Throughout the years, if Michigan football was known for any one thing, producing top flight offensive lines would be near the top of the list. Sure, the Wolverines sent eight consecutive starting quarterbacks to the NFL in the 1990s and early 2000s, and always seemed to have a bell cow in the backfield. And for awhile, Michigan even seemed to have All-America-caliber receivers most years. But if there was one constant, it was strong offensive line play. And not just All Americans and future NFL stars like Steve Hutchinson and Jake Long, but as a unit, year in and year out, Michigan delivered. In retrospect, Michigan fans didn’t realize how spoiled they were. But they would find out.
During the Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke eras, all of that began to change. When Rodriquez brought his spread offense to Michigan, he also brought a fondness for more mobile (and lighter) linemen. When Hoke replaced Rodriguez after three years, he reversed course and returned to recruiting more traditional offensive linemen. Yet despite recruiting class after recruiting class of behemoths, Michigan’s offensive line never developed under Hoke. The new constant? Michigan couldn’t stand up to big, strong, aggressive defensive fronts.
Even early into Jim Harbaugh’s tenure as coach, offensive line play was slow in developing. But in retrospect, that shouldn’t have been surprising. If there’s one position that benefits from maturation and time in the weight room (and the mess hall), it’s the offensive line. Wisconsin has long had a culture where linemen, even very good ones, typically wait to take their place in the starting lineup. Sometimes waiting three years before taking the field – and then taking it out on the rest of the Big Ten. Michigan was forced go the opposite route, forced to play players a year or two before they were ready.
But over the past few seasons, Michigan’s offensive line play has quietly improved. It’s yet to reach a level of dominance, but it’s no longer a detriment. Having stalwarts like four-year starter and two-time captain Ben Bredesen and future first round pick Cesar Ruiz certainly helps, but so does Michigan’s depth at the position. In Harbaugh’s sixth year, he’s finally developed the pipeline of linemen that he wants – and Michigan needs.
And just in time, because after sending four starters to the NFL, Michigan is turning over virtually its entire offensive line this season. Yet because of its depth, Michigan is in a better position than it’s been in years past.
So what will this year’s offensive line look like? At tackle, its pretty clear. Manning one side will be the Wolverines’ lone returning starter, redshirt sophomore Jalen Mayfield. A star in the making, the 6’5”, 320-pound Grand Rapids product played well enough in his first year as a starter to garner all-conference accolades and land on several NFL watch lists. Count Harbaugh as a fan. “Every time I watch the film of practice, I like watching number 73 (Mayfield),” Harbaugh said earlier this month, adding, “Expectations are really high (for Mayfield this season).” His coach is right, Mayfield is primed for a breakout year.
At the other tackle spot, 6’7”, 300-pound Ryan Hayes is expected to slide into the starting line-up. Effective in relief last year, Hayes should prove to be a be an effective complement to Mayfield. Together, the pair could form one the better tackle combos in the conference.
The interior is less settled. But that’s not to say it’s a concern. Karson Barnhart, Zach Carpenter, Chuck Filega, Andrew Stueber and Andrew Vastardia are all in the mix to earn starting roles. But which players ultimately emerge as starters isn’t as important as the fact that there so many talented options from which to choose. It’s a situation that’s been a long time coming in Ann Arbor.
That’s not to say there won’t be a drop off in play. You don’t easily replace the talent, experience and leadership of players like Bredesen and Ruiz. But if the Michigan can find its center among the above-mentioned group, with its depth at the position, the drop-off won’t be as severe as one might think. Certainly not as severe as it would have been a few years ago.
After years of struggles in the trenches, things are finally trending in the right direction for the Wolverines offensively. If Michigan only had that kind of depth up front defensively.