Offensive line, by nature, is a position rooted in contact. So this fall, when Michigan had to practice without pads until last Wednesday, it was perhaps the position group hardest hit.
A year ago, the Wolverines would have been well equipped to handle such adversity. Their offensive line was returning four starters from a unit that had gelled down the stretch in a 10-3 season.
This year, not so much. All four of those returning starters are gone. Even Jalen Mayfield — the only returning member of last year’s starting five — was away from the team training for the NFL Draft before reversing his decision when the Big Ten reinstated its season.
As such, Michigan is left with an inexperienced line that has never played together at a time when continuity is more important than ever.
According to redshirt sophomore Ryan Hayes, the starting unit as of Sept. 3 was himself at left tackle; either senior Chuck Filiaga or redshirt freshman Trevor Keegan at left guard; fifth-year senior Andrew Vastardis at center; redshirt junior Andrew Stueber at right guard and redshirt freshman Karsen Barnhart at right tackle. Two weeks later, Mayfield’s return vaulted him into the starting right tackle spot.
“These guys are going into their third and fourth years in the program,” offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said this month, eschewing requisite preseason confidence. “They’re not your typical freshmen or first-year players that you’re looking to replace a lot of your offensive linemen with.”
Still, only Mayfield, Stueber and Hayes have started a single college game — a daunting proposition regardless of preparation time. And now, missing so much contact practice only adds to the uncertainty.
The least experienced members — like Keegan, Barnhart, freshman Zak Zinter and redshirt freshman Trente Jones — haven’t been able to catch up to the physicality of college football. Even the returners have only been able to build their chemistry in contact-less drills, a far cry from game situations, where the offensive line will be required to protect a new starting quarterback from 300-pound pass rushers.
So without being able to build up the Wolverines’ physical aptitude, offensive line coach Ed Warinner has focused on the mental game in hopes that the physical side will follow.
“The biggest problem with an offensive line is learning on the fly,” Stueber said. “You may get a base look but then when it starts changing, that’s when an offensive line can truly fall apart.
“If you don’t understand the concept of the defense, who needs to be blocked, where the run is aimed — where the aiming point is — then it can really fall apart. But now that we have the mental aspect of the game locked down, when the picture changes on the fly, we can quickly adapt to that and I think that’s a big aspect that offensive linemen struggle to grasp.”
Still, there are a few technical pointers Warinner has been able to instill in his team. Without being able to fine-tune his players’ power and balance — two skills reliant on game-like reps — he’s focused on their first few steps, eyes and hand placement.
Couple that with the mental aspect and Stueber believes the Wolverines are uniquely prepared to turn pad-less practices into success on the field.
“I feel like as far as the mental side of the O-line, like I said, I think we’re pretty much there,” Stueber said. “We have a whole understanding of the offense, a whole understanding of how it can change and how we can adapt to it. I just think the next piece is the physical side.”
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