Inside the U-M offensive line’s evolution from liability to anchor

Football

When the Michigan football team returned from Atlanta following a brutal Peach Bowl loss, offensive line coach Ed Warinner handed each lineman a paragraph with detailed winter training instructions.

Like the rest of the team, the offensive line faltered in Florida’s 41-15 pummeling of U-M. But unlike 2017, the unit’s rough end to the season was surprising this time around.

Two seasons ago, the offensive line was a culprit — occasionally the culprit — in the Wolverines’ disappointing five-loss campaign. The group’s status as a weakness was an open secret, so Jim Harbaugh hired Warinner away from Minnesota to right the ship.

Last year, the offensive line entered the spring season with a goal in mind: Don’t be an embarrassment. And what a difference a year makes.

After working with Warinner, Michigan’s offensive line established itself as a strong suit. The group returns four starters — Jon Runyan Jr. at left tackle, Ben Bredeson at left guard, Cesar Ruiz at center and Michael Onwenu at right guard from its 2018 revival.

At this point, freshman Jalen Mayfield and sophomore Andrew Stueber are still competing for the starting right tackle role following the departure of Juwann Bushell-Beatty, who signed with the Redskins as an undrafted free agent. Warinner referred to the battle as a “close call,” while Harbaugh claims they’re “neck and neck.”

Under Warinner, every starter along the line received a Big Ten honor, highlighted by Runyan’s First Team selection. Michigan was the only team in the conference to achieve the feat, but the plaques pale in comparison to the mere 23 sacks allowed — a 36-percent improvement from the 2017 season.

During spring ball, the group impressed first-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis.

“One of the things we really have is an offensive line that can really drive our offense,” Gattis said when he addressed the media for the first time on March 22. “I would say that’s the strength of our offense right now.”

Out of the four returning starters, Onwenu has taken a massive leap forward. Warinner attributed his improvement to getting slimmer, quicker, using his hands better and understanding the game.

“It’s like (Onwenu) took this winter completely — took it to a whole new level,” Ruiz said. “The way he’s playing it’s like, Mike’s turned the edge, really. I watch him do one-on-one pass rush. Me and him do combination blocks all the time. We’ve always been good at it, but it’s like we’ve both got that extra fire on it.”

Outside of the returning starters, Warinner cited Andrew Vastardis and Joel Honigford (right guard), Stephen Spanellis (center), Chuck Filiaga (left guard) and Ryan Hayes (left tackle) as the primary backups.

Hayes, in particular, has caught Warinner’s eye so far this spring. After initially committing to U-M as a tight end, Hayes’ transition to the offensive line didn’t come naturally. Making the jump required an extra 30 pounds of strength and a drastic change in mindset.

“I’m really proud of (Hayes),” Warriner said. “… All of a sudden he walks in a room with me and the offensive line like ‘Woah, he’s a bubble.’ We don’t cut anybody slack in there. We work, we have details. We have high demands. All of that, he just worked through that process. Now he understands the O-Line, he understands the techniques. And he’s gotten bigger and stronger.”

With an experienced offensive line firmly in place, the offense has found its anchor. This unit has permanently escaped its previous label of “liability,” putting a number of early worries to bed in the process.

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