While the offensive line on any football team generally operates as a collection of unsung heroes, that trend flies out the window when a team runs for 343 yards like Michigan did Saturday. Far from the shadows, the cast of behemoths becomes the center of conversation.
Opportunities for such a shift in conversation are few and far between, but as the Wolverines’ 31-10 thumping has provided one such occasion, it’s time to talk about the men in Michigan’s trenches.
Recent times, and last season in particular, have not been stellar for the Wolverines’ offensive line. Throughout the 2020 campaign, Michigan’s linemen looked unsteady at some points and overmatched at others, often failing to protect the Wolverines’ quarterbacks or create holes for their running backs. Though it certainly wasn't the disappointment within a season in which Michigan limped to a 2-4 record, the then-inexperienced Wolverines’ offensive line did little to help matters.
It is very clear that the returning members of that unit, and its new coach, took last season’s failures to heart.
“In our first meeting with coach [Sherrone] Moore, he told us we were gonna be physical,” said junior offensive lineman Trevor Keegan. “We can’t do what we did last year. That wasn’t Michigan football, that wasn’t a Michigan offensive line. We really take pride in that, and we’re on the right track.”
It is one thing for a player or coach to make that sort of declarative statement. Talking is easy. Making the necessary culture change; however, is another thing entirely — and that’s exactly what the Wolverines’ offensive line has done.
Not only has an notable increase in physicality across the offensive front been obvious in both of Michigan’s dominant wins, according to Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, it rings through the team’s practice facility on a regular basis.
“Yeah, [playing with a mean streak] has been something they’ve embraced,” Harbaugh said “Going back into spring ball, the 9-on-7 drill, which is an inside run type of drill, you’re not running any trick plays and the defense isn’t running any games or twists. It’s who can block a man, who can get off of a block. We run 3 types of running plays, and one or two defensive fronts. It’s something that our offensive line and defensive line have really embraced. When that period comes up, whether it was practice in the spring or fall camp, we did it every day with pads on. We do it Monday and Tuesday during the season; it’s become a drill of emphasis. We look forward to it. There’s excitement. They wanted music, so we play music during that drill.“
Physical play up front, like everything else on a football field, starts in practice. And if there were any doubts about the degree to which the Wolverines bought into the 9-on-7 drill, Keegan’s description of this season’s additions erase it completely.
“Years prior, we’ve called it 9-on-7, which is what the drill is, but this year we’ve changed the name to the Beat Ohio drill,” Keegan said. “Now we’re blasting music, smelling salts, everything. It’s a pretty physical period — we love it.”
Having only taken on Western Michigan and an apparently overhyped Washington team, the Michigan offensive line is yet to face a test the likes of which it will see against the likes of Wisconsin or Ohio State, but lack of competition doesn’t nullify demonstrated change.
Thus far, the Wolverines’ front has come to play hard, fast, and physical, and that is exactly how they’ve earned their share of the spotlight this week. Now, if they continue to do so as those greater challenges come forward, the team as a whole will be in a much better position to receive praise rather than criticism come October and November.