mayfield. The duo — often grouped together for convenience — has been coming along well, even sniffing potential starting roles. It seems both will be starters at Michigan, whether that’s one week or one year from now. Last week, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said each was taking roughly 25 percent of the reps with the first-team offense.
Bredeson has seen significant potential with both, in practice and limited game action.
“James (Hudson) is an outstandingly athletic kid. Once he cleans up some technique things and gets his consistency down, it’s scary how far that kid could go,” Bredeson said. “Measurables, you can’t really measure it, but you can see it every single day when he’s making progress. And he’s made a ton of progress. If you watched film from this spring all the way to now, it’s night and day.
“Jalen (Mayfield) made huge strides, coming in, especially as a freshman. It was a big learning curve, but I think we’re past that now with him. Really happy with him.”
As any offensive lineman will tell you, though, there’s tremendous intangible value in the development of cohesion. When asked where the unit as a whole has improved most, Bredeson pointed to communication.
“I felt like we didn’t talk enough early weeks, especially in the Notre Dame game,” Bredeson said. “Now, we’re not only communicating, we’re over-communicating. Things are going really well for us on the line. Once we’re able to talk through the looks and see what we have, that gives Cesar the full picture of what’s going on; he can make all the adjustments.”
And as all the other pieces seem to fall into place, as an All-Big Ten caliber quarterback starts to come into his own, as a young receiving corps continues to blossom, as the group of tight ends round out what’s nearing a complete offense, the offensive line seems to be the final piece to the puzzle.
It’s certainly no guarantee the maligned group ever gets to an above-average level against other top-end Big Ten teams — it seems nobody will know until the mid-season matchups against Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan State.
But Bredeson, the de facto leader of the offensive line, is confident his unit will excel, even if those on the outside are still scarred from week one.
“I think we’ve matured a lot, more than you should in three games,” Bredeson said. “The way normal teams mature through the season, I think we’re past where we should be on paper. I think that’s going to pay dividends later on.”