The Michigan football team has thrived on turnovers this season. The Wolverines have forced more fumbles and intercepted more passes than any other Big Ten team.
But there’s a different kind of turnover that has plagued Michigan this season.
The offensive line has just one member who has played the same position through all eight games of this season – captain Jake Long. The senior has started every game at left tackle for the past two-plus seasons, a string of 25 straight games.
The rest of the line, however, has struggled with injuries and consistency throughout the year.
The problems began with the right side of the line. Presumed starter Alex Mitchell was injured before the season, and the coaches didn’t expect him back for several weeks. But after replacement Jeremy Ciulla went down with an injury against Appalachian State, Mitchell returned and played against Oregon and Notre Dame. He was injured again against Penn State, though, and just a couple plays after Ciulla came in to replace Mitchell, Ciulla was on the ground with injury again. Mitchell returned, but re-injured himself later in the same game.
At that point Michigan was down to its third-string right guard, redshirt sophomore Tim McAvoy. While he performed admirably in his teammates’ absence for the second half against Penn State and then in his first career start at Northwestern, the Wolverine coaches weren’t getting the production they wanted from the position. Before facing Eastern Michigan, the coaches decided they preferred shuffling the deck to playing with worse cards.
Right tackle Steve Schilling, who had started every game of the season to that point at right tackle, moved over one spot to guard, and junior Mark Ortmann replaced Schilling at tackle.
For Schilling, the switch was tough.
“Two weeks ago, three weeks ago, when he got his first start at guard, it was not something that he relished,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said Monday. “There’s a degree of feeling comfortable that he didn’t have then.”
Schilling never complained about the switch, but he did note that shifting to guard brought with it some challenges.
“There’s some things that are difficult,” Schilling said after his first start at guard against Eastern Michigan. “As far as assignment-wise, it’s not as difficult, but technique-wise, as far as pass blocking, it’s a little bit different.”
With Ciulla’s return to the lineup against Illinois, Schilling has moved back to his original spot at tackle, where he’s more comfortable.
But the experience the sophomore gained at guard will prove invaluable.
“I think eventually Schilling could end up at guard,” Carr said after the game against Purdue. “He could be a great guard or a great tackle. (He’s) started at both guard and tackle, and I think in the long run that will be a great thing for his development because he’ll understand what the guy next to him is doing because he’s done it, not because he sees it on film.”
The left side hasn’t been immune to the switching, though.
The season started with senior Adam Kraus entrenched as the left guard and sophomore Justin Boren playing center. But when quarterback Chad Henne had to sit out with injury, freshman quarterback Ryan Mallett’s insertion into the lineup shook things up.
Mallett fumbled two snaps against Notre Dame, and after the second one, the coaches switched Boren and Kraus.
Carr attributed the switch to the fact that Boren is left-handed, which changes the center-quarterback exchange.
But another reason might have been simpler.
“Sometimes you got to remember to get the snap up every time,” Boren said. “Just concentrate on getting the ball up. Ryan worked a couple different things with his hands and I think he finally got it down, with some little stuff like interlocking his thumbs . Basically as the center you just got to make sure it’s in the middle where he can get it. Other than that, it’s pretty easy.”
Boren switched back to center against Penn State, and Mallett fumbled just one snap against the Nittany Lions. The troubles returned against Illinois, however. Mallett fumbled two of his limited snaps, and Kraus was switched back to center while Mallett was in the game.
The constant shuffling of the line has had its costs. Running back Mike Hart has already lost more yards from scrimmage this season than he has in any other of his career. Henne has been hurt twice, and was seemingly knocked down every time he dropped back in the second half against Illinois.
With Michigan undefeated in the Big Ten but trailing Ohio State overall, the Wolverines can’t afford any losses down the stretch of their season.
The same can be said of the offensive line.