March 30, 2012

Encouraging signs on both the offensive and defensive lines

News out of spring practice has been largely positive, particularly at two positions of concern - along the offensive and defensive lines. But both units still have much to prove before the Wolverines can breathe a sigh of relief. Here is a look at what could go right and what could go wrong ...

font size=4>Offensive Line

What Could Go Right: It is extremely early, in spring practice and even more so in preparation for the 2012 season, but Michigan seems to have settled on a starting five of redshirt junior Taylor Lewan at left tackle, fifth-year senior Elliott Mealer at left guard, fifth-year senior Ricky Barnum at center, fifth-year senior Patrick Omameh at right guard and redshirt junior Michael Schofield at right tackle.

Redshirt freshman Chris Bryant (right guard) and redshirt sophomore (walk-on) Joey Burzynski (guard) have also looked sharp this spring while redshirt freshman Jack Miller is competing at center and redshirt freshman (walk-on) Graham Glasgow is a potential second-string option at tackle.

In the fall, five-star Kyle Kalis (tackle or guard), four-stars Erik Magnuson (tackle) and Blake Bars (interior lineman), and three-star Ben Braden (tackle) all join the mix, though to expect any of them to be significant contributors is asking a lot.

In a perfect world, U-M's five starters - whether the aforementioned lineup holds up through the rest of spring, summer and fall camp or not - plays at a high level, improving on the performance of the 2011 squad (a must if Michigan is to take the next step towards Big Ten title contender) and, most importantly, stays healthy.

That's easier said than done, but can happen. Just last year, for instance, four of the Wolverines' five starters played in every game while Schofield started 10 contests for an injured Barnum. Michigan used the same five starters in all but one game in 2006, used the same starting five for every game in 2003, and all but three games in 2000.

If the Maize and Blue's starting five can remain intact for the entire 2012 campaign, or at least for most of it, the line could prove U-M's best since 2006.

What Could Go Wrong: Injuries or ineffectiveness caused lineup upheaval in 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 (in addition to plenty more years), and the chances of Michigan starting the same five for 12 regular-season games is unlikely.

Barnum, who has missed parts of every year he has been in Ann Arbor, is injury-prone and the best bet to have to sit out a game or two or three next fall. Doing so, potentially, thrusts a redshirt freshman not yet physically or mentally ready for the responsibility (Miller) into the line's most important position, or would create a scramble situation in which a guard moves to center like David Moosman was forced to do in 2009 when David Molk was injured.

Michigan isn't deep, obviously. It has two scholarship linemen in reserve roles this spring and is relying on walk-ons, albeit ones impressing (and there are certainly enough walk-on success stories the past few years to give them their due), to fill three second-string posts. And frankly, those walk-ons might be better suited then the incoming freshmen because of their familiarity with the system, their practice reps and years conditioning.

If U-M loses one starter to injury, it can march on - though there is no strong candidate to fill in for either tackle at this point - but a second injury would cause tumult and a third might force a tidal wave the Wolverines cannot run from.

Beyond injuries, some of the linemen just may not be good enough. Lewan is an established left tackle on the verge of an All-Big Ten campaign, and Omameh is not far behind if he plays with the same intensity and strength he displayed in November, while Schofield, moving from left guard to tackle, is a natural fit on the outside. Mealer and Barnum, however, are career backups that must prove one-year wonders in their final campaigns.

If they can do that, great, terrific, stupendous, but if they're not up to the task, Michigan's potential may crumble.

font size=4>Defensive Line

What Could Go Right: The news on the defensive side of the ball has, seemingly, been even more positive than on the offensive line as senior Will Campbell settles in at nose tackle, senior Craig Roh has embraced his move from weakside defensive end to the strongside, junior Jibreel Black is utilizing his quickness to create a mismatch inside at the three-technique tackle, and both sophomore Frank Clark and classmate Brennen Beyer are bringing the heat at the rush end position expected of them.

Even more good news: redshirt freshman Chris Rock has performed solidly at both the three- and five-technique (strongside), redshirt sophomores Ken Wilkins and Richard Ash are blossoming this spring as interior players, creating depth, and redshirt junior Nathan Brink (a walk-on following in the footsteps of 2011 starting tackle Will Heininger) has looked good in the limited physical drills he's been able to participate in, due to injury.

Finally, a six-deep haul along the defensive line will arrive as freshmen in the fall, including five-star tackle Ondre Pipkins. However, in an ideal scenario, which seems possible, Michigan will not need any of its rookies to play right away. They could force their way onto the field with strong play in camp, but would be more of a luxury and not a necessity.

The key is obviously Campbell. The 6-5, 315-pounder is in the best shape of his career, down 40 pounds from when he first stepped foot on campus and even down seven pounds from last season. The light bulb seems to have gone off for him mentally, and he's poised for an outstanding senior season in which he finally puts to good use the immense natural talent he has.

If Campbell realizes his potential, serving as both a disruptive force in the middle and as someone that commands and fights through double-teams, he will open more space and create greater one-on-one opportunities for Roh, Black and Clark/Beyer, ushering in an era of an attacking, aggressive front four (and front seven) that wasn't consistently there in 2011.

What Could Go Wrong: Sticking with Campbell, his track record causes hesitation. The Detroit native has struggled with his effort and work ethic for three years, which has led to poor technique, leverage, stamina. At some point, he will challenged again (every week, really) and he must show that he has matured, giving his all on every snap to be the player he's capable of, and that Michigan needs him to be.

But if he backs down from that challenge, he will force part-time players Wilkins, Ash and redshirt junior Quinton Washington into a bigger roles, perhaps before they're ready, or cause U-M to rush someone like Pipkins.

Among those Michigan is counting on, only Roh has starting experience heading into 2011, and he has been largely unproductive in three seasons. He is moving to a new position, one perceived to be better suited for his skill set, but that's the same refrain uttered in 2010 and in 2011, and Roh didn't meet expectations in either season.

Black, meanwhile, is an undersized defensive tackle at 6-2, 260 pounds - he's seeking to add 10-15 pounds before Sept. 1 - and adjusting to a new position on the inside, and Clark and Beyer, both freak athletes, have to prove they can consistently harass the QB.

In other words, there are a lot of 'ifs' being counted on. And that's not completely unusual. There are always 'ifs', always projections and expectations of what players can do when given the opportunity. The great teams rise up.

The one advantage the defensive line does appear to have over the offensive line is depth, and because of that, a lot would have to wrong for the front four to become a liability.

In any given season, a few things go right and a few things go wrong. On both sides of the ball, Michigan just has to hope that more goes right than wrong.

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