After an 8-5 season, fingers get pointed every which way.
And in the case of Michigan in 2017, many of those fingers aimed squarely at the offensive line.
“I think they took a lot of blame for a lot of things on the outside. A lot of fingers pointed at that direction, but not always are the fingers accurate,” said new offensive line coach Ed Warriner, a beneficiary of some of that finger pointing. Warriner was hired as an offensive coach in January and later assigned to the offensive line to replace the departed Tim Drevno.
“There’s a lot of pieces in all things,” Warriner told media on Thursday afternoon. “Short yardage, there’s tight ends and fullbacks. Protections, there’s tight ends, fullbacks running backs and quarterbacks involved in that. My perception is, the group was a solid group when I got it.”
That much-maligned group returns three starters from a season ago, juniors Ben Bredeson and Michael Onwenu, and sophomore center Cesar Ruiz. With those three penciled in along the interior of the line, the tackle spots remain up for grabs — likely between sophomores Chuck Filiaga and James Hudson, junior Stephen Spinellis and seniors Juwann Bushell-Beatty and Jon Runyan Jr.
As of now, your guess is as good as Warriner’s as to who emerges for those spots.
“Eventually (we’ll) sort through the five best and get them where they need to go.”
But one thing’s for certain: Cesar Ruiz is one of those best five. Based off early praise, he might be the best one.
“He understands football very well,” Warriner said. “But he is very powerful, plays with a good base, loves football, quick feet for a center, too. He kinda has the whole package.”
And Warriner knows what that package looks like. He coached for three years at Ohio State, following two years at Notre Dame — both places he eagerly anticipates visiting this year on the opposite sideline. He has produced enough NFL talent to know how that appears in a college sophomore.
Ruiz has it.
“I have two starting centers in the National Football League, both started as rookies,” Warriner said, referring to Minnesota Vikings center Pat Elflein and Green Bay Packers center Corey Linsley. “He has that kind of ability some day to get to that point. Not yet, I mean he’s just a young kid. But if he keeps going, I know what they look like. … He can be the quarterback of the O-Line.”
Added Runyan Jr.: “He’s one of the most athletic centers I’ve ever seen. He’s big, strong, powerful. I’m looking forward to what he can do, even though he’s only a sophomore, so that’s really really exciting to see his development.”
For Warriner, though, being an effective center extends far beyond the physical toolset. The “quarterback of the O-Line” means what it sounds like — being a vocal leader and decision-maker.
That’s something that Ruiz has taken hold of with his command.
Ruiz was recruited to Michigan as a center but played in 10 games last year as a guard. He became the starter midway through the season, as a stopgap at guard. This season, he’ll head back to his natural position.
“Your center makes a lot of calls in there that set your protections, and if he sets them wrong then you’ve got problems,” Warriner said. “If he sets them right, then you can account for everybody. He’s been very good at that this spring. Very good.”
Warriner will say he thinks this group could develop into a “very solid Big Ten offensive line.”
There’s no guaranteeing any offensive line renaissance. Words are just words, coated in a uniquely positive light in spring practice, when nothing is open to public criticism and there’s no opponent just yet.
But Ruiz emerging into the full potential his 4-star recruit status indicated would be a step. Every offensive line needs an anchor. Ruiz appears headed firmly in that direction.