With the 2020 season just days away, Michigan has a unique challenge, one that speaks to how high the level of offensive line development has been in Ann Arbor under O-Line coach Ed Warinner.
Over the offseason, four different Wolverines were selected in the 2020 NFL Draft, so that means there are four starting jobs up for grabs up front heading into the Minnesota game. But while that is true, U-M head coach Jim Harbaugh feels "very good" about the group Warinner has helped coach up.
"[They're] big, a lot of length and really good athleticism," Harbaugh said on Monday. "The two tackles are both experienced guys-- Ryan Hayes and Jalen Mayfield, Karsen Barnhart also, I consider him a starter as well. Inside, Chuck Filiaga has really made a lot of strides. He's playing extremely well. He'll be in there for us at guard along with Andrew Stueber, who had an ACL last year in camp but did a great job rehabbing, he's back healthy and been very good, consistent. Andrew Vastardis is the starting center, so we are excited with our offensive line. Them gelling, coming together has been a good, a good process. I'm exited to see them let it rip too. I'm excited to watch all our guys compete. That's probably the bottom line."
With a presumptive starting group of Hayes-Filiaga-Vastardis-Stueber-Mayfield up front for Michigan heading into the season opener against Minnesota, the Wolverines have a group that has experience even if it's not of the starting variety. For example, Vastardis has been going head to head with U-M captain Carlo Kemp throughout his time in Ann Arbor, so the two have grown to know each other quite well.
"Me and Andrew have been battling ever since freshman year," Kemp said. "For the both of us, it's been a game of development and seeing Vastardis where he's at now and you just think about his whole process of coming in, walking on and now filling the role, being a starter for the Wolverines. It's a huge accomplishment to how he's able to handle any adversity in his life and being able to work his way from his starting position to where he's at now at the end is incredible."
But according to Kemp, it is no surprise that Vastardis has worked to assume a starting position on this year's Michigan squad because he gets to see the U-M senior work on a daily basis. Even without being the loudest or most vocal player in the locker room, Vastardis' work ethic speaks for itself.
"The biggest thing about Andrew is he's like, he is one of the hardest workers on and off the field and especially on the field," Kemp said. "Whatever happens during a play, he's going to make sure he finishes to the best of his ability through the whistle, to the whistle, and that's not an understatement because it's every play consistently. No matter what. We like to think of Andrew as a mack truck. He just drives his mack truck to work every single day nd just kind of pours his concrete, and that's kind of the guy Andrew is. Being that center position, you've gotta lead the rest of those O-Linemen, and he's done a tremendous job getting the rest of those guys rallied up, fired up every single day to go out there and practice and work on the things we want to accomplish this season."
With Vastardis locked in as one of the team's starting components, the whole group will enter the 2020 season with a bit of continuity thanks to fall camp. According to Vastardis, that's all the time this OL unit needs to enter the year on the same page.
"I think we've gotten to a point where we are very comfortable with each other," Vastardis said. "I believe in them, and they believe in me. As we get into the season, as we get those live reps against other competition, we are going to continue to grow. I think going against the great competition on our team has set us up tremendously for week one. It's not just going to be we've built up to this point. I think we are in a good spot, and as we progress forward we are going to continue to learn, continue to grow in different situations. I think we're in a good spot, and it's only up for here from us."
Even though several question marks existed regarding Michigan's 2020 offensive line, Coach Harbaugh and members on both side of the ball feel that the Wolverines will be fielding a strong unit that will more than hold its own this fall. Harbaugh credits the OL's physical tools, Kemp sees the group as a hard working unit and Vastardis recognizes the high degree of communication between U-M's blockers.
And in five days, this group will finally get to hit a member of the opposing team when Michigan takes on Minnesota on Saturday night.
How do you see Michigan's offensive line working together this season? Who do you think will be a breakout player up front? Let us know!