Michigan’s offensive line entered last fall as perhaps the strongest position group on the team.
The Wolverines had four returning multi-year starters, each with All-Big Ten accolades.
Those four veterans are gone now, though, leaving Michigan with the difficult task of replacing four NFL draft picks — one that has become harder in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak that canceled spring practices.
“That’s a big concern,” said offensive coordinator Josh Gattis in a Zoom call Thursday afternoon. “We were going to have a huge competition to figure out who our best five was. That’s ultimately the No. 1 job that we’ve gotta be able to decide is who is the best five.”
Michigan returns one starter: right tackle Jalen Mayfield, who was named All-Big Ten honorable mention by the conference’s coaches. A redshirt sophomore, Mayfield was promising in his first season as a starter and impressed evaluators enough to earn early NFL draft hype —ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. even listed Mayfield at No. 14 on his 2021 NFL draft board.
Still, Gattis feels the Wolverines have two more starting-caliber players in Andrew Stueber and Ryan Hayes. Stueber, a redshirt junior, was in contention at right tackle when he tore his ACL in fall camp last summer and missed the entire season. Hayes played at both tackle spots, starting the first two games at left tackle in place of an injured Jon Runyan Jr.
“Considering Andrew Stueber’s a guy that’s played before in the past so three guys that have starting experience, even with Hayes in the mix as well,” Gattis said. “So we feel like we’ve got a good nucleus of guys that have played in games, whether it’s been late in games or contributed as starters.
“And then a good group of young guys that have been here over the past year-plus that have gained value and experience from that standpoint.”
Other players who could contend for starting spots include Andrew Vastardis, Chuck Filiaga and Joel Honigford. Coaches have also praised younger players like Karsen Barnhart, Nolan Rumler and Zach Carpenter, who were part of the Wolverines’ six-man offensive line class in 2019.
Thanks to offensive line coach Ed Warinner’s recruiting efforts, there’s plenty of talent up front. The difficult task will be finding who fits where — while developing chemistry among a group that hasn’t started together.
“Not necessarily, this guy plays this position or maybe he’s played that position before in the past, but to mix them all in,” Gattis said. “And so that’s been a huge challenge. They’ve been very engaged in meetings. I’m excited about the players that we have, but I think with missing spring ball, the challenge is getting those guys caught up to speed as a group.”
Gattis said he likes what he has seen from Michigan’s offensive linemen and praised their athletic potential. But until football returns, it’ll be difficult to get a true sense of the unit’s development.
“I think the challenge for this group will be catching up to our previous group in the pass protection game,” Gattis said. “I think our group in the past had the ability to be elite pass protectors, but this group that we have now probably has the ability to be a little bit better in the run game from an athletic standpoint.
“So I think there’s positives and negatives to each side, but I think our ability to catch those guys up in both of those areas is going to be key.”’