With much of the attention being paid to newcomers in
high-profile positions — most notably junior quarterback Matt
Gutierrez and senior running back David Underwood — how the
Wolverines will fill holes on the lines has been overlooked.
Despite the lack of hype, these vacancies present head coach Lloyd
Carr with unique obstacles to overcome on both the offensive and
defensive lines. The extent to which Michigan can reload in the
trenches will help to determine whether the Wolverines defend their
Big Ten championship and contend for a national title.

Michigan Football
Michigan has two holes on offensive line and three on the defensive line that need to be filled before the September 4th season opener against Miami (Ohio) at the Big House.

Michigan has experience on the offensive line with three
returning starters but must find a new center and right tackle, as
All-Big Ten performer Dave Pearson and second team All-American
Tony Pape have moved on to the NFL.

Last season, the offensive line was crucial to the success of an
offense which scored 460 points in 13 games — second most in
school history behind Fielding Yost’s
“point-a-minute” squad which racked up 644 points in
1901. The line opened holes for Doak Walker Award-winner Chris
Perry and gave John Navarre plenty of time to distribute the ball
to his receivers.

This year’s line will feature three seniors, led by
returning All-American guard David Bass, guard Matt Lentz and left
tackle Adam Stenavich. Their job this season may be more important
than last year because the offense will feature new starters
Gutierrez and Underwood. In order to succeed, the trio must
incorporate new starters and develop backups — all of whom
have little game experience — into a cohesive unit.

The good news is that there are several capable candidates to
step in and perform at both positions.

The battle for the starting center position has come down to
senior Leo Henige and junior Mark Bihl.

Carr spoke highly of Henige after spring practices and lauded
his efforts over the summer.

“We worked him with the No. 1 group, and he’s a
very, very powerful guy,” Carr said. “You know, I think
he’s training as hard as he can, and I don’t know how
it’s going to turn out but I wouldn’t bet against
him.”

Unlike at center, the competition for the left tackle spot is
wide open, with several players vying for playing time.

Among the players with the most buzz is 6-foot-7, 331-pound
sophomore Jake Long, who impressed coaches this spring by playing
through a turf-toe injury.

“Jake Long is young, but he’s huge and
strong,” defensive tackle Gabe Watson said. “As soon as
he gets his hands on you it’s hard to get away from him and
hard to get past him. He’s going to be real good.”

Senior Dave Schoonover and juniors Mike Kolodzieg, Ruben Riley
and Mike Barishaj all have some experience on the line, but none of
them have emerged from the pack to take the starting spot. With so
many bodies in competition for one starting spot, depth at tackle
will actually be a strength for the Wolverines.

“We’ve got great competition at the tackle
position,” Lentz said. “Jake Long’s health is
very good. He’s going to be something special. But,
we’ve got Stenavich, Kolodziej, Riley and Long, and
we’ve got four guys that are very competitive. They all have
good mobility, so that’s another position in terms of
starting. They will all play a role, but it is a position at this
point that we’ve got good depth.”

The situation for the front four is almost opposite of their
practice partners across the line of scrimmage. There are clear-cut
and talented replacements for defensive end Larry Stevens and
tackles Grant Bowman and Norman Heuer, but the glaring weakness
will be depth.

Stepping in for Stevens will be sophomore LaMarr Woodley, who
saw significant action at the end of last year after being one of
the top recruits in the nation in 2002. Senior Pat Massey, the only
returning starter, will book end the line with Woodley.

“Pat Massey, I think, is doing an exceptional job and
stepping into a role as a leader,” Carr said. “Massey
is 6-foot-7, 6-foot-8, he’s a big guy and has now grown into
his body and he’s much stronger than he was a year
ago.”

Juniors Gabe Watson and Larry Harrison are set to take over the
inside and replace Bowman and Heuer. Both were a big part of the
defensive line’s rotation last year, but with a lack of
experienced backups, they will be relied on to plug up the middle.
Carr will also rely on Harrison and Watson to stay healthy.

“We’ve got some younger, inexperienced guys, but the
biggest concern I have is that we’ve got to stay
healthy.”

The rest of the rotation will include junior Rondell Biggs and
senior Alex Ofili, both of whom were mentioned by Carr as keys to
the success of the defensive line. Behind Biggs and Ofili are a
slew of inexperienced underclassmen, including sophomore Will Paul,
freshmen Marques Walton, Alan Branch and Will Johnson. The younger
players will be expected to contribute in back up roles and in
goal-line situations.

This year’s defense boasts tremendous speed, which will
put a lot of pressure on the defensive line, especially the
tackles, to free up Michigan’s playmakers to pursue the
ball.

“(Defensive line) coach Sheridan is always telling us that
you can’t get single-blocked,” Massey said. “If
you’re getting single-blocked that means someone else is
getting double-teamed. You have to be the one to get to the
quarterback. We always have the mindset where we have to beat that
single block and that goes for everyone on the defensive
line.”

For the ends, there is a renewed emphasis on getting to the
quarterback — part of an overall defensive scheme that puts a
premium on attacking and disrupting the opposing offense.

“Coach Hermann told us he is going to put our best 11
players on the field and that’s what he’s done. He has
athletes in the secondary, the front seven and all the way around.
He’s definitely devised some schemes that can take advantage
of our speed,” Massey said. “There are cornerbacks,
safeties, linebackers, linemen — everybody has an opportunity
to get to the quarterback. It’s fun to play on a defense
that’s flying around and doing different things. I’m
never just going straight ahead. It’s definitely a lot of fun
to play in that kind of scheme.”

The competition over the spring and summer has not only been
between players on the line, but since they practice against each
other every day, it has also been between the lines themselves.

“Going up against them every day is a task in
itself,” Branch said. “Those guys are huge, they have
great footwork and they are hard competitors. Everybody is here to
make everybody better.”

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