(Archived from MGoBlue.com)
Sometimes I go to write something, then mid-way through researching it I get completely turned around on the point I was trying to make. This one started with a conversation between me and Ace trying to compare the 1999 offensive line to the 2012 one. My recollection (which was wrong) was that the superbly talented and experienced starters were backed up by air and freshmen, and that when one went down for injury or an off-campus thing this drew in an Elliott Mealer-type who was moved all over the place as the coaches played "find the weak spot" with the defense. Unfortunately this dude had his own number and looked totally different than a Backus or Hutchinson, and therefore was easy to find. Anyway, they're not comparable, but I figured you'd still find the trip down memory lane interesting and perhaps draw some of your own comparisons.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, offensively speaking. Best of times because Michigan was going into the season with an experienced, senior quarterback, a junior running back who had flashed his star potential while seizing the starting job the year before, and an offensive line littered with future longtime NFL starters and returning starters, backed up by an entire class full of hyped O-line. It was the worst of times because they couldn't run the damn ball.
It was 1999, one year removed from the best recruiting class in school history, two years removed from a national championship, and three years removed from a class so full of touted offensive linemen Darrell Funk would call it greedy. This was also about the point in my fandom where I was just starting to know the names of offensive linemen, mostly because it was my first offseason on campus and everyone was saying the line is stacked.
Left tackle was Jeff Backus, who foreshadowing his long and healthy NFL career didn't miss a snap for two and a half years. Steve Hutchinson, a team captain as a junior, had started since the '97 team at left guard. David Brandt had started all of 1998 at center. Senior guard Chris Ziemann had 10 starts between '97 and early '98 and was returning from an injury. Right tackle was to be Maurice "Mo" Williams, who had drawn into the lineup for Ziemann late the previous year and promptly started pancaking fools.
However Mo Williams (NTMO), along with roommate and backup guard Jonathan Goodwin, was spending the first half of the season on double-secret probation (known then as "Carr's doghouse") for the K-Mart thing.
Thus drew in Frazier, the guy Maurice had to displace. Steve Frazier (right, via), last popped up in these pages when Brian, in the midst of excoriating Harbaugh for the 2007 General Studies tiff, quoted some guy who noted Frazier was a commercial airlines pilot. LinkedIn says he's still there. Before that he tallied up 18 starts on Michigan's offensive line, including 10/13 in 1998. The thing about him was it was impossible to guess, any given week, where on that line he would appear. In '98 it was four at center, six at guard (when Ziemann was hurt. In his senior season, Frazier started three games at center, three at right guard, and two more at right tackle.
Frazier came to my attention during that Illinois game for orchestrating the last and most memorable of the comedy of 4th quarter errors that turned a ho-hum stomach settler into Michigan's second straight loss. Brady was in his element, taking snaps in the shotgun down late and picking his way through a prevent D. At this point Frazier snapped a ball several feet over the head of the 6-4 quarterback. Brady fell on it 25 yards behind the LOS, then threw basically a Hail Mary that was picked off.
Throughout this exchange I was arguing with the guy who used to invite my father to games about whether Michigan was smart to let Illinois score a long rushing TD to go up by eight when the likely scenario otherwise was getting the ball back with less than 20 seconds and no timeouts down by one. For some reason I wouldn't let this go, but I believed him when he said the offensive line was way weak behind the starters.
You hear this and immediately think of 2012, with Lewan, Omameh, Barnum, Mealer and Schofield, then air and true freshman. This was actually not at all the case in 1999, since Michigan had an entire line's worth of highly rated redshirt sophomores. Few written records survive from the recruiting Dark Ages except the manuscript of the Venerable Vijan, so here's Vijan on that ridiculous haul:
Maurice Williams, OL/DL, Detroit, MI. 6'6", 275 lbs, 4.9 40. Williams is the top player in the state of Michigan and is one of the top line prospects in the nation on either side of the ball; he is one of the top 100 players in the country. Played primarily on offense this year, but was a dominant DL as a junior. He chose Michigan over MSU, Florida St., Washington, and Ohio St., and is an excellent student with a 3.5 GPA. Was rumored to have committed to Michigan in July, but did not make a final announcement until his official visit on the weekend of 12/6. Could play either OL or DL at Michigan, depending upon his preference and the needs of the team.
Todd Mossa, OT, Darien, CT. 6'3", 285 lbs, 4.9 40. Mossa is one of, if not the, top offensive guard prospects in the nation. He was rated the number 1 overall OL prospect by SuperPrep in the preseason, and was a post-season All-American on most recruiting lists. Led his high school to the state championship, and graded out at over 90% in his blocking assignments as a senior. In addition to football, Mossa plays goalie for his lacrosse team. He is a tremendous drive blocker with great feet who was also recruited by Penn St., Syracuse, and Boston College.
Jason Brooks, OL, Cleveland, Ohio. 6'4", 270 lbs, 5.1 40. Brooks is from an outstanding high school program in Cleveland St. Ignatius, which has won the last two state championships in Ohio. Brooks is the top OL prospect in Ohio, and one of the top 5-10 OL prospects in the nation, as well as a top 100 overall player. Rated the top prospect in Ohio, and the top lineman in the nation by the NRA, with a rating of 6.1 ("franchise player"). Brooks graded out at over 90% in his blocking assignments as a senior despite suffering a leg injury early in the season. Despite rumors to the contrary, never wavered on his commitment; he visited Colorado only to be sure that he had a school that he could compare with Michigan.
Ben Mast, OL, Massillon, Ohio. 6'5", 275 lbs, 5.0 40. Mast is another top OL prospect from Ohio, and is considered by many to be the best prospect out of traditional power Massillon in several years. He is considered one of the top OL's in the midwest, and was recruited heavily by schools throughout the nation. Ranked as one of the top 10 linemen in the nation, and as one of the top 100 overall players by several recruiting services. Mast's other in an OSU grad, but he has always been a fan of Michigan.
Adam Adkins, OL, Troy, Michigan. 6'3", 265 lbs, 5.1 40. Adkins has been described as a dominant player from yet another traditionally strong football program. He has played on both sides of the ball in high school, but projects to be a center in college. He is generally considered to be one of the top two OL prospects in Michigan. Adkins is also the top-rated heavyweight wrestler in Michigan.
Kurt Anderson, LB/TE/OL, Glenview, Ill. 6'5", 225 lbs, 4.8 40. Kurt is the younger brother of Michigan Butkus Award winner Erick Anderson. He is one of the top prospects in Illinois this year; he set a school record for solo tackles as a junior and broke his brother's record for total tackles in a career. Followed it up by having a great senior season, making 142 tackles, with 6 sacks and 2 interceptions; he is considered an All-American by several recruiting services.
Around the time President Clinton was congratulating the national champs in football (and the hockey team was winning one themselves) in spring of '98, Brooks had his thing which eventually saw him removed before '99. The rest of the guys were still there and rotated in. Ben Mast started most of '99 at right tackle, and drew in for Hutchinson at guard one time. Adkins got two starts early in the season at center. Mossa didn't pan out—he now lives in Vail and tweets clever things. Anderson would start later in his career.
So this was a deep team. But it couldn't run. Minus sacks, but including David Terrell's five end-arounds for 17.8 yards a pop, Michigan in 1999 averaged just 3.4 yards per carry (with sacks it was 3.2). Part of that, from recollection, was that A-Train was playing hurt, and barely ever coming out. His 301 carries were 10 times that of backup Walter Cross. The five aforementioned end-arounds made Terrell the second leading rusher on the team (he had 89 yards).
That also counts a lot of 4th quarter saltings and 1st quarter running into piles, and if the game was exciting by the 4th quarter (about half the time), we'd suddenly got to a shotgun and let Brady or Henson toss to Walker and Terrell and Knight and Diallo Johnson until the ledger tipped our way again. It was typical DeBordian offense which set the tone for people of my generation to despise DeBordian offense. If you go back and watch this team on Wolverine Historian clips you'll see plenty of screens. I believe this was because when Maurice wasn't at right tackle, everybody else they had there were guards, so defenses who knew when a pass play was coming just as well as every sophomore in Row 83 couldn't completely tee off on Brady.
How relevant is this to today? Little, except if you squint really hard. What I'm saying is despite the recruiting profiles and the age, once Goodwin and Maurice were removed from the depth chart (and that was only for half the season), given what we know about them later, starting Ben Mast in '99 is not all that different from starting Kalis in '12, in a best-case Kalis scenario. On the other hand Frazier was more of a Barnum than a Mealer. I had forgotten the '97 class was mostly still on hand, but I had good reason to: other than the can't-miss guy and the flier who made good as a serviceable senior later on, you don't see the next generation (Stenavich, Pape, and the Daves) on this depth chart. They were on the team as some type of freshmen, or they were recruits, and considering they ended up starting over Mast and Adkins and Mossa, technically they might too have been the best options.
No there isn't a point in here. Like I said, I thought I had something that might be a preview of what it's like living on the edge with great starters and freshmen behind them. Instead I only found more evidence that getting lots and lots of O-linemen is important because you really don't know which ones will work out, which can best serve the team as depth, and which are really just giant intellectual future ski bums.