Ed Warinner has been an offensive line coach for the better part of 34 years. He knows, by now, just about all there is to know about coaching the position. His offseason rituals are second nature.
Until they aren’t. Until on the eve of spring ball, his entire world was flipped upside down.
Warinner doesn’t need your sympathy. Publicly, he dismisses the notion that the cancelation of spring practices derailed Michigan’s offensive line. But there’s an understanding that this would have been easier a year ago, when the Wolverines were returning four starters on his unit — all of them future NFL players.
This offseason, Warinner didn’t have that luxury. Except for a stretch in late summer when he temporarily opted out of the season, junior right tackle Jalen Mayfield has been there, anchoring the unit. But beyond him, Warinner came into March with a whole lot more question marks than answers.
So while the world shut down, Warinner sat at home and planned out how to deal with an uncertain offseason in which Michigan didn’t know when it would be able to begin padded practices.
“That kept me awake at night,” he said Wednesday, three days before the Wolverines’ opener at Minnesota.
Now, Warinner is able to reflect with an air of calmness. He has his starting unit set, and he’s confident in it. From left to right, it’s junior Ryan Hayes, senior Chuck Filiaga, graduate student Andrew Vastardis, senior Andrew Stueber and Mayfield.
“We’re excited with our offensive line,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday. “Them gelling, coming together has been a good process. Excited to see them let it rip.”
The reason for Harbaugh and Warinner’s shared confidence traces back to those sleepless nights throughout an unprecedented offseason.
“We came up with some pretty good things,” Warinner said. “We fell into some things that started really working for us, and we got a good rhythm going in individual periods where we worked by ourselves. Then we just carried that over to pads.”
Normally, Warinner has a month of padded practices to prepare his offensive line. This year, that period was shortened to three weeks, preceded by months of practices without pads — a bigger hurdle for the offensive line than any other position because of its inherent physicality.
To maximize that time, Warinner set out to reteach good habits.
Often, offensive lineman will fall into the trap of using their shoulders and heads to try and move defenders rather than simply controlling them. Not only is that dangerous, but it’s typically less effective.
Without pads, blocking with shoulders and heads becomes impossible. So Warinner spent August and September working with his unit on footwork, hand placement and eye tracking. “It taught them how to do things the right way,” he said.
The problem of cohesiveness, though, remained. More than any other position group, the offensive line needs to work together as one. Michigan didn’t have its starting unit set until this week, which is where the downside of this strange offseason lies. Try as Warinner might, building chemistry on an offensive line is a difficult task that becomes nearly impossible in pad-less practices.
Then, in late September, the Wolverines got two boosts. Right as padded practices began, Mayfield announced he was returning for his junior season.
“It was about a week, week and a half into his return that it became clear that it was time to slide him back in there,” Warinner said. “But he’s been great since he came back.”
Beyond giving Michigan a first-round NFL talent at right tackle, his return boosted the unit’s confidence. In this eight-game conference-only season, that will be more important than ever.
Back in 2018, when this year’s starters were reserves and Warinner was in first year in Ann Arbor, Michigan lost its season opener to Notre Dame thanks in large part to poor pass protection. Those Wolverines, though, had the luxury of acclimating to the season through non-conference play.
“The most growth usually on any football team is between game one and two in my experience with offensive lines,” Warinner said.
This year, the growth can’t wait. And if Warinner’s sleepless nights and months of acclimation paid off, it won’t have to.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.
For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.