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January 16, 2012

Offseason questions: How desperate will the OL be?

Even though Michigan graduates two full-time starters along the offensive line, it returns four, if you count part-time starter Ricky Barnum. Outside of center, U-M's starting five should be solid, but its two-deep is iffy, leading one to ask this offseason: how many true freshmen will have to play a role along the line?

Today's offseason question doesn't focus on the center position - that is a full column for another day - but looks at the overall depth of the entire offensive line.

On the surface, Michigan is set at three positions: left tackle, right guard and right tackle. Redshirt junior Taylor Lewan will enter his third season the blindside bodyguard of quarterback Denard Robinson, fifth-year senior Patrick Omameh has been an anchor at guard since the end of 2009 and redshirt junior Michael Schofield was a 10-game starter in 2011, albeit at left guard not right tackle.

Schofield is, perhaps, the biggest wildcard of those three. He was being groomed as U-M's first tackle in if Lewan or Mark Huyge was hurt, but he had to learn the left-guard post because fifth-year senior Ricky Barnum was unable to stay healthy in the fall; Schofield excelled in Barnum's vacancy after a few bumps along the way.

The assumption is Schofield can just slide in at right tackle - it's a more natural fit for him - and won't need but a few snaps to make the transition seamlessly. Of course, that may not be the case, though he did show incredible adaptability and maturation being thrown into the storm this past fall.

Barnum is the projected starter at left guard. Let's not forget, he won that job outright in fall camp after a solid spring and summer, before sitting out due to injury. He returned late in the season but could not overtake Schofield, who had since become comfortable at guard.

Barnum is as talented as any lineman on the team, coaches and teammates say, but health is a very real concern. He's following the career path of Carlos Brown, who missed time every season with an assortment of injuries. For Michigan's sake, the Lakeland, Fla., native has to figure out how to stay healthy for an entire season.

Redshirt freshman Chris Bryant could be an alternative to Barnum or even Omameh. The mammoth 6-4, 341-pounder is an old-school mauler - the type of kid who has been wearing Wisconsin red and white the last few years - and could be a real boon to the Michigan running game if he improves his conditioning, technique and comprehension.

Classmate Jack Miller will vie for the starting center job with fifth-year senior Rocko Khoury. The latter has a huge head start in the competition, and if we had to venture a guess today, would be your opening-day center against Alabama.

Fifth-year senior Elliott Mealer is a jack-of-all-trades type that has played guard and tackle during his career. He's not starting-caliber but is good enough to fill in for a few plays, a series, a quarter, maybe even a game. He lacks the ability to contribute long term, however.

Offensive line coach Darrell Funk has said he wants eight guys that he can win with, preaching versatility amongst his linemen as evidenced by Schofield's performance this year. If all were to go according to play, those eight veterans would fill the five starting slots and the three key backup posts.

But rarely does all go according to plan, especially at the position more difficult to project than any other, which is why coaches generally like 15 scholarship linemen on the team at any given time.

What happens if this spring Miller hasn't progressed enough in both strength and understanding to be an adequate backup to Khoury at center? What happens if Barnum continues to fight the injury bug? What if Schofield is slower to right tackle than expected or if either he or Lewan gets banged up?

Michigan needs more bodies. It has a pair of walk-ons in redshirt junior Erik Gunderson and redshirt sophomore Kristian Mateus the coaches like, but will either be ready by September to contribute if pressed into duty?

Unless every variable goes the Wolverines' way, they will need one, two or three true freshmen to arrive in Ann Arbor physically and mentally ready to compete for a spot on the two-deep. The good news is players like five-star Kyle Kalis appear capable of doing so, while more and more linemen are starting as true freshmen, though rarely in situations without desperation.

Michigan needs a little bit of good fortune this offseason. It needs its five projected starters to progress significantly and stay healthy, and it needs its three projected reserves to be good enough to start. If that happens, all five of U-M's freshman linemen can redshirt, like they should. If it doesn't, someone will have to blow that opportunity, and it could come back to haunt the Maize and Blue down the road.


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