Michigan Wolverines: Ben Braden
And so the offensive linemen couldn't escape all the negativity floating around about them in 2013. After all, it was virtually everywhere.
The Wolverines didn't need outsiders to tell them what was obvious: they struggled up front, particularly in the three inside spots as coaches mixed and matched inexperienced players without much success. Michigan finished 11th in the Big Ten in rushing and tied for the second-most sacks allowed in the league.
This spring, the two most reliable players on last season's line -- tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield -- are training for future NFL careers. It's up to many of the same guys who struggled in their first major exposure to step forward and change the outlook.
"We know we don't have the option to not get better," guard Kyle Kalis said. "It's getting to that point where we can't really say we’re young anymore, because next year, no one is going to want to hear that. So we have to all come together."
Whether you see it as an excuse or simply reality, the Wolverines are awfully young on the O-line. They have one senior -- Joey Burzynski -- and two juniors in Graham Glasgow and Jack Miller. The rest are sophomores or freshman, and with Burzynski out with an injury and Glasgow serving a suspension, youth is dominating spring practice reps.
Consider the left tackle position. Magnuson, currently out with a shoulder injury, will likely start out atop the depth chart there when he's healthy. But right now, the three players battling to fill Lewan's shows are redshirt freshmen David Dawson and Logan Tuley-Tillman and Mason Cole, a freshman early enrollee. Cole has impressed his coaches and has an excellent chance of at least making the rotation. But the fact that a guy who should be a high school senior right now is getting so many reps at the most important offensive line position speaks volumes.
"I can't all of a sudden make them older, so we have to make sure we do what we can do," offensive line coach Darrell Funk said. "We’re so young that if every day we can get better at something, we’ll have what we want."
The good news is that players like Magnuson, Kalis, Kyle Bosch and Ben Braden all gained valuable experience as freshmen and should naturally improve with more seasoning. New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has simplified many of the blocking schemes and is emphasizing quick, decisive moves in a more north-south running game than predecessor Al Borges.
"You get the the chance to open these huge holes and then let the running backs take one or two steps right or left, find the hill and start running," Kalis said. "That’s a big difference from last year."
Last season's group also had a different dynamic with two established senior starters and a whole bunch of young players. Now, many of the players are close together in class and have gone through similar experiences.
"It was Taylor and Scho’s offensive line last year, which was fine because we needed that leadership," Kalis said. "But this year, it's kind of cool that we can let it be our line and really come together."
A lot of work remains, even though spring practice wraps up later this week at Michigan. Funk is still mixing and matching while trying to find the combinations that work best, and the returns of Magnuson, Burzynski and Glasgow will change the formula in fall camp. He said everything is still a work in progress right now, including the leadership on the line.
Funk knows that both he and the unit received scathing criticism last season, but he says the only thing that matters is moving forward.
"You take your lumps with young guys, and then the following years you see the rewards," he said. "I don’t think that will be any different in this situation."
Nobody has to tell those young guys that they need to improve in a hurry. The outside noise is mere motivation.
"We got the label of not being a good offensive line way too much last year," Magnuson said. "That puts a lot of fuel to the fire when you play at Michigan because you have such high expectations."
Prediction No. 1: The offensive line isn’t going to be quite as far along as some would like.
The offensive line is the position group that must improve the most between 2013 and 2014 if the Wolverines want to be better offensively. As good as Devin Gardner, Derrick Green, De'Veon Smith or Amara Darboh might be, it won’t matter too much if the offensive line struggles like (or for as long a stretch) it did in 2013.
What is often thought of as a prototypical Michigan offensive line is one that is stacked with juniors and seniors, guys who have paid their dues, learned from upperclassmen and are physically and mentally ready to step in. However, that wasn’t the case last season and, as much experience as some players might have gained in 2013, it won’t be the case this fall.
The trio also doesn't have experience as a starting combo. Kalis appeared in Bosch’s three starts (against Michigan State, Nebraska and Northwestern) but didn’t start. But they have played together before, which is more than could be said for the group last season.
So while it’s still a very young group, there could and should be some gains made in the interior of the offensive line. So the problem flip-flops from what it was last season to what it is this season -- the tackles, the strength of the line last season. In 2014, those two positions will likely be filled by two redshirt sophomores who have limited experience.
Ben Braden, who appeared in just two games, is taking reps with the top group this spring and Erik Magnuson, who started seven games and appeared in 12 games last season, is the likely leader for the spot at left tackle. Both have the physical attributes to be excellent tackles: height, weight and long arms. But last season showed what talent without experience looks like, and the idea of some of that inexperience protecting Gardner’s blind side is a bit worrisome.
On top of that, Magnuson underwent shoulder surgery this winter and isn't participating in spring practices. Redshirt freshman David Dawson is taking his snaps at left tackle, just continuing the revolving door of youth on the offensive line.
Last year the competition for the positions went on for weeks throughout the season. In the perfect world, coaches would at least be able to see the two-deep throughout the spring. That certainly won’t be the case as Magnuson is out and reserve players such as Chris Bryant and Joey Burzynski -- who have game experience -- are unavailable this spring.
Because fixing the offensive line is at such a premium for the Wolverines and because fans have taken such notice to it, expectations are high. But those expectations still need to be tempered, especially through this spring. If people show up to the spring game expecting to see the 1997 Michigan offensive line out there, then they probably want to stay home and try to watch replays. This group will make strides, but those strides aren’t going to be massive this spring.
No. 2: Right tackle
Who’s in the mix: Ben Braden, Logan Tuley-Tillman, David Dawson.
What to watch: The Wolverines need to make major strides with their offensive line this fall but how much of that can actually happen this spring remains to be seen. Erik Magnuson -- who’s in contention for the starting spot at left tackle -- isn’t participating in spring football while he rehabs after a shoulder surgery. And Tuley-Tillman, another option at tackle, will miss the first few weeks of spring practices with a hand injury. That doesn’t exactly leave Michigan a ton of options for what to do on the offensive line, nor does it help with building chemistry for what will eventually be the starting five -- one of the biggest struggles of last season.
However, Michigan will move forward as it needs to replace the book ends of its offensive line from last season. Schofield was the less heralded of the two tackles, but he played in 52 games and made 36 starts (first 10 starts were at left guard before moving to right tackle). On Tuesday, coach Brady Hoke said that on the first day of practice Braden was running with the first group at right tackle, and Dawson was running with the first group at left tackle. Dawson could probably be at the two-deep spot at either position when Magnuson does return. Magnuson and Braden are both 6-foot-6, as opposed to Dawson, who’s a mobile 295 pounds but only 6-4. So while Dawson may be playing left tackle this spring, look for him to take reps at both in the fall. And when Tuley-Tillman does return to spring practices, he’ll likely be jumping in at the right spot with Braden. Tuley-Tillman is the tallest of the options at 6-7, but Braden still has him on weight (319 pounds as opposed to Tuley-Tillman’s 290 pounds).
No. 2: LT Ben Braden
Weight: 318 pounds
2013 statistics: appeared in two games as a reserve offensive lineman
The offensive line is the position group that will need to make the biggest jump during this spring season, but the left tackle position -- which had been occupied by Taylor Lewan for four seasons -- is now open.
The Wolverines struggled this season by having youth on the interior and veterans at the tackles, however, next season the exact opposite will be true. The interior offensive linemen will presumably be the most experienced of the line, while the tackle spots will likely be occupied by redshirt freshmen with limited experience.
Going into the spring, Braden is expected to compete at the left tackle spot, looking to fill Lewan’s shoes. His biggest competition was expected to be fellow redshirt freshman Erik Magnuson, but Magnuson will miss spring football due to a shoulder surgery he underwent this winter.
Braden can use this spring season to establish himself as the top left tackle so that when the fall rolls around, he’s still running with the first group. He’s a bit smaller than Lewan (Lewan played his senior season at 6-foot-8, 315 pounds) but can use his athleticism on the outside to keep his QB safe.
The offensive line’s improvement will be of paramount concern this spring as Doug Nussmeier works to mesh his offense with the arsenal of players in Ann Arbor. As displayed by the Wolverines this season, no offense can get going unless the offensive line is being effective. And for the first time in four years, the Wolverines will be questioning who will effective for them at left tackle.
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To the inbox ...
Mike from Allentown, Pa., writes: Hey Adam, with all the talk about Penn State's bowl ban being looked into this offseason, I have a hypothetical question for you. If the NCAA were to drop Penn State's bowl ban, would the Big Ten comply and make them eligible for the Big Ten championship? Or, is it possible the Big Ten could extend that ban separate from the NCAA?
Adam Rittenberg: Mike, the Big Ten's penalties always were tied to the NCAA's. Big Ten rules state that if the NCAA declares a team ineligible for postseason play, that team can't play in the Big Ten championship game. So if the NCAA lifts the bowl ban, the Big Ten would declare Penn State eligible for a league title (the Lions already can win their division). Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has been pleased with Penn State's response to former Sen. George Mitchell, the independent athletics integrity monitor assigned to the school. So I'd be shocked if the Big Ten added or maintained any sanctions against Penn State once the NCAA ones are lifted.
Josh from Indy writes: Have you ever thought about the comparison between Darqueze and his cousin Alfonzo? Both had great careers for their respective teams. Just wanted your take on this.
Adam Rittenberg: Josh, I definitely thought about it after Darqueze Dennard won the Big Ten's Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year award, which Nebraska's Alfonzo Dennard claimed in 2011. I can't imagine two family members have won the same award while playing for different teams in the same league. Pretty cool. Darqueze's numbers this season are more impressive than Alfonzo's in 2011, although Alfonzo was a true shut-down guy who basically eliminated one side of the field. Darqueze's pro prospects are better, as many peg him as a first-round draft pick. We'll never know where Alfonzo would have been drafted if he hadn't had the off-field trouble. Both are great players, though.
Derek from Preston, Iowa, writes: Hey Adam, I was just curious as to what you thoughts were on Derrell Johnson-Koulianos' Twitter tirade against Kirk Ferentz. Ferentz is beloved for the most part in Hawkeye Country, and this whole thing just seems weird. Why now?
Adam Rittenberg: The timing is interesting, Derek, as much of this happened three years ago. I understand Derrell's perspective that Ferentz blackballed him with the NFL and stifled his playing career. Some of his teammates back up the accusations against Ferentz and strength coach Chris Doyle. It's an unfortunate situation, but I would be very surprised if Ferentz or Iowa has anything to say about the accusations, especially so long after the fact. Iowa has moved forward and Ferentz's word still carries weight in NFL circles.
DJK has the right to air his grievances, and he has never held back on his views. Honestly, I can't think of a Big Ten player I've covered who fit in less with a particular program. But I doubt there will be major consequences for Ferentz or Iowa.
Fatback from Newark, Ohio, writes: Just wanting to know what your thoughts about Ohio State's defensive coordinator position. I know Fickell is an OSU guy, but we definitely need a change of pace. What do you think about Fickell moving down to just a position coach ( if he doesn't get another job this offseason), and hiring another person from the outside or moving Mike Vrabel up? I think with Vrabel we would play much more aggressive and sit back in all the zone coverage that teams seem to kill us on. Again, your thoughts?
Adam Rittenberg: It would be tough for Ohio State to demote Fickell, who was the Big Ten's third highest-paid assistant this year ($610,000). You're not going to pay that salary to a position coach (at least you shouldn't). Fickell still brings a lot of value to Ohio State as a recruiter, and while his defense has its issues this year, youth in the front seven and Christian Bryant's injury didn't help matters. On the other hand, Urban Meyer has extremely high standards, and if he feels Fickell isn't helping the team to a national championship, maybe you make the change.
I've heard that Vrabel has definite head-coaching potential, and he did a nice job with a young defensive line this year. With Everett Withers reportedly departing to James Madison, don't be surprised to see a co-coordinator situation with Vrabel and Fickell. Perhaps Vrabel has more say on play calls. I just can't see Ohio State forcing out Fickell right now.
Joe from Kentucky writes: How can you guys leave off Blake Countess and Stanley Jean-Baptiste from the All-B1G selection for Bradley Roby? Roby was suspended for his off-the-field antics (looks really all-conference) and he got exposed by any of the good WRs he faced. Jared Abbrederis and Jeremy Gallon made him look silly to the tune of almost 400 yards combined. That does not sound like an all-conference performer to me. On the other hand, Countess led the conference in INTs and Jean-Baptiste was right there (if not tied). I think you guys were a little biased in trying to make MSU and OSU the top two represented teams (which their records show). Also, Ryan Shazier is the only person on that Ohio State defense to be named All-B1G.
Adam Rittenberg: Roby's one-game suspension really isn't relevant, as we included Carlos Hyde on the team despite his three-game suspension because he was the Big Ten's best running back in league play (few would argue). I agree that Roby struggled against Abbrederis in the Wisconsin game, but many of Gallon's yards didn't come against Roby in the Michigan game. Roby made a touchdown-saving tackle on Gallon, running completely across the field, one of several displays of athleticism he had this season. He had a very good Big Ten season and is one of the better special-teams players I can remember in this league. SJB had a nice season but no picks in Big Ten play. You could make a case for Countess, but I still feel Roby performed better in Big Ten play than any corner other than MSU's Dennard. Shazier is the only other Buckeye defender on our All-Big Ten team, although lineman Michael Bennett deservedly made the second-team.
Will from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Should I be concerned that Michigan will be breaking in two new starters at both offensive tackle positions in 2014? Lewan and Schofield took 99.9 percent of the snaps this year, likely making their replacements having VERY little, to no game experience. After the abysmal display on the interior of the line this year, I do believe there are positives in game time reps of the interior line translating to better protection up the middle next season. Will inexperience on the edge hurt the line more next year than the inside this year, or can you mask the youth more on the outside than in?
Adam Rittenberg: Some good points here, Will. I agree that Michigan's interior line will be improved next year because of all the experience gained, even through some tough times. It will be interesting to see what Michigan does with Erik Magnuson, who can play either guard or tackle but might be best at tackle depending on his development. The staff was excited about Ben Braden's development in the offseason, and he could step in for Lewan at left tackle. I'm really interested to see how the line performs in Arizona following bowl practices, but you're right that the group will continue to be under the microscope with both veteran tackles departing.
Ken from Carmel, Ind., writes: When Clifton Garrett recently committed to LSU, he mentioned the great game-day atmosphere. Having attended a game there, I agree. Sometimes I think the B10 doesn't get that -- and is slow to pick up other little things like that (night games) that can make the difference in winning or losing recruiting battles, and eventually games. As an Iowa grad, the large number of 11 a.m. games certainly don't help the game-day atmosphere. I get the feeling that the people at the top -- president, and A.D. -- don't understand this. You'll have a couple more arrests with later games, but most people just cheer louder and have more fun - a.k.a., better game-day atmosphere. Your thoughts?
Adam Rittenberg: Couldn't agree more, Ken, and I've been writing this for years. The Big Ten needs to prioritize prime-time games and become more open to weekday games, which would get some of the smaller programs some much-needed exposure. The good news: the league is definitely warming up to the idea, adding more prime-time games and becoming open to November night games, most likely in the 2014 season. Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said Thursday that the Big Ten's next television contract will feature more prime-time games. That's a good thing, as the noon ET and 3:30 p.m. ET windows just don't carry the same weight with recruits.
However, Michigan’s participation in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl on Dec. 28 can be interpreted as a huge victory for the team, and specifically its youth.
Obviously, beating Kansas State will be put at a premium. But the coaching staff won’t overlook the fact that they’ll get extra practice time with the young players on this team.
There aren’t any special bowl-prep practice rules. Michigan can practice for the bowl as they did during the regular season -- 20 hours a week with a maximum of four hours a day.
And while Michigan isn’t going to scrap its depth chart and only work with the scout team over the next few weeks, it will be a huge opportunity for players who are lower on the depth chart or only played sporadically this season to get more repetitions.
Obviously, the offensive line had a bit of that throughout the season. Six freshmen and sophomores started at least one game this season, and while that created a lot of confusion and growing pains, left tackle Taylor Lewan preached about how much that would help the team in the next few seasons.
So during the next two-and-a-half weeks, young players such as Kyle Kalis, Erik Magnuson and Kyle Bosch will continue that growth. But it will be even more helpful as offensive line coach Darrell Funk is able to work with reserve player such as Ben Braden and Blake Bars or players who redshirted this season such as David Dawson and Patrick Kugler.
It’s the same story for the defense. Freshmen defensive backs Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling, linebacker Ben Gedeon and defensive lineman Taco Charlton each played this season, but during that time they were targeted by opposing teams from time to time specifically because they were freshmen.
And then there are players such as running backs Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith and tight end Jake Butt, who made large contributions by the end of the season, but didn’t really get the full season of experience as a first or second-stringer.
This cluster of practices will be like an extra three game weeks.
“A lot of these young guys have earned a right to play, and it didn’t start out the first week,” Mattison said. “It has been throughout the season, so every chance they get to play another game and to have this practice time is tremendous for us.”
While the 7-5 season isn’t what the Wolverines had hoped for, they’ll be able to use this as a new season going forward, a chance to go 1-0.
The fact that so many freshmen and sophomores played this fall shows how confident Hoke and his staff are in the job they’ve done on the recruiting trail.
“We’re very, very excited about our football team and we feel very strongly that the young men that we’ve recruited in the two or three years that we’ve been here now are the right young men,” Mattison said. “Now, it’s getting that experience. … You can’t put a price tag on these 15 more practices where you can gain on individual drills and become a smarter football player.”
The Wolverines have started three different offensive lines through seven games. And while Michigan had its best game -- statistically -- last Saturday, it was against one of the worst defenses in the Big Ten.
“Even with that, Hoke was happy with the push from the offensive line and the protection it provided for quarterback Devin Gardner.
Obviously the big test in two weeks, you're playing one of the top five defenses in the country and in our conference in all the categories. We've got a lot of work to do before then.” Coach Brady Hoke on the Wolverines' next game at Michigan State.
“I liked the progress that they made,” Hoke said. “And even the guys who weren’t starting, the weeks that they had were significant in their development. The competition that we always have, I think, is helping us as a football team.”
That competition so far this season has provided enough talent for Hoke to shuffle faces around on the O-line. The three players who have started every game are Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield at the tackles and Graham Glasgow, first at left guard, and then moving over to center when conference play began.
One of the bigger personnel surprises was redshirt freshman Kyle Kalis being moved out of the starting lineup. Coaches had spoken highly of him from the beginning of fall camp, but even though he lost his starting spot to redshirt freshman Erik Magnuson, Hoke said that Kalis is still in the middle of that competition.
“I think he’s probably responded like you’d like him to,” Hoke said. “He has had a good week of practice -- came out and was physical, really understands that we’re going to need him. The next five games I can assure you we’re going to need every guy that we have in both fronts to play their best football.”
And they might be using that depth as they already have this season. Here’s a look at who played where through the first seven games this season.
Central Michigan to Connecticut:
LT: Taylor Lewan (Erik Magnuson)
LG: Graham Glasgow (Chris Bryant)
C: Jack Miller (Joey Burzynski)
RG: Kyle Kalis (Erik Gunderson)
RT: Michael Schofield (Ben Braden, Magnuson)
Minnesota and Penn State:
LT: Lewan (when Lewan got injured: Schofield, Gunderson)
LG: Chris Bryant (Burzynski)
RG: Kalis (Burzynski)
RT: Schofield (Magnuson)
LG: Joey Burzynski (Kyle Bosch)
RG: Magnuson (Kalis)
It will be interesting to see what Hoke and his staff decide to do with his group going forward.
On Monday, Hoke announced that Burzynski would be out the rest of the season with a torn ACL so that opens up the left guard spot again. When Burzynski exited the Indiana game, Hoke inserted Bosch, a freshman who held his own.
Whether Bosch can keep that spot, or if Hoke and his staff decide to shuffle more players around the line, will be something that plays out over the next week and a half as the Wolverines prepare for Michigan State.
The Spartans are the country’s best defense, allowing just 228 yards per game, including just 59 rushing yards per game. Considering the rushing performance the Wolverines had against Indiana, they’ll be heading into that game feeling confident, but they’ll certainly have their work cut out for them.
“Obviously the big test in two weeks, you’re playing one of the top five defenses in the country and in our conference in all the categories,” Hoke said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do before then.”
There’s lots to talk about. As always, send your questions in (@chanteljennings, jenningsESPN@gmail.com). I’m here every Wednesday.
John Babri, Kentucky: With the way the Wolverines looked in their last two games is there any hope for them in The Game?
A: Well, if Michigan plays like it did against Akron and Connecticut when Ohio State comes to town at the end of November, the Wolverines will get embarrassed. However, with that game, nothing really matters as far as stats and records. I would imagine that both teams will bring their A game and assuming Michigan’s offensive line can pull it together and protect Devin Gardner while also opening some holes for Fitzgerald Toussaint, then good things could happen. However, if we’re still discussing offensive line depth/chemistry/whatnot in November, that will be a very, very bad sign for Michigan.
@SahamSports via Twitter: Where does the responsibility of the early struggles lie on Hoke, [Taylor] Lewan and leadership, Devin [Gardner], etc.?
A: All the above and some. The answer is never just one thing. I think you have some youth at key positions (interior offense line, wide receivers outside of Drew Dileo and Jeremy Gallon, quarterback -- yes, he only has a handful of starts). Add to that how the Wolverines didn’t prepare well for Akron and then maybe overprepared and overthought UConn and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. And it’s not as if Michigan’s offense is built to completely avoid turnovers. The Wolverines are relying on high-risk, high-reward plays because of some of that youth, and of late it hasn’t paid off.
Jerry Mead, via Twitter: Are we going to see more Derrick Green?
A: On Monday, Hoke said that he would like to lessen Toussaint’s load by giving Green and freshman De’Veon Smith some carries. That kind of an answer would benefit the Wolverines in multiple ways. For starters, it gives Toussaint a bit more of a rest through the game and season. But Green and Smith are built differently than each other and Toussaint, so it changes things up for defenses a bit when the Wolverines can shuffle different guys in there. With how effective Iowa was with the run last weekend against Minnesota, there’s a pretty good idea of what you need to do against the Gophers to get the run game going. If Michigan can open holes as well as the Iowa offensive line did against Minnesota, then I think we will see all three guys with some pretty impressive runs.
Mike Ziemke, Chicago: Do you think it's possible we'll have two redshirt freshman and three redshirt sophomores as our starting O-line next season?
A: I highly doubt that. I think Ben Braden will step in at right tackle and Erik Magnuson will come in for Taylor Lewan at left tackle, so that gives you two redshirt sophomores. Add to that Kyle Kalis, who I believe will keep his job at right guard -- so then you have three. The center and left guard positions will be interesting and we could learn a lot about those this weekend. At left guard, I think we’ll see more Graham Glasgow and Chris Bryant, which would be a redshirt junior. Center will be the most interesting because you’ll either have Glasgow, Jack Miller, Joey Burzynski (who’d be a redshirt senior) or redshirt freshman Patrick Kugler, which would be an interesting situation.
Michigan knew it would be young up front with three brand-new interior O-line starters -- left guard Graham Glasgow, center Jack Miller and right guard Kyle Kalis -- and while the struggles might not have shown up as much against Central Michigan and Notre Dame, they did against Akron and UConn.
So if there seems to be a place on offense that a new starter might emerge by the time the conference season hits, the offensive line might not be a bad bet.
“I think the three guys in the middle [of] the offensive line are always something that we look at,” coach Brady Hoke said. “There are some guys who have played well in there, but there’s great competition behind them. So if a guy has a good practice, good couple days, you may move him up.”
That’s a lot of pressure to put on three very young guys, but Hoke said that so far they’ve responded well to pressure.
But it wouldn’t just affect the interior line. Obviously, Hoke can’t make changes there without having it also affect left tackle Taylor Lewan and right tackle Michael Schofield.
But Lewan said he would be open to moving guys around or bringing news guys in if that’s what it takes to get the offensive line back to a Michigan standard.
“All of the offensive linemen on this team are great guys, as far as character, and if the coaches believe that another guy should get a shot, I’m going to work with him as much as I can,” Lewan said. “My job is to get this offensive line right, to get this team right.”
But he has also seen good, promising performances out of the youthful O-line.
Lewan said that he has seen intensity in the group, which is often a big jump to make, but that it hasn’t been quite as consistent as he wants it to be, nor has it always matched the intensity of their coaching staff.
“I saw a huge sense of urgency in those young guys [against UConn],” Lewan said. “Those guys are starting to build their legacy and build what they want in the future. ... I think it really clicked for them in the second half of the game.”
But the problem is that it’s taking a while for it to click, and Michigan doesn’t really have a lot of time left. With Big Ten play starting next weekend, the Wolverines know they’ll have to be perfect, or close to it, if they want a chance to play for the conference championship.
This bye week was well-timed to give the Wolverines a chance to try out a few new lineups. Perhaps Ben Braden, Chris Bryant or Erik Magnuson will get a shot on the O-line.
However, there will be growing pains because those players have even less game experience than Michigan’s current starting group.
Lewan said that maybe the younger guys are thinking too much about the pressures and the O-line gradings and how each step affects them down the road. It’s natural for a younger guy to think of those things as he’s fighting to secure a spot in the starting line or rotation. But if Michigan wants to have an offensive line that is effective, Lewan thinks they might just have to get rid of ... thinking.
“There comes a time when you have to be a student of the game, you have to watch film, you have to know what you’re doing,” Lewan said. “But when you’re on the football field, you kind of just have to turn your brain off and play football.”
If you haven’t left your computer to go to Bivouac or Rick’s, we can start talking football now.
A: Brady Hoke, Al Borges and Fred Jackson would much prefer a featured back. Last season they had Fitzgerald Toussaint from Day 1, but two years before that, they kind of tested the waters with multiple backs before settling on Toussaint a few games in. The issue they’ll face this fall is that they have two guys who both present very unique and different issues. Toussaint will likely start against Central Michigan, but his health is a concern. He has been healthy through fall camp but when those practice piles turn to opponents and Big Ten linebackers and defensive linemen, will his body be able to hold up? Then you have Derrick Green, whose vision and football IQ need to catch up to the college game before he’s really ready to tear apart any defenses. It sounds like that’s what has held him back so far. Because both concerns are likely present, I’d imagine we’ll see both getting snaps until only really, really separates himself (but knowing the other one also has game time experience this season).
2. June Whitfield, Inkster, Michigan: Any mention of Chris Bryant in the mix within the offensive line?
A: Recently I’ve been hearing good things about Bryant at left guard. He sat out of Saturday’s scrimmage because of a knee injury, but I had heard that he had been taking more snaps with the first team than redshirt freshman Ben Braden. Assuming the knee injury isn’t a big concern, I could see him getting the start against Central Michigan. It's crucial to find someone that will mesh well with Taylor Lewan and find instant chemistry since Michigan will be running to the left behind Lewan often.
3. KentMazingerHw via Twitter: When will we see a new commitment?
A: The next big visit date for Michigan will obviously be the Notre Dame game. In the 2014 class, both Da’Shawn Hand (Woodbridge, Va./Woodbridge) -- the No. 1 defensive end in the nation -- and John “JuJu” Smith (Long Beach, Calif./Long Beach Polytechnic) -- the No. 3 athlete in the nation -- will be in attendance. That kind of atmosphere and energy will be huge in showing those guys how exciting and big Michigan football is as they’re both from outside the area.
4. RyanMassengill via Twitter: What team is the biggest threat to Michigan this season besides Ohio State?
A: I’ll pick a home and away game for this one. Home -- I’ll go with Nebraska. The Cornhuskers return quarterback Taylor Martinez, who will be a challenge for any defense. However, their defense is going to be replacing several starters in the front seven so Devin Gardner could have a field day, too. This could be a fun day to watch some explosive playmakers on offense. And as far as an away game, Michigan State will always be one to watch, but also ... don’t sleep on Northwestern. The Wildcats’ offense keeps defenses on their feet and their defense should be stout up front, which would force Gardner to pass and receivers to step up. It’s not necessarily a huge road game since there’s such a Michigan presence in the Chicago area, but still.
5. Sammy, Ann Arbor: Which Big Ten-related account makes you consistently laugh?
A: It's a parody account, but, @FauxPelini. His avatar should be enough to convince you.
This means more questions about actual football in this week’s mailbag. If you have questions next week, send them to Chantel at @chanteljennings on Twitter or firstname.lastname@example.org through the electronic mail.
Now on to your questions this week.
@saltybarb22 from The Den asksL Who is being developed for the tackle spots behind Taylor (Lewan) and (Michael) Schofield?
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While Robinson’s replacement at quarterback, Devin Gardner, is set, much around him will be new or contested. Michigan will unveil a more fine-tuned version of the pro-style offense it ran last season with new linemen, new wide receivers and possibly a new running back to go with it.
The defense will be playing for the first time in the Brady Hoke era without Kenny Demens at middle linebacker and Jordan Kovacs at safety as the defensive anchors.
So here’s at some things to pay attention to over the next three weeks as Michigan prepares for its opener against Central Michigan on Aug. 31.
Top position battles
Running back: One of four positions on the Wolverines with no clear hierarchy entering camp, as any one of five players could potentially win the job. Redshirt senior Fitzgerald Toussaint is the incumbent, but is coming off a broken leg which ended his junior season. Freshmen Derrick Green and Deveon Smith could both see playing time and will likely compete with Toussaint for the majority of the carries. Junior Thomas Rawls, who has yet to show a true burst in two seasons, is another possibility if he has improved. The wild card here might be redshirt freshman Drake Johnson, who has track speed -- he was an elite high school hurdler -- and a good frame. He likely won’t win the job but could end up stealing carries.
Strong side defensive end: Keith Heitzman is likely entering camp as the leader here, but that’s a very tenuous lead at best. He has the most experience of the players competing at end, but the youth behind him will likely at least win a share of playing time. Chris Wormley, who, like senior Jibreel Black, could play both inside and outside, is a candidate here. Wormley was a player who many thought could have played as a true freshman last year before tearing his ACL. Two other redshirt freshmen, Matt Godin and Tom Strobel, are also candidates here. Much like what could happen at rush end with Frank Clark, Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton, you could end up seeing a three-man rotation here unless someone stands out heavily.
Defensive tackle: Quinton Washington is set at one position. The other, like the strong side end, is wide open. Like at end, Wormley and Black could make big moves here -- and Black might be the presumptive starter entering camp. Watch for Willie Henry to make a move. The redshirt freshman impressed last season’s seniors and he has the size to be a large complement to Washington. When Michigan goes jumbo, sophomore Ondre Pipkins, who will likely be in a rotation with Washington, could see time next to him.
Five reasons for concern
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- To many people other than Taylor Lewan, Taylor Lewan should be in his first NFL training camp right now, being hazed as a rookie and preparing for a career as a bookend tackle for whatever NFL franchise drafted him.
The redshirt senior chose to hold off on all of that for another season, surprising his teammates, his coaches and almost everyone else by returning to Michigan for his fifth season.
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And one of those candidates, Fitzgerald Toussaint, is close to entirely back to health.
“He’s been working hard under the radar,” safety Thomas Gordon said. “Getting back from that leg injury. He’s a hard worker and I can’t wait to see him get back on that field because we hated to see him go out last year.
Gordon said Toussaint has his speed and has cut well, but the redshirt senior from Youngstown, Ohio, has yet to take an actual hit with pads on since he broke his leg against Iowa on Nov. 17, 2012.
He missed spring practice rehabbing but insisted by the end of the spring he was close to being healthy. He rushed for 1,041 yards as a sophomore but struggled last season, rushing for only 514 yards and five touchdowns.
Toussaint will end up competing in the fall with freshmen Derrick Green and Deveon Smith. Between the three of them, one of them should end up winning the job.
“We haven’t seen too much of the freshmen,” Gordon said. “But from what I hear from my strength coaches, they have been working hard.”
Hoke happier with depth
When Brady Hoke took over at Michigan in 2011, the depth at his favorite positions -- the offensive and defensive lines -- was non-existent. They barely had enough to field a team on an actual game day and the depth was littered with walk-ons.
This season, Hoke’s third in Ann Arbor, he feels a lot better about both his line play and the amount of guys around. Michigan’s depth, despite the lack of a release of an actual depth chart, should have scholarship players throughout the two-deep on both offense and defense.
“Our numbers are up,” Hoke said. “I think our competition throughout spring. I think the competition that, in how they did things through summer have improved both positions, particularly the interior of the offensive line and the interior of the defensive line.”
While he hasn’t been able to watch any of the competition for the three open interior offensive line spots yet -- Ben Braden and Kyle Kalis are the presumed leaders at guard and Jack Miller at center -- he knows what he would like to see from them by the end of August.
Hitting. A lot of hitting.
“I want to see them knock people off the football and finish blocks,” Hoke said. “And not do it with good humor.”
Poole done playing football
Michigan linebacker Antonio Poole, who redshirted as a freshman and then missed last season with a pectoral injury, will no longer play for the Wolverines.
He will remain with the program, however, as a student assistant coach. The Cincinnati native was the No. 41 linebacker in his class coming out of Winton Woods High School. He was not expected to contribute this season.
But pretend for a second those laws were relaxed and the Buckeyes and Wolverines each had a need so pressing that the programs at least kicked around some ideas. As part of our ongoing look this week at "The Game," a couple ESPN.com beat writers took a shot to see just what they could get from each other that might spur on a championship run for the current roster. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, here's a look at how a (fictional) deal might have gone down.
Subject: Don’t tell anybody
We probably shouldn’t even be talking, and if word gets out that we even considered making a deal, we might need to consider looking for new jobs. But since the rules against trades in college football magically vanished and we were hired for some reason to become general managers for Ohio State and Michigan, respectively, I think we at least owe it to ourselves to pursue all options. As I’m sure you’re aware, the Buckeyes were hit pretty hard by graduation in the front seven after knocking off the Wolverines to cap a perfect season last fall (in case you forgot about the celebration in the ‘Shoe). And recently the program has seen a group of linebackers that was already thin lose a couple more bodies that could have offered some help off the bench this fall. Additionally, while the future looks pretty bright at tackle for Taylor Decker or Chase Farris, right now there is one spot without much experience that tends to stand out when there are four seniors starting elsewhere on the line. So, I don’t know what position is troubling you most as training camp sneaks up on college football, but if there’s a potential swap or two that might help us both out, I am all ears. But you didn’t hear that from me.
Interim Ohio State personnel director
Subject: Too late
Unfortunately for you, I'm mouthy. And I've already started rumors you are trying to trade Braxton Miller for the remnants of Rich Rodriguez's offense. Apologies in advance. Not going to lie, looking over my roster I have concerns at wide receiver, running back and I could use some experience on the interior of the offensive line. Also, while there's some depth at cornerback, wouldn't mind grabbing one or two from you. Oh, and since you're interested in giving up Miller, that would solidify some of the depth issues there. I see you're fishing for a tackle. Sorry, Taylor Lewan is not available. While I like Michael Schofield a lot, he is more available at the right price. So too are some of the linebackers. What interests you on the Michigan squad? I'm willing to listen for anyone except for Lewan and quarterback Devin Gardner.
Fake Michigan personnel director
Subject: Re: BRAXTON
Hey bud, these talks just about ended instantly with any mention of the franchise quarterback being available. Newsflash -- Miller won’t be on the market heading into his senior season either, so get used to trying to defend him. At any rate, Schofield would be an intriguing option for the Buckeyes because he could provide another veteran presence with ample experience in the Big Ten, potentially giving Decker or Farris another year to develop physically before moving into the starting lineup in 2014. After getting a glimpse at what Desmond Morgan could do last fall when he made 11 tackles (in a losing effort) against Ohio State, he might look good in Scarlet and Gray, especially if the spring gave him flexibility to play in the middle. I probably don’t need to mention that Bradley Roby is untouchable in the secondary, but there is no shortage of talent alongside him in the backend. Might want to take a look at the stable of running backs the Buckeyes have in the fold as well -- but feel free to skip over Carlos Hyde.
Subject: No subject
Michigan Outlook: 2014
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
TBD California Northwestern TBD Indiana State Indiana TBD Jacksonville State Michigan State TBD Appalachian State Michigan TBD Florida Atlantic Nebraska TBD Youngstown State Illinois TBD Northern Iowa Iowa TBD Ohio State Navy TBD Western Michigan Purdue 8:30 AM ET Penn State UCF 9:00 PM ET LSU Wisconsin