It’s not the most glamorous position on the football field, but no group will play a more important role than the offensive line for Michigan this season, especially with a new quarterback taking over and a heightened emphasis on running the ball.
Luckily for Michigan, it returns one of the most important qualities in an offensive line: experience. Four of the team’s five regular starters return for 2016 after Graham Glasgow was selected in the third round of the NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions.
The two unknowns heading into the offseason were who would take that fifth starting spot, and which reserves can step into a bigger rotational role.
Four of Michigan’s five offensive linemen return after starting at least 12 games last season. The most solid, reliable player is fifth-year senior Kyle Kalis, who started all 13 games at right guard and elevated his play to near all-conference levels. Kalis has been a mainstay on the offensive line since his redshirt freshman season in 2013. Since settling in at right guard, Kalis has become a solid pass protector, but like much of the line, needs to take the next step to create the running game Jim Harbaugh envisions.
Fellow fifth-year senior Ben Braden takes up the other guard slot, coming off a breakout season in which he started 13 games and quietly put up some of the best performances on the line. Recruited as a tackle, Braden was hailed as a strong run blocker coming into Ann Arbor, but he’s done a nice job to date stopping the inside pass rush.
Both starting tackles return for the 2016 season, but with a bit of a twist. Fifth-year senior Erik Magnuson will lock down his familiar right tackle spot and be a major contributor on the line for a fourth straight season. He’s slowly turned himself into a strong edge blocker and enjoyed his best season under Harbaugh a year go.
But former starting left tackle Mason Cole will step into a new role for his junior year, though he’ll be just as crucial to this veteran line. After becoming Michigan’s first true freshman to start a season opener on the offensive line in 2014, Cole played left tackle in each of his first 25 games at Michigan. Now, he’ll step into Glasgow’s empty shoes as the starting center, a role he’s embraced this summer.
Michigan went through a disastrous period at center under Brady Hoke, struggling with the center-quarterback exchange, and at times, allowing defenders to get huge jumps off the snap. Cole will be critical in picking up the running game this season and shoring up the inside of the line. He’s a smart player and has the physical tools for a smooth transition, but Cole will be a player to watch when the Wolverines take the field Sept. 3.
Four starters down, and one question mark to go. The new kid at the starters’ table will be sophomore Grant Newsome, who takes over the vitally important left tackle position. Newsome is one of the best natural two-way blockers on the roster, coming into college as an excellent pass blocker and an able run blocker. He’s strong and explosive, but the key will be consistency and moving his feet off the edge on a play-by-play basis. Newsome will have his gaffs, like any young player, but as the season goes on, he’ll benefit from playing next to such an experienced group.
|Left Tackle||Left Guard||Center||Right Guard||Right Tackle|
|Grant Newsome||Ben Braden||Mason Cole||Kyle Kalis||Erik Magnuson|
The starting five played a ton of snaps for Michigan last season, but there are a few returning players who contributed in the rotation. Perhaps the most seasoned backup, and a candidate for a starting role as a redshirt senior next year, is David Dawson. Dawson shared some time with Braden at left guard last season and held his own, especially in pass blocking. He’ll be an important depth guy in 2016.
Senior Patrick Kugler is in a similar situation, though his ceiling was much higher coming into Ann Arbor. The former five-star recruit played a backup role in 2015 and could provide some insurance if Cole struggles at center, which seems unlikely. Either way, the senior will play a role.
An interesting player to watch will be junior Juwann Bushell-Beatty, who played in only four games as a reserve lineman last season. The Paramus, N.J. native was just getting his feet wet last season, and passed his first college test. He might not take on a huge role this season, but look for Bushell-Beatty to make moves up the depth chart for 2017.
Ben Pliska played in two games last season, so his role could grow as a fifth-year senior in 2016. He can fill in at multiple positions on the line and gives Harbaugh another option if one of these contributors struggles or goes down with an injury.
Two linemen who didn’t play last season but should figure into the mix as redshirt freshmen are Nolan Ulizio and Jon Runyan. Both members of Harbaugh’s first recruiting class at Michigan, Ulizio and Runyan committed as three-star prospects. Ulizio fits the fits the typical Harbaugh bill — a smart, physical player who plays the position with a chip on his shoulder. Runyan is a little different, as he’s more of a quick, explosive lineman who may be a little undersized, but compensates with great technique. Expect both players to find a home in the rotation off the bench.
Michigan pulled in three new offensive line recruits in its elite 2016 class, led by Wisconsin’s finest, Ben Bredeson. That’s right, Harbaugh managed to pull a Wisconsin lineman away from the Badgers, and Bredeson is exactly what you’d expect from that ilk. One of the top offensive linemen in his class, Bredeson projects as a guard or tackle and could probably step into a bigger role if Michigan wasn’t so stacked with veteran lineman. Bredeson has decent size, but his value comes from his athleticism, which makes him an excellent run blocker. If he can bring his pass protection up to par, he’ll be a familiar face on the line over the next several years.
Harbaugh pulled another gem from the offensive line crop, snagging Michael Onwenu out of Cass Tech in Detroit. Onwenu is an absolutely enormous human who will play guard at over 350 pounds. He can pass block well for a big guy, but his specialty should be run blocking as he matures. It’s all power and strength with Onwenu, so his ability to learn the intricacies of the position will dictate his success at Michigan.
The third – and sometimes forgotten – man from this group is Stephen Spanellis, who committed to Michigan out of nowhere in January. Spanellis is just another big, strong lineman to add to the mix, joining the team at 6-feet-6 inches tall and around 300 pounds. He probably won’t play much of a role as a freshman, but the Baltimore native could factor in down the line.
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