Here’s the good news for the Michigan football team’s offensive line: Its starters have all been around. Assuming Elliott Mealer wins the starting left guard spot, the front five will consist of no one younger than a redshirt junior.
Now the bad: All of the backups — all of them with scholarships, anyway (redshirt sophomore Joey Burzynski, a walk-on, is battling Mealer at left guard) — are freshmen or redshirt freshmen. Should one of Michigan’s starters go down, that’s a scary proposition.
For a sense of what starting multiple freshmen on the line would be like, offensive coordinator Al Borges need only think back to himself six years ago.
In 2007, when Borges was with Auburn, “we played three true freshmen offensive linemen when we went into the Swamp to play Florida,” Borges said. In fact, the three started a majority of the games that year.
“That’s just not done. Nobody does that,“ Borges continued. “Three true freshmen on the offensive line. If you play one, that’s highly unusual. Where I’ve been, we’ve played a kid who was ready to play or who wasn’t ready to play but we felt was the best player.”
Those three players — right tackle Lee Ziemba, right guard Chaz Ramsey and left tackle Ryan Pugh — had mixed results.
The Tigers ended the season at a successful 9-4, but two of those losses came before Ramsey and Pugh got their first start in the fourth game of the year. After that, Auburn’s only losses came against Louisiana State and Georgia. Then again, Auburn’s offense wasn’t exactly explosive — finishing 89th in total yards.
If Borges’ experience at Aubrun begets anything, it’s that a successful season for Michigan — a Legends Division title, a Big Ten title, a Rose Bowl berth — isn’t likely with multiple freshmen in the starting five. That means health will be key.
To combat that risk, offensive line coach Darrell Funk has been “cross-training” linemen, as Borges put it. In other words, teaching tackles how to play guard, guards to play tackle. Michigan can’t control future injuries, but it can ensure the most talented player replaces him, even at a different position than he’s used to.
“Yeah, they kind of have a designated position, but we’re a best five,” Borges said. “We always talk about best five, so the best five are going to play. We’ll plug them in where they fit.”
Borges acknowledged the injuries, like the season-ending fractured tibia that redshirt freshman guard Chris Bryant suffered, are a cause for a concern.
“Does it worry us? Yeah,” Borges said. “A little bit, but not to the point where we don’t feel like we have some capable replacements.”
How did Michigan get to this point? Subpar recruiting, primarily, with a hint of injuries. From the 2010 and 2011 recruiting classes, just one player, redshirt freshman Jack Miller, remains on the roster for this season.
Michigan recruited just one offensive lineman in 2010. Christian Pace would be a junior, but suffered a career-ending injury. The Wolverines recruited three offensive linemen in 2011, but Bryant will miss the entire season with an injury and Tony Posada left the team last year.
That leaves lots of offensive linemen on the extreme ends of the age spectrum, but few in the middle. Typically, offensive line backups come from sophomore and junior classes. Up the middle, guards Mealer and Patrick Omameh and center Ricky Barnum are all redshirt seniors. (Borges, like Michigan coach Brady Hoke on Tuesday, said on Friday that Mealer currently leads in the position battle with Burzynski). At tackle, Michael Schofield and Taylor Lewan, both redshirt juniors, enter their fourth season.
The backups are the opposite. Borges said that inexperienced players often struggle with consistency, as well as digesting a complex offensive system.
“I get a lot of questions about freshmen, ‘Are freshmen going to play?’ ” Borges said. “They’re very hard to answer, at this point. Very hard to answer.”
He would know. That 2007 season at Auburn — the one in which he started three true freshmen on the line? Borges resigned before the bowl game.