Mailbag: Addressing the Offensive Line Situation

Mailbag: Addressing the Offensive Line Situation

February 21, 2018

Grant Newsome (image via Detroit News)

Hi Thunder,
Could you address the offensive line situation and how likely you think it is to take a step forward next year? I find it hard to be confident unless one of the redshirts turns out to be a special player or Grant Newsome comes back 100%.

Thanks to Julian for the mailbag question.

My response is after the jump.

First of all, it’s important to gauge the starting point. Michigan’s statistics from 2017:

  • #7 in Power Success Rate
  • #20 in Adjusted Line Yards
  • #41 in Passing Downs Line Yards
  • #47 in Stuff Rate
  • #57 in Standard Downs Line Yards
  • #90 in Opportunity Rate
  • #104 in Passing Downs Sack Rate
  • #117 in Adjusted Sack Rate
  • #118 in Standard Downs Sack Rate

One thing is pretty obvious: Michigan was terrible at pass blocking last season, especially on standard downs. That means Michigan’s play action passing game was ineffective, which isn’t too much of a surprise. Not only are Michigan’s running backs not extremely threatening, but the quarterbacks were confused and ineffective, which increased the sack rate. If a ruffled quarterback turns his back to the defense and then can’t find anyone to throw to immediately when he turns around, bad things happen.

What starters is Michigan losing?

  1. The Left Tackle: Mason Cole started 51 straight games at Michigan, including 13 at center in 2016. He was Second Team All-Big Ten in both 2016 and 2017.
  2. The Center: Patrick Kugler has already seemingly given up on a pro career in favor of coming back to Michigan as a grad assistant in 2017. That might give you an idea of how effective he is and how he would be viewed at the NFL level.

So what starters will be returning in 2018?

  1. The Left Guard: The left guard last year was Ben Bredeson, who started in both his freshman and sophomore years.
  2. The Right Guard: Rookie Cesar Ruiz started 6 games at right guard last season, even though he was recruited to play center. With center being a tough position to play, guard is often a starting point for future centers, especially when they play early.
  3. The Other Right Guard: Sophomore Michael Onwenu started at right guard for the first half of the season, and he played left guard in the Outback Bowl when Bredeson was injured. There was a stretch of the year when Onwenu went to the sideline in favor of Ruiz.
  4. The Right Tackle: For the majority of the year, redshirt junior Juwann Bushell-Beatty started at right tackle, including seven straight games. He ended the year, however, with being sent home from the Outback Bowl.
  5. The Other Right Tackle: Redshirt sophomore Nolan Ulizio started the first five games of the season at right tackle before being replaced by Bushell-Beatty. Ulizio struggled mightily, especially in the passing game.

They say about quarterbacks: “If you have two starting quarterbacks, you don’t have a starting quarterback.” Well, Bredeson is pretty proven as a decent piece on the left side, but the jury is out on Ruiz/Onwenu and Bushell-Beatty/Ulizio.

The good news is that reinforcements are coming. I know people grow sick of hearing, “It will get better next year” but there is reason to believe that’s accurate. And if we’re being honest, it’s tough to get any worse in some of those rankings when there are only 130 teams in the FBS.

Michigan returns its most promising players on the inside (Bredeson, Onwenu, Ruiz), and that’s probably where much-hyped “offensive tackle” Chuck Filiaga fits best, too – at offensive guard. Meanwhile, Jon Runyan, Jr. has some experience and looks like a fairly solid option at right guard or right tackle.

The biggest question marks are at left and right tackle, and I think Michigan has four options with good upside. I’ll list them here in order of highest to lowest upside, in my opinion:

  1. Grant Newsome: Newsome was a very solid left tackle in 2016 before a devastating knee injury almost caused him to lose his leg. He says he plans to be on the field this year, and he’s participating in off-season workouts. Will he return to the field, and will he be as good as (or better than) he was in 2016? I don’t know. But we’ve seen production from him there, and it would be excellent for the team – and for him – if we see it again.
  2. Ben Bredeson: Yes, Bredeson playing tackle is an option. He was supposedly in a neck-and-neck race with Newsome for the left tackle job as a true freshman in 2016, though he ended up at left guard. If he plays tackle, I think he’s better off on the right side, but this line looks significantly better with Newsome at LT and Bredeson at RT.
  3. James Hudson III: Here’s one of the redshirt freshmen you mentioned, and I’ve been saying since he was recruited that I think he has more upside on offense (LINK) than as the defensive tackle he was originally labeled. Some insiders are already saying that Hudson looks like he’ll be starting at one of the tackle spots next year after he spent most of 2017 practicing on that side of the ball.
  4. Andrew Stueber: Stueber is another guy that some people have been excited about, and he has the body for the tackle position. Aside from Newsome, Michigan has been starting guard types at tackle over the past couple seasons, but that trend could change if Stueber pans out.

In an ideal world, here’s what happens:

  • LT: Newsome gets healthy and returns to form.
  • LG: Bredeson remains if possible to give Michigan a very good left side of the line. If he’s needed at RT, plug in Runyan.
  • C: Ruiz starts and stays healthy, because Michigan doesn’t have anyone else.
  • RG: Onwenu remains and learns to pass block.
  • RT: Bushell-Beatty, Filiaga, Hudson, and Stueber duke it out. If they all fail, you can play Bredeson here.

The bottom line is that it’s a very iffy situation. There is reason for positivity (new faces! Newsome might return!), and there is reason for negativity (new faces! lack of development by Drevno!).

I’m looking forward to seeing how these guys look in the spring.


  1. Comments: 31
    Joined: 1/10/2017
    Feb 21, 2018 at 8:25 AM

    Any thoughts on Spanellis (how he looked last year, where he might top out based on his on-field performance so far, how his supposedly high intelligence could help him)? Honigford (in addition to what you already related through his “Wolverine” profile)? Do you think Ulizio will ever be in the conversation again?

    • Thunder
      Comments: 2437
      Joined: 7/13/2015
      Feb 21, 2018 at 9:57 AM

      Spanellis looked okay last year. I think it’s a good sign for him that Michigan was trying to get him on the field in some capacity. Usually that’s a precursor for some more playing time in the future. I think he’s a guy who could play center in the future (if something were to happen to Ruiz) or maybe guard, but I’m not a big fan of using him as a puller.

      I haven’t seen Honigford in action since he got to Michigan, so it’s hard to say with him.

      I don’t believe Ulizio to be a serious factor, but it’s possible. He just struggled so much last year that I wonder about his confidence at this point, too. I think Michigan has recruited over him, and he might be a guy who does not return in 2019.

  2. GKblue
    Comments: 262
    Joined: 8/11/2015
    Feb 21, 2018 at 8:53 AM

    Thanks for the attention to the OL.

    There are a lot of new names on the squad in various stages of development. I am curious as to Warriner input and if it is heard by JH and especially Drevno. Hopefully after spring ball there will be some positive news.

    • Thunder
      Comments: 2437
      Joined: 7/13/2015
      Feb 21, 2018 at 10:00 AM

      I would certainly hope that Warinner is listened to this year. I think his style of offensive line coaching is more in line with what Jim Harbaugh has run, because Frey has always been more of a zone guy. Drevno should be in a mood now to go back to the drawing board a little bit and listen to some other people.

  3. Comments: 3
    Joined: 1/12/2018
    Feb 21, 2018 at 9:48 AM

    Thanks for the write up, Thunder. What do you make of the analysis that part of the reason the line struggled last year was they spent significant time repping Greg Frey’s zone schemes, which they weren’t suited for? Don’t a lot of good running teams run both gap and zone schemes? Just wondering. Also do you think it’s likely the new S&C coach makes a difference? Some people thought he was a factor in the line’s performance last year… he didn’t seem to hurt the d-lines performance though.

    • Thunder
      Comments: 2437
      Joined: 7/13/2015
      Feb 21, 2018 at 10:08 AM

      A lot of good teams run gap and zone schemes, yes. But keep in mind that Jim Harbaugh runs a pro-style system with multiple fullbacks, multiple tight ends, etc. On the one hand, there are a lot more things you can do with those guys when it comes to traps, double-teams, etc. On the other hand, it also means if you want to run all those things, you have to have time to rep it.

      You can run power along with inside and outside zone as your core running plays, which Frey had done at Indiana. It’s tougher to use inside zone, outside zone, power, iso, duo, counter trey, wham, etc. Because every one of those plays has to be repped in practice against any defense you think the opponent might use that week – over, under, 3-3, Bear, Okie, Eagle, 6-2 goal line stuff, etc.

      I think the new S&C coach could make a difference, but not necessarily in any way that shows up on a resume. I think sometimes it’s good to bring in a new face just to shake thinks up and keep people on their toes. Herbert could have them doing the exact same exercises, but doing it at different times of the day with different messages might give them a little extra oomph. It’s also possible that he can use specific tweaks for offensive linemen to find success, whereas Tolbert was more effective with different positions. Maybe Tolbert’s approach was perfectly fine for the defensive line, but maybe his work with the offensive line was too focused on the lower body and cost them strength in the upper body. (That’s just an example, not an analysis.)

  4. JC
    Comments: 165
    Joined: 8/17/2015
    Feb 21, 2018 at 3:28 PM

    I really thought Grant would never play football again. If he starts this season for Michigan, I will be blown away.

    I’m not sold on kicking Bredeson out to tackle. I think keeping some continuity on the interior with Onwenu, Bredeson, and Ruiz and finding two serviceable tackles out of Hudson, Stueber, Filiaga, Newsome, Ulizio, and JBB would be ideal. If the tackles can be average we could have a good enough line to win every game on the schedule. If Bredeson really is out only reliable option at LT, and RT is going to be a revolving door, we’re in a bit of a trouble.

    I think next year could lose 2-5 games with the brutal schedule. If we don’t get the line fixed, 5 losses feels about right. If the line is above average, 2 losses feels about right. If the line is exceptional and Patterson or Peters or McCaffrey emerge as a star, I’m putting my house down as collateral on Michigan taking home the championship.

    A little over 6 months left!

  5. Comments: 731
    Joined: 8/11/2015
    Feb 21, 2018 at 3:39 PM

    In a nutshell, we’ll be doing well if we can cobble together a starting lineup that is even a bit better than average, and we’ll be in trouble (yet again) if we suffer any significant injuries to starters.

  6. Comments: 206
    Joined: 12/24/2016
    Feb 21, 2018 at 9:06 PM

    Game 1 in South Bend will show a lot……… Till then not even the coaches are going to know what they got…….

    The main reason bo started scheduling ND back in the day was as a barometer to gauge where the team was at. Everything tween now and the final whistle is all speculation. So much new personal; coaching, players, etc.

    After SB wit ND then we’ll have an idea wha 2018 is going to look like. til then its like studying quantum mechanics & trying to ‘predict’ the universe.
    As I See It…………INTJohn

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