For a team like Michigan, that is historically strong but had a very weak year in 2008, the preview for the 2009 team is going to be tough. Key to that preview is the offensive line of the Wolverines. Most people who follow the Michigan program expect the offensive line to be a relative strength in 2009, while those who follow other programs don’t have the same optimism (or fear, as it were). So why do Michigan fans think a lot more of their 2009 OL than, say Notre Dame fans?
Returning experience has been brought up as an indicator of possible team success, and Michigan is among the teams with the highest number of returning starts along the offensive line (as is Notre Dame). However, most non-Michigan fans that I’ve seen looking at Michigan so far this off-season have said something along the lines of “They might be a better OL next year, but they sucked in 2008, so how much better can they be?” That may be the case, but it’s certainly worth exploring the assumption that the Wolverine offensive line was crap in 2008.
Improvement over the Year
The Michigan offensive line may have indeed started out poorly in 2008. They rushed for fewer yards than the opponents’ average allowed in 5 of the first 8 games, even though they were playing teams with relatively easy schedules like Utah, Miami, and Wisconsin (against whom Michigan would have had an awful rushing day if not for a surprise 65-yarder by Steven Threet). However, there’s certainly evidence that, after a rough couple games to start out the year, the rushing game started to click for Michigan.
|Opponent||Opp. Rush Rank||Opp. Avg Allowed||Mich Rush Yards||Delta||% Delta|
That chart can be displayed in graphical form below. Note that more of the good rush defenses they faced were towards the back end of the schedule – and they still managed to beat the average for each of those teams. Save the MSU game, the Wolverines beat the opponent’s average in each game over the second half of the season.
With many players who weren’t expected to ever contribute in meaningful gametime (Bryant Nowicki), or at least not in 2008 (David Molk), the offensive line still managed to be better than average, with strength of opponents’ defenses taken into account.
Of course, there’s a reason that some of those players who were forced into action in 2008 were not expected to ever contribute in starting roles for the Wolverines. Add in a class of freshmen that redshirted in 2008 because they weren’t physically ready to play, despite good guru rankings (4* OG RIcky Barnum) or performance in practice (2* OT Patrick Omameh). Add in those players, and even if they don’t contribute on the field, their presence in practice pushes other players to work harder to keep their starting spots. The best player between Mark Ortman and nobody is definitely Mark Ortman. The best player between Mark Ortman and Patrick Omameh might still be the same Mark Ortman, but that’s the minimum. It’s more likely to be a better Mark Ortman from being pushed in practice, or even Omameh.
When you take into account that the Michigan offensive line faced a number of injuries last year, having more players certainly helps in this respect as well. Using the example above, if Mark Ortman goes down and there’s no backup, the team has to play someone who really has no place being a contributor. If Mark Ortman goes down and Patrick Omameh is nipping his heels on the depth chart, the dropoff is going to be much less noticeable.
Improved QB Play
The offensive line is one unit on an offensive machine that must all work in concert to achieve the maximum result. If other parts of the machine are faulty, the offensive line won’t look as good, simply because the offense isn’t producing. Quarterback play in 2008 was, to put it quite bluntly, a liability for Michigan. Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan each had moments of brilliance (games against Penn State and Minnesota, respectively), but did at least their fair share of contributing to the offensive struggles in 2008.
The quarterbacks couldn’t throw particularly well, which allowed opposing safeties to come into the box to play the run. If Michigan had been able to stretch the field deep with the pass, there would have been more open running lanes. Coupled with that idea is the fact that Michigan’s scheme requires the quarterback to be able to run. Since neither Threet nor Sheridan was particularly mobile, defenses were able to key on the running back exclusively. This contributed to poor results for Michigan.
Of course, this section of the argument centers on the idea (belief? hope?) that Michigan’s quarterback play in 2009 will be better than it was in 2008. That hope falls on the shoulders of one Robert Tate Forcier. While he may not be The Savior of Michigan Football, his high school play and rankings, along with his performance in the spring game have given Michigan fans hope.
Better in ’09?
Outside sources whose job it is to cover the Big Ten (albeit poorly) think that the Michigan OL should be improved this year. So, as I’ve hopefully demonstrated, not only was the Michigan offensive line not the huge liability over the entire course of 2008 that it’s often made out to be (despite some of the players forced into service), but it should continue to improve in the offseason as the players who will contribute in 2009 will have a year of experience under their belts, a lot more competition in practice, and a more complete offensive picture around them. Don’t expect greatness from the offensive line in 2009, but they should certainly help the offense get back on track.