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February 6, 2013

U-M adds depth, toughness in the trenches

Michigan football has long been predicated on bullying the ball on the ground and breaking the will of opposing defenses in the process. Now, after a brief experiment with the fashionable spread option attack, the Wolverines are in the process of returning to the smash-mouth mentality that once characterized the program.

While much of the focus of the 2013 class will revolve around the elite skilled-position players Brady Hoke and Co. have lured in, it is the beef up front that will fuel the future of the program. U-M's highly-lauded offensive line haul, which features four four-star prospects and weighs in at an average of 292 pounds, will certainly bring a smile to the face of Maize and Blue faithful yearning for the bruising, battering offense of old, but it will be far from fun and games for Big Ten foes.

Just ask offensive line coach Darrell Funk.

The third-year Michigan man spent time as a graduate assistant at Illinois from 1988-89, and experienced what it was like to combat U-M's traditional physicality from the other sideline.

"For as long as I have been watching Michigan football, I watched games that were taken over in the third and fourth quarter by tough and mean offensive lines," Funk said. "They drove the defense off the ball, got four or five yards every play, and the next thing you know they are constantly moving the sticks and eating up clock.

"I remember vividly in 1989 when I was at Illinois. Michigan got a double-digit lead and we couldn't get the ball back. They had a good tailback and fullback, no question about that, but it was that offensive line that dominated the game. That has been my vision from day one here, and that is what we are recruiting towards."

Bo Schembechler's hard-nosed team defeated the Illini 24-10 in the contest en route to a perfect 8-0 conference finish, and earned a much coveted Rose Bowl appearance.

"These young guys have been recruited here to play specifically in the style we want to play. As they get here, mature and get more experience, we think they are going to be a super group. We have some guys that have demonstrated the ability to play the type of football we want."

But the process of developing incoming rookies in the desired mold for Hoke's staff is just that, a process - especially in the trenches. Traditionally, offensive line is one of the positions that requires the most seasoning before a prospect can excel at the next level, and the decision to redshirt first-year hogmollies has been, and will be, a common strategy in Ann Arbor.

Michigan redshirted all four of its offensive line commits from a year ago - but that isn't necessarily a signal for newcomers to step on campus with the anticipation of coasting through their first collegiate campaign.

"The redshirt year is invaluable," Funk said. "There is a major difference between a redshirt freshman and a true freshman in most situations; it's just huge to redshirt linemen. It is not uncommon, I would guess 98 percent of linemen in Division 1 football have gone through this process.

"With the six that are coming in, I have stressed to them to come in with the idea that they are not going to redshirt. I don't want guys coming in thinking they are going to redshirt and getting into coast mode - you want them to believe that there is a chance to see the field so that they will push themselves in workouts and practice.

"At the end of the day, if you play one or two because they are ready, that is fine, but if you can redshirt them all you suddenly have some real quality depth down the road."

Although a year's worth of learning on the practice field rather than in the heat of battle is expected for the six new Wolverine offensive linemen, especially considering the added depth with the return of veteran Taylor Lewan and the projected impact of redshirt freshmen Kyle Kalis and Ben Braden, there are exceptions to every rule.

"In the past, we've had a few guys that have played really well as true freshmen," Funk said. "Coach Hoke had one at Ball State a year before I joined him, and we had another at San Diego State, but it really is the exception to the rule.

"Last year, we had guys come in that were heavy enough and strong enough, but the experience of going against guys at a different level is a whole new animal. Let's be honest, most of these guys can just line up and throw guys around in high school, but they come here and now everyone is as big and strong as them, and it comes down to technique."

Funk gets his first chance to physically work on the technique of his 2013 class this March during spring ball when early enrollees Kyle Bosch and Logan Tuley-Tillman don the Maize and Blue for the first time, but the drive to constantly mentor his future warriors has been an ongoing, and encouraging, process throughout the recruiting cycle.

"I feel like I have been recruiting these kids for years," Funk said. "Because of that, we talk a lot. I'll be at the airport waiting to get on the plane, and one of the kids will call me and say 'Hey, I've got this head-up defensive end that keeps doing this or that on film,' and we start talking techniques and I get a feel for these guys as far as what they know, how they think about the game.

"It really gives me a head start in learning how to coach them, and all of these kids have a real good sense of the game. I am excited for what they can accomplish in the future."







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