Saturday, August 25, 2012

2012 Positional Breakdown: Offensive Line

This is the position that should strike fear into everybody.  Opponents should fear it because of the strength and experience of Michigan's starters and Michigan fans should fear it because of the severe lack of depth the team will be facing for the next few years.  This is certainly not the most flashy, interesting, or complex position on the roster, but it is one that could radically change the direction of the season.  Odds are that it will be solid and lead one of the Big Ten's best rushing attacks, but if bad things start happening, Michigan could be in deep trouble.

LT - Taylor Lewan (Redshirt Junior)
The anchor of Michigan's 2012 line.  Lewan has been a force at Michigan since he arrived on campus and he is set for an even better year this season.  Projections already have him going as a Top 15 NFL Draft pick and he's been listed to preseason All-Big Ten teams.  Can he live up to the hype?  Well, he's been great so far and has outperformed expectations in every season.  If there is a player outside of Denard that I would bet on having a good year in 2012, it's Taylor Lewan.

What is even more exciting is that this will be a very important position for Michigan this year.  Several times, Michigan will be faced with elite defensive ends that have the ability to wreck havoc on a backfield.  Two examples of this seem to jump off the chart with Michigan State and Ohio State.  Both have good defensive lines and a lot of depth at the defensive end position.  The left tackle is arguably the most important position on the line because he has the task of attempting to stop the defensive ends and protect the quarterback's "blind side" (insert Blind Side movie reference here).

A perfect example of Lewann's impact for Michigan can be seen in last year's Michigan vs MSU game when he turned William Gholston into a non-factor.  If you review the tape, you will see Lewan repeatedly crush Gholston.  Part of this was the reason for Gholston's extreme reactions during the game including punching Lewan and attempting to break Denard Robinson's neck.  Having a player like Lewan is a tremendous advantage for Michigan because it gives the team the ability to take players like him out of the game.  This will be extremely important this year as I have already identified MSU and OSU as the most important games on Michigan's schedule for 2012.

LG - Elliot Mealer (Redshirt Senior)
As of now, Mealer will be taking the reigns at the left guard position.  There is some serious debate about whether Mealer will make it through the season playing this role, but for now, he seems to be the favorite and by all accounts has won the role during fall camp.  He's a redshirt senior, stands at 6'5" and weighs 308 lbs.  He has the size to play the position, the question will be about whether players like Kyle Kalis can beat him out on pure talent.

During the 2009 and 2010 seasons, he primarily played on special teams, but played in 14 combined games during the two seasons.  Obviously, not the exact experience you want, but he did protect for things like kicks, so he did get some blocking experience in a game.  He did see some action as a reserve in 7 games last year, but once again primarily dealt with special teams.  I think he has the ability to win the role and play pretty well, especially considering the surrounding players, but I'm not sure if he will be able to maintain the role.  Mainly because Kyle Kalis has so much raw talent.

C - Ricky Barnum (Redshirt Senior)
This was a position move in the offseason to attempt and make up for the departure of David Molk to the NFL.  It was a good idea for a few reasons.  First, it gets Barnum on the field.  Barnum is a redshirt senior and if he wasn't playing center, I'm not 100% confident he would be in a starting role and even if he was, he would be taking out a pretty capable guy at another spot.  Maybe he could win the left guard spot, but I'm not completely convinced.  Second, Michigan is not very deep at the center position.  Rocko Khoury transfered in the offseason, leaving Jack Miller as the projected starter.  He's a redshirt freshman and probably should not see the field for another year or so.

Barnum did a pretty solid job last season playing in four games at left guard and starting three.  However, Barnum had to address some injury issues last year, which clearly hurt his chances at playing down the line.  Evidenced by his three starts being in the first four games.  Transitioning to center will be a challenge, as I discussed in an earlier article here, but I think Barnum should be fine considering he moved back in the early offseason and before spring practice.  The transition hasn't been perfect with some snap issues in the Spring Game, but by time Michigan comes on the field against Alabama, he should be perfectly fine.  This will be a clear downgrade from Molk, but a very capable position.

RG - Patrick Omameh (Redshirt Senior)
This should be one of the better positions on the line.  Omameh has started the last 29 games at right guard.  That is every game since Michigan played Purdue in 2009.  There's no doubt that he has solidified the position and is well experienced.  There were times that Omameh will leave you scratching your head, but overall, he's pretty capable at the position, especially considering his great experience.  He doesn't have the raw talent like some of the other guys on the line, but he is definitely capable.

If he is able to improve his play, this should be a very good spot for Michigan this season.  Lewan and the left tackle spot should easily be the best, but if Michigan can get Omameh and Schofield doing their job on the right side, that leaves a lot of options open for the team.  A lot is made of the left side, which is warranted considering its importance in the passing game, but the right side is just as important in terms of running the football.  Michigan will be relying on their rushing game to move the chains against tough defenses like Alabama, MSU, and OSU.  Having the production on the right side will definitely help that and Omameh should go a long way towards helping.

RT - Michael Schofield (Redshirt Junior)
If there was one position change in the offseason that should make fans happy, its moving Schofield to the right tackle position.  He played primarily at left guard last season.  He is a much better fit for the tackle position and will finally get a chance to play it as a redshirt junior.  This is a position that may even be upgraded from last year.  He is obviously pretty unproven, but Mark Huyge was definitely targeted at times last season and was seriously beaten.  Of course, that's because opponents had no choice with Taylor Lewan on the other side, but if Schofield can play better when targeted, it will help Michigan a lot against the tough defensive ends and defensive lines.

If there is a positional performance that may not be expected, this is probably going to be it, especially on the offensive side.  Not too many people will realize the positional changes Schofield has undergone, but having him play and start here will definitely be better for him.  If he can even do what Huyge did last year, Michigan should have a solid right side with him and Omameh.  During the Alabama game, if you don't see defensive ends bursting into the backfield on a consistent basis, you will know Schofield will be doing a great job.  This will probably be the 3rd strongest position on the line, but I think that Schofield will easily meet expectations in 2012.

This is where Michigan fans should start to worry.  Rich Rod may have brought in some solid recruiting classes and some outstanding players, but one position he underachieved at was on the offensive line.  This is a position that requires development for just about everyone, except the freaks (cough cough Taylor Lewan) in order to be good.  There's a reason why nobody starting on Michigan's line right now is below junior status.  Players get bigger, stronger, and gain valuable experience during their careers, which is vital for playing on the offensive line.  Right now, Michigan does not have the number of backups it needs according to those three categories.

Overall, as with most offensive lines, the basic backups are already on the field.  For instance, if the left tackle spot needs a replacement, Schofield will slide over and the rest of the players will adjust accordingly.  This basically means that you are going to bringing another guard on the field.  Freshmen like Erik Magnuson are slated to move to the tackle position eventually, but with his current size, strength, and experience, I just don't see him playing there and fans shouldn't expect it either.

So when you're looking at offensive line backups, the better measure is the player that is the first off the bench in an injury situation.  Without a doubt, I believe this player will be 2012 recruit Kyle Kalis.  He was rated as a 5* player and is currently in the running for the left guard spot.  If he wins the starting job, then Elliot Mealer will be the first one off the bench.  After Kalis, things get a little more confusing.  Chris Bryant appeared to be like a solid backup, but was injured in the offseason.  Joe Burzynski could get some time and several of Michigan's freshmen like Erik Magnuson and Ben Braden could be in the mix as well.  Obviously, I don't think I need to add too many comments on the lack of depth when the majority of the likely backups are true freshmen.

The one position that will not fit the above description is center.  Center is a unique position on the line and requires a a player designated for the role.  In other words, you can't just randomly insert someone into the spot and hope for success.  The likely backup here appears to be Jack Miller, a redshirt freshman that has yet to see game action and is still pretty undersized at 288 lbs.  There's a lot of hope for Miller, but fans definitely do not want to see him during the 2012 season in anywhere except special teams.

Overall, the offensive line should be one of Michigan's strongest positional groups in 2012.  You could even make a case that Michigan has one of the best and more experienced lines in the Big Ten.  Of course, there are clear depth issues and getting through the 2012 and 2013 seasons relying on it is not going to be easy.  If Michigan has a good deal of luck, expect big things for the line and the offense, if not, Michigan is going to be in some deep trouble fast.  I think the team could survive 1-2 injuries, but if it's for a extended period or the team gets more than that on the offensive line, Michigan's Rose Bowl chances might come to a quick and sudden end.  There's a lot of ifs on this line, but luckily not at the starting positions.  Expect big things in 2012 for Michigan's offensive line.

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