To sophomore guard Zak Zinter, one thing in particular stands out about Michigan’s offensive line when compared to last year:
“It’s the best (unit) that I’ve been around,” Zinter told reporters Tuesday. “Compared to last year, (the cohesiveness) is a lot better. People are all really meshing together. We’re just one big family, trust the guy to the right and left.”
So far, that trust has shown. Much attention has been paid to sophomore running back Blake Corum’s emergence — and rightfully so — but almost equally important to the run game has been the offensive line’s ability to carve truck-sized holes in opposing defenses.
That aspect has been especially notable in that it wasn’t expected to happen this season.
In 2020, the Wolverines’ offensive line reflected much of the rest of the team: disorganized, sloppy and ultimately weak. Even with a wealth of players returning at the position — including Zinter at guard, sixth-year senior Andrew Vastardis at center and fifth-year senior Andrew Stueber at tackle — Michigan football wasn’t expected to improve too much in the trenches this year.
In spite of that, it did. The numbers are well documented in the run game: 1,091 rushing yards — the most in the country — through three games, 350.3 yards per game and 7.1 yards per rush. Those results are a far cry from last season, when the Wolverines mustered just 887 rushing yards over the entire six-game season.
Those improvements aren’t the result of schematic changes, either. Even with Sherrone Moore taking over as offensive line coach for the first time, Michigan’s mostly relied on the same run concepts — split zone, power and pin-and-pull — that have been its bread and butter for much of coach Jim Harbaugh’s tenure. The difference, then, is in execution, and that comes down to player development and culture.
And that’s where Moore seems to have made his mark.
“(Moore’s) done a heck of a job,” Harbaugh said Monday. “(Offensive line is) not historically known as a fun position to play, but they look like they’re having a lot of fun. I go by their meetings and it’s engaged, it’s energetic, it’s loud, a lot of guys are laughing. They’re enjoying it. Same on the practice field, day after day.”
Even if it’s most visible in the run game, the improvements have helped the passing game find some rhythm as well. Throughout Saturday’s game, junior quarterback Cade McNamara had more than enough time to go through his progressions — he’s been sacked only one time this season. With a first-year starting quarterback especially, that comfort in the pocket can be the difference between an inconsistent passing game and a constant aerial threat.
“Especially last week, I don’t think I’ve ever had that much time to throw in my entire career,” McNamara said. “Last week, being able to sit back in the pocket and take multiple hitches to let the wide receivers get farther downfield and create more separation, it’s great having that offensive line in front of me.”
The success of the offensive line may have come as a surprise to some, but to those within the unit, it’s been the expectation since the beginning of spring ball. Since then, they’ve forged an identity of physicality and consistency that will certainly get tested more during the grind of the Big Ten season.
Zinter himself explained Michigan’s attitude best:
“We want to make them quit.”