Michigan football’s Jim Harbaugh speaks to the media on Monday, Nov. 5, 2018, in Ann Arbor.
Nick Baumgardner, Freep
There have been times over the past decade or so where the idea of Michigan’s offensive line growth was an easier sell. There have been top draft picks and returning starters and encouraging signs and everything in between.
The 2018 version of Michigan’s offensive line said all the same stuff about how things would be different and efficiency would rise. Though based on where things ended a year prior, average seemed more likely than great.
Still, there they were. Insistent, even when plenty rolled their eyes.
“Our offensive line will be one strength of our offense this year,” sophomore center Cesar Ruiz said one week prior to the start of the season.
The eye rolling is officially over, Mr. Ruiz. You were right.
Shea Patterson’s arrival changed Michigan’s offense and his performance this season has changed everything. But none of these things happen if he’s spending half the game on the ground looking out of his helmet’s earhole.
At Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan, the offensive line is still the key to everything.
And in 2018, the offensive line — and the stellar job turned in by first-year position coach Ed Warinner — has changed Michigan’s season.
This group won’t go down in history as the most dominant offensive line Michigan’s ever had, far from it. But considering where things were at the end of last season, the 2018 version’s current journey has to be on par with some of the biggest turnarounds in program history. In part because of the on-field production.
And in part because all of this is happening with five players who, to a man, have all gone through painful football days in their career.
“I know (athletic director) Warde Manuel watches the offensive line intently,” Harbaugh said after a 42-7 win over Penn State on Saturday. “He thought (right tackle) Juwann Bushell-Beatty had his best game of the season.
“Which is really good, because we were just saying we thought he had his best game of the season two weeks ago.”
Bushell-Beatty, a fifth-year senior, and left tackle Jon Runyan Jr., a fourth-year junior, were perhaps the biggest question marks on the roster entering this season. Both had their chances to establish themselves earlier in their careers. And neither had managed.
Sometimes, when an older player seems to be spinning his wheels, he’s topped out. It’s not for lack of effort, it’s just a fact of football. Everyone has a ceiling. Sometimes those are hard to deal with.
Speaking with reporters in the summer, Harbaugh was almost trying to will the alternative into existence with these two. Runyan had been close before, the staff thought. Bushell-Beatty had changed his body and changed his focus during the offseason.
This had to happen.
“Gonna need him to be that right tackle,” Harbaugh said of Runyan at the time. “(Bushell-Beatty), got real high hopes for him.”
This year was burn the boats time for these two and while the year got off to a rocky start at Notre Dame, neither packed it in. Bushell-Beatty was terrific at Michigan State and clean again in pass protection against the Big Ten’s best pass-rushing outfit Saturday.
Runyan? He said recently his rocky performance at Notre Dame served as the last wake-up call he needed.
“I was kind of hesitant to at first,” he said. “It kind of made me sick to my stomach looking at myself in that game.”
Against that Big Ten-leading Penn State pass rush last week, Runyan graded out as the second-best offensive player on the team.
Offensive captain Ben Bredeson has gone from a promising young guard who struggled with consistency and footwork into a smooth, versatile piece who not only holds up well in pass protection but can also get out in space and make plays in the second level. The same goes for fellow junior Michael Onwenu, who has turned into a run-game mauler alongside Bushell-Beatty.
Ruiz, the guy who told everyone to stop worrying so much, is the most important piece. And possibly the player with the greatest ceiling.
Just a sophomore, Ruiz got the organizational keys from Warinner when the year began. When your center knows what he’s doing, your line has a chance. And Ruiz’s natural football IQ and ability to communicate in the time between the huddle breaking and the ball being snapped has been critical.
Michigan allowed 36 sacks last season. Entering week 10, the group has given up 14 — and more than a few of those have been the result of Patterson scrambling. Michigan ranked No. 101 nationally in tackles for loss allowed last season. Now? Michigan’s No. 32.
On Saturday against Penn State, the Wolverines faced an average third down distance of 4.5 yards. As a team last season, that number was 7.3 for the season.
Michigan’s cut down on the sacks, cut down on the tackles for loss and proved its ability to move well enough in space to allow the offense to excel in zone-run situations. This has opened things up in Patterson’s zone-read game and has given Karan Higdon plenty of cutback lanes to fly through all season.
Asked when he realized his group had turned a corner from ascending to surging this season, Ruiz pointed to the opposition’s recent body language late in games.
“The heavy breathing,” he said.
Michigan has spent the better part of the last decade getting worn out up front.
Now, finally, the Wolverines have flipped the script.
Just like Ruiz told you they would.
Contact Nick Baumgardner: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickbaumgardner.