A quick look at a list of former Wolverines playing in the NFL will show that Michigan has sent more offensive linemen to the professional level in recent years than athletes at any other position.
This fact isn’t all that surprising, considering Michigan’s traditional emphasis on the running game. Sure, Wolverine quarterbacks have become hot commodities lately, but the big blockers up front have been the team’s calling card for as long as anybody cares to remember.
So the present situation worries me, and it should bother you, too.
Why, you ask? Because this year’s line isn’t shaping up like a typical Michigan group.
Criticize Chad Henne all you want for his poor showing against Notre Dame. Point the finger at conservative play-calling. But no matter how good the Wolverines may be at the skill positions or strategic planning, it all means nothing if the O-line can’t cohere.
It’s often said that football games are won or lost in the trenches, and that point is hard to argue when you take a look at past Michigan squads.
The offensive line on the Wolverines’ 1997 national championship team featured three current NFL starters: Jeff Backus, Steve Hutchinson and Jon Jansen. Even in the past two years, as the Wolverines traveled to Pasadena for back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances, the five-man front has been a major strength. In 2003, Chris Perry’s 1,674-yard season came while running through holes opened by one of the most consistent and synchronized lines in school history. Adam Stenavich, David Baas, Dave Pearson, Matt Lentz and Tony Pape each started every game and never shuffled positions. Last year, Stenavich, Baas and Lentz started every regular-season game, while Jake Long missed just two starts. Left guard was the only position that saw multiple changes during the year – Baas’s move to center necessitated Leo Henige’s promotion before Rueben Riley took over for the final seven contests.
Three factors are critically important to the success or failure of an offensive line. A look at these criteria shows why there may be cause for concern this season.
First, and most obviously, skill level plays a significant role. While Michigan’s 2005 roster features some pretty substantial talent on the line, it lacks the dominant, versatile presence of Baas, an All-American a year ago who now plays for the San Francisco 49ers. And it certainly didn’t help when Long, a redshirt sophomore who may be the most naturally gifted lineman to ever don the winged helmet, suffered a serious leg injury at the end of fall camp. Long is expected to miss much – if not all – of this season. So it’s safe to say that, without any significant additions this year, the talent level is not what it was in 2004.
Second, a healthy unit is crucial to winning. And this offensive line hasn’t exactly been healthy so far. As a matter of fact, it’s been downright cursed when it comes to the injury bug. It all started when Long went down in late August, the victim of a freak accident in practice. Things got worse before the Notre Dame game, when Mike Kolodziej, filling in for Long, suffered an undisclosed injury that prevented him from dressing for the much-anticipated showdown. Even Lentz, a mainstay on the line over the past few years, went down with an apparent injury during the second quarter against the Irish. Lentz returned, but his temporary absence gave Michigan players, coaches and fans yet another scare and threatened to submarine the already-paper-thin depth at the position. The only good news on the medical front is that Henige is finally healthy after missing most of last season due to a knee injury. So it’s basically been a MASH unit at the line of scrimmage, a very uncharacteristic circumstance for the Wolverines.
Finally, a line must build chemistry to stand out. This requires a time-consuming process during which each player becomes accustomed to the tendencies, strengths and weaknesses of his teammates. Repetition is absolutely essential, because it’s clearly difficult to coordinate five gigantic bodies in an effective pattern, down after down. Once again, the Wolverines fail the test. Even though Stenavich and Lentz have a ton of experience in game scenarios, it would be an understatement to call the remaining three spots untested. As it stands, Michigan’s left guard, center and right tackle – Henige, Adam Kraus and Riley, respectively – made a combined nine starts in nine collective years in Ann Arbor before this season. These guys aren’t quite seasoned veterans. Not by a long shot.
Sure, I know it’s early. A lot could happen to reverse these trends.
Long could return to make a major contribution this season. Henige seems to be doing well in his comeback attempt. Inexperienced players asked to fill vital roles – like Kraus – might step up to the challenge.
But unlike in past seasons, these are all question marks. For the first time in a while, those big guys with bulky black knee braces striding to the ball in front of Henne don’t necessarily give Michigan an automatic advantage.
It might be fair to say that the season’s on the line for the Wolverines.
Big Men on Campus
Nine former Wolverines are now NFL offensive linemen, while another two players from Michigan were cut by professional teams just before the start of the regular season. Here’s a list of ex-Wolverines who made it to the next level:
Player Pro Position Pro Team At Michigan Height Weight
David Baas Guard San Francisco 49ers 2000-2004 6-foot-4 320 lbs.
Jeff Backus Tackle Detroit Lions 1996-2000 6-foot-5 305 lbs.
Jonathan Goodwin Guard New York Jets 1998-2001 6-foot-3 318 lbs.
Steve Hutchinson Guard Seattle Seahawks 1996-2000 6-foot-5 313 lbs.
Jon Jansen Tackle Washington Redskins 1994-1998 6-foot-6 306 lbs.
Tony Pape Tackle Miami Dolphins 1999-2003 6-foot-6 310 lbs.
Dave Pearson Center Atlanta Falcons 1999-2003 6-foot-3 297 lbs.
Jon Runyan Tackle Philadelphia Eagles 1992-1995 6-foot-7 330 lbs.
Maurice Williams Tackle Jacksonville Jaguars 1997-2000 6-foot-5 310 lbs.
Note: Center David Brandt (San Diego Chargers) and guard Eric Wilson (Miami Dolphins) were recently released.
– Edelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org