O-line must mature quickly

Left tackle Taylor Lewan will anchor a line with new faces in new places. Andrew Weber/US Presswire

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Years ago, offensive lines would spend seasons practicing together before taking the field as a unit. Some players would jump up the lines early, but for the most part, on a preseason top-10 team, rarely would there be a plethora of inexperience on the offensive line.

But according to Michigan offensive line coach Darrell Funk, that time is long gone.

"In this day and age you don't have three years to develop them," Funk said. "There used to be a day when you could just love up your young kids -- they'd redshirt their first year, they'd be on the scout team for two years and that third year, all of a sudden, boom, that's what you're talking about."

But Michigan coach Brady Hoke has already said he wouldn't be surprised if four freshmen are in the Wolverines' two-deep on the offensive line. Michigan has shown it's not afraid to play true freshmen, and Hoke has a history of doing so. At both Ball State and San Diego State he had freshmen on the offensive lines. But for nearly any BCS school, four freshmen in a 10-man two-deep seems unheard of.

"Yeah, it always is [concerning]," Hoke said of freshmen in the depth charts. "Those guys have to grow up fast. All of them are smart guys and they're coachable. So they'll be OK."

But it's not as though the Wolverines are completely devoid of game experience on the line. They return junior Taylor Lewan at left tackle and senior Pat Omameh at right guard. Junior Michael Schofield is adjusting to right tackle after making the move from left guard. However, past that group, the Wolverines have a group of players who haven't played much.

Redshirt senior Ricky Barnum is expected to start at center, replacing Rimington Award winner David Molk, but Barnum has appeared in only nine games during his entire Michigan career. And at left guard it seems to be a crapshoot between fifth-year senior Elliott Mealer, former walk-on Joey Burzynski and true freshman Kyle Kalis -- none of whom is very experienced in game situations.

Funk said the offensive line's goal every year is to be a physical, run-blocking line that can finish games. He keeps the concepts straightforward so that it's never too difficult for young players to grasp.

He keeps it simple because another roadblock Funk faces with his offensive line that other positions, such as wide receiver or defensive backs, don't face as often are the physical changes that most young players undergo. Between dropping weight or adding muscle, the physical changes are necessary as players adjust from being a talented high school player to an effective college player.

"We try to keep it as simple as we can so these kids can play fast and physical," Funk said. "They have all that physical development going on while you're trying to teach them. Whereas some other positions -- they're fast, they're skilled, they can go a little earlier."

However, this year's freshman offensive line class came in ahead of the curve physically. But it's not just about their physical strength. Technique is important, and while the goals and system are simple, it's a big jump for freshmen to make. But, it appears as though several will be seeing game time, and Funk isn't afraid to throw them out there.

He will play his five most talented players, regardless of age or position as the Wolverines face down one of the toughest defensive lines in the country in Alabama in the season opener.

"If I have to move five tackles to the five positions or five centers and guards, I don't care," Funk said. "The five best will play. So they know there's competition."

And competition Michigan's O-line will get. While much of the offensive focus for this Michigan football season has been put on the sensational Denard Robinson, the truth of the matter is Robinson couldn't be nearly as effective and the Michigan offense nowhere nearly as dynamic if the Wolverines' offensive line isn't strong.

And Robinson, and the rest of the Wolverines, might find themselves relying on a much younger front than in the past.