Ed Warinner’s first year with the No. 15 Michigan football team (4-1 overall, 2-0 Big Ten) didn’t get off to the best start.
The offensive line coach’s unit was torn to shreds against Notre Dame to open the season on the field, but also off it, as the front five was widely blamed for the offense’s shortcomings.
The criticisms came from a few places. For one, the offensive line play was suspect in that game, and it was suspect last season as well. Additionally, Warinner brought with him a pedigree for producing NFL talent at places like Ohio State and with the Fighting Irish.
Since then, though, the line has improved drastically, albeit against worse competition. In fact, Saturday’s win over Northwestern might have been the Wolverine offensive line’s best game to this point, especially in pass protection. This season, they have given up just eight sacks this season. Through five games last season, Michigan had given up 16 sacks.
“That’s pretty good,” Warinner said. “We’re trying to improve that area. We’ve simplified our protections, and our guys are getting real comfortable with them.
“… I think it’s just consistency in their technique and then understanding the protections and then not changing them on them.”
Those things are what is always brought up when asking about the offensive line.
It seems every player or coach, when asked about the hog mollies up front, mentions the importance of communication and technique and consistent play.
Those same things are true with many positions, but especially with offensive line play, there isn’t much more to be said, because there aren’t many stats that properly quantify how well an offensive line is playing.
Despite the slow start, the Wolverines’ front has passed the eye test in the past four weeks. That’s something that wasn’t true very often last season without Warinner.
To Warinner, it’s a product of the things mentioned above, but it’s also due to the dogged pace and perfectionism he has tried to instill in the unit.
“You just gotta push people, make them uncomfortable, you gotta make them do stuff they really don’t want to do,” Warinner said. “That comes with trust. So, they have to trust that what you’re doing and what you’re telling them will make them be a better player, make the team be a better team. So you develop trust, then you push them to challenge them to do more than they’ve done in the past, do it better than they’ve done in the past. And you hold people accountable.
“… I just think that until something you tell them shows on film, where they can see themselves doing that against our team or somebody else, that’s when it really becomes reinforced. Like, ‘I haven’t given up a sack this year. These pass protection drills — cause we didn’t do these drills last year. Or I never did these things.’ ”
Another thing that Warinner was said to have helped with this offseason was simplifying the play calls for the offensive line in an effort to help with understanding and, as a result, speed.
That, too, is hard to see as a casual observer, but Warinner explained it in simpler terms, saying on each play, he gives his offensive linemen two options to limit thinking. And if the defense forces a third option, it’s on Warinner to adjust the gameplan.
“That’s how I envision it,” Warinner said. “Cause the more you put in there, the slower they play. And the less confident they are. ‘What if he does that?’ You know. You get that question a lot. So I love to tell them, ‘Don’t worry about that. That’s on me. You worry about this stuff.’ Know what I mean? That’s my job. And then make adjustments.
“And if something happens that we’re not prepared for, nobody’s getting yelled at. There’s no stress, it’s just, ‘Hey, this is the answer.’ We have tools in our toolbox to fix all problems, but you can only have two tools in your hands at once. One in this hand and one in that hand. Here we go. You can’t have more than that. So, we need a new tool, we get the new tool out, next series, here we go.”
As is always the case with the offensive line, or the Wolverines as a whole, it is worth noting that they still have to prove they can stand up against a defensive front like Wisconsin’s, Michigan State’s, Penn State’s or Ohio State’s.
Those tests will come soon enough. For now, though, the improvement is all anyone could ask for. Michigan was supposed to play well against its last four opponents, and while this last weekend was a closer game than many expected, the offensive line wasn’t the reason.
If you had read that sentence four weeks ago, you would have been shocked.
“The narrative has been going in ever since I’ve been here that the Michigan offensive line hasn’t been up to the standards that people outside this building would like,” said redshirt junior tackle Jon Runyan Jr. “We take that personally, and we’ve been trying to (change that) every day.”