Ed Warinner said Wednesday, not for the first time, that Andrew Stueber was likely leading Michigan’s right tackle competition in August 2019 when he went down with a torn ACL. 

Stueber, at the time a junior, was competing with a green sophomore in Jalen Mayfield. Neither had played much — Juwann Bushell-Beatty had been the largely unquestioned starter over the two years prior. When Stueber got hurt, it meant Mayfield would be thrown into the fire.

He didn’t just survive, he thrived. Mayfield established himself as a cornerstone on Michigan’s offensive line, holding his own against even the likes of Chase Young and gaining buzz as a potential first-round NFL pick in 2021. When the season hung on a COVID-19-induced brink, Mayfield publicly went back and forth on whether or not he’d play. And when he decided to do so, it meant Stueber would be pushed inward to guard.

Now, it’s Mayfield who’s hurt and Stueber getting thrown into his own fire — the de facto leader on a battered and bruised offensive line that played last Saturday without three starters in Mayfield, center Andrew Vastardis and left tackle Ryan Hayes.

“When you think about your leaders left and you have all these new guys, and they didn’t get to lead in spring ball, they didn’t get to lead in fall training camp,” Warinner, Michigan’s offensive line coach, said. “Now all of a sudden who’s leading? Stueber’s one of the guys. Vastardis was probably our main guy. He’s down so who’s gonna lead now with Vastardis down? 

“Stueber says, ‘I see it, I understand, Vastardis had that role, I’m taking it now. Jalen’s down, he was a leader, Ryan’s down, he was a leader.’ All of a sudden, Stuebs says, ‘Hey, I’m the vet, I gotta go. I gotta be the voice for this group and push them,’ and he does it.”

With the most anyone will say about the injuries is that Mayfield and Hayes are questionable for Saturday’s affair against Penn State, the leadership role on the line could be Stueber’s for the moment. 

For a coach like Warinner, and a position group like the offensive line, continuity is everything. Starting three different configurations in five games, with no spring ball and only an abbreviated preseason camp to fall back on, creates the sort of issues that have plagued the Wolverines.

“You think about it, what group needed spring ball and August training camp more than my group, losing four starters? No one,” Warinner said. “Everybody needs it but no one needed it more. To not have that and they say we’re gonna play and you have three weeks and you’re right into game prep mode versus training camp mode, little different. So it’s been challenging.”

In an environment where everyone is facing the same challenges — a shortened season, COVID-19 protocols and, Warinner said, contact tracing causing players to miss time even when they weren’t sick — that’s not an excuse. But Michigan’s relative youth, and injuries to upperclassmen, have compounded those issues.

Warinner’s hallmark as a coach has always been his ability to teach. Even in media availabilities over the years, he makes it easy for reporters to understand offensive line play over the course of interview sessions that rarely stretch past 25 minutes. He’s still trying to do that, but the situation has proven hard to navigate.

“I think within the chaos of life, the season, COVID, football, my job is to make the complicated seem simple,” Warinner said. “That’s the definition of a good coach.”

Right now, Stueber is the one constant. 

In practice on Tuesday, Warinner saw him talking to teammates, trying to get them going and lead them. It heartened him.

“I was impressed with that and he’s always willing to do whatever,” Warinner said. “… Those kinda people make coaching very rewarding. I mean really rewarding.”