ANN ARBOR, Mich. — As a freshman, Michigan lineman Mason Cole had the unenviable task of replacing All-American left tackle Taylor Lewan.
As a captain in his fourth season at Michigan, he has to lead a youthful offensive line that continues to form its identity.
“We’ve got to be more consistent,” Cole said. “We’ve got to protect the quarterback more consistently. We’ve got to run the ball more consistently, and just overall, just play more consistent up front.”
Cole has the most experience on the Wolverines’ offensive line, which lost three starters (all fifth-year seniors) from 2016. He has made 44 consecutive starts. Last season he started every game at center, but this season moved back to left tackle.
Michigan hoped to have junior tackle Grant Newsome back from his right leg injury suffered last season, but Newsome won’t return until next season, at the earliest. Making up for Newsome’s absence meant shuffling the line and plugging in less-experienced players.
“There’s still growth to be had and we’re going to be chasing that,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday. “You’re trying to go perfect. Individually and as a unit, and we haven’t done that yet. I don’t know, could make the argument that no team has but yeah, [you] want higher excellence, individually and collectively.”
Michigan’s offense is struggling. It’s ninth in the Big Ten Conference in scoring (27.2 points), 11th in pass offense (191.3 yards), fourth in rush offense (185 yards) and eighth in total offense (376.3 yards). The Wolverines have struggled scoring touchdowns in the red zone, as well.
Yet both Cole and Harbaugh insist they have seen improvement. Harbaugh noted Michigan kept Indiana from sacking quarterback John O’Korn, one week after giving up 4 sacks to Michigan State.
The line also gave Karan Higdon room to run … for 200 yards and 3 touchdowns, including the game-winner in overtime.
“I don’t know if there’s one area,” Cole said of where he sees the improvement. “It’s all across the board. Guys are playing better. We’re communicating better. We’re finishing plays better. Across the board, we’ve improved so much.”
Michigan offensive line game experience prior to 2017
|Jon Runyan Jr.||RG||1||0|
The loss of Newsome affected the development of the line. Instead of having three experienced starters in Cole, Newsome and left guard Ben Bredeson, Michigan has five offensive linemen who began the season with minimal game experience: Patrick Kugler, a fifth-year senior center; Nolan Ulizio, a redshirt sophomore right tackle; Juwann Bushell-Beatty, a redshirt junior right tackle; Jon Runyan, Jr., a redshirt sophomore right guard; and Michael Onwenu, a sophomore right guard.
Sophomore Stephen Spanellis has played in all six games this season and freshman Cesar Ruiz has played in three. Michigan has 10 additional offensive linemen listed on its roster — seven freshmen and three sophomores.
If Newsome returns next season, it will come at a time when Michigan’s offensive line will have a year of seasoning. Overall, the offensive line is young, and needs this year to develop.
“You can see they’re making strides,” offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Tim Drevno said. “Each game they’ve gotten better. It’s like the whole offense.
“You’ve got to keep pumping before it’s going to give. And I really believe, offensively, it’s going to give. We are in position for great things to happen.”