A position-by-position look at Michigan's 2009 season. Previously: quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers.
Steve Schilling, various, reaction to walk-on playing at left tackle.
Offensive line is the position group least understood by the average fan (and this blogger), but even the vast ignorance of the unwashed could not delude us into thinking this was a promising situation:
Perhaps the saddest indicator of the potential looming tragedy that is the Michigan offensive line is this: last year this depth chart went three deep. There’s no one but freshmen unlisted this year and, uh… four freshmen in the actual two-deep as hypothesized above.
One returning starter, one backstabbing departure, and one unfortunate knee injury left Michigan one mishap away from starting John Ferrara, defensive tackle until two weeks ago, at guard. This was grim.
A brief tour of individual expectations reinforces. At tackle, Steve Schilling was "frankly bad" as a freshman, though there were a lot of reasons to believe he would take a significant step forward. Mark Ortmann was "stuck behind the uninspiring Schilling" and the starting left tackle "virtually by default."
On the interior, there was hardly any data except "none of these players could beat out Alex Mitchell and Jeremy Ciulla." Moosman "could be good" given his guru ratings and experience; McAvoy got a "lord knows if he's going to be any good," and Molk came in for equal parts skepticism and hope:
He fits much better in this system than Carr’s, as it emphasizes his mobility and places a much smaller premium on size, but Rodriguez made it clear he was battling John Ferrara for a starting job. Two weeks ago Ferrara was a defensive lineman. Crap.
There are virtually no backups as long as Cory Zirbel's knee injury persists, and the word from Rodriguez is that could be the entire season. Mark Huyge exists, I guess.
And unto the breach they went.
That's Not Surprising At All, Unfortunately
Well, yeah, it was a disaster. The Utah UFR:
Offensive line: their overall suck was obviously part of the gameplan in a huge way; I expect that will seriously impinge on Michigan’s attempts to forge an offense all year. Like 2005 except worse.
…the offensive line is bad for reasons other than execution. It is bad because the players on it are small or underpowered or just plain bad.
But wait! We played Notre Dame!
Michigan had great success with the zone stretch and occasional dive because Molk and either McAvoy or Moosman spent the day crushing the playside DT downfield. With good kickouts from the tackles and Notre Dame defenders keeping contain on Threet, McGuffie got into the secondary time and again.
Everything was fixed forever until the next week against Wisconsin:
That was the story of Wisconsin's defense: their active defensive tackles murdered Michigan's interior line all day against both the pass and the run. Notice that Michigan's second-half run game was successful largely when it completely avoided Wisconsin DTs or fooled them into slanting away from the play. For example, the Minor touchdown run was a counter to the zone stretch the Wisconsin D was expecting.
That was the low point for the offensive line, as the interior got whipped all day and it was only some spectacular flukes that put Michigan's offense in gear at the end of the game. Oh, and an INT returned for a touchdown. From there things began to improve bit by bit.
Ortmann was not the answer at left tackle and is—along with McAvoy or Ferrara or whoever you consider to be the incumbent left guard—the starter with his job most under threat. In that surprisingly excellent performance against Penn State there was one sore spot:
Here's your PROTECTION METRIC: 15/21, Team –1, Ortmann -5.
That might look ugly, but –5 of that game on two plays where Ortmann was beaten badly by Evans, one of which resulted in the game-killing sack/fumble. Everyone else was actually pretty decent.
Meanwhile, against Michigan State he checked in as a "goat."
The left side of the line is killing Michigan; I'd be surprised to see Ortmann keep his job once Dorrestein his healthy, and they've been trying to replace McAvoy all year.
Ortmann will be a senior this year and probably won't improve a ton; if he's running at all close with Omameh or O'Neill or anyone younger than him it wouldn't be surprising to see Rodriguez go with the option who will be of some use down the road.
Schilling was better than he was a year ago, but he didn't make that great leap forward we were vaguely hoping for. His run blocking came in for praise against, uh, Toledo, but there were a lot of minuses assigned to him in protection. The Michigan State UFR was pretty ugly:
And PROTECTION METRIC: 34/47. Ortmann –6, Schilling –5, Team –1, Moosman –1. Note that the tackles were often put in tough spots by the snap-jumping. Also note that a lot of this was against three-man rushes and the overall picture was pretty grim.
(This is the same performance that got Ortmann chastized above, FWIW.) Though the team exploded for 35 points against Purdue—punt return TD, remember—even then I noted how freaked out the OTs made me:
I am leery of both tackles these days, BTW, and wouldn't be surprised to see some sort of reconfiguration that sees Schilling slide inside to guard next year. At least they'll have some options other than "you appear to be healthy and were not a defensive tackle two weeks ago."
I've moved more towards surprise as regards that a reconfiguration, but more because I doubt Michigan finds better options at tackle than anything else.
Anyone who read this blog over the season probably remembers its growing appreciation for relatively tiny David Molk, the nimble center who occasionally got blown back directly into the running back but more often just barely held his ground so that the ballcarrier could shoot through a crease (and more often than not into unblocked second-level defenders, be they safeties or linebackers).
His agility helped him make a lot of tough reach blocks. One particular QB off tackle against Penn State spurred a Picture Pages in which he was the focus. The summary:
I think Molk might be pretty good once he is enormous-er. I brought this up earlier in the year, but Molk was a fringe top-100 guy who was the only real OL recruit brought in after the shift to zone blocking. He got dinged later in the year for being small, but in a system like this where he's reach-blocking all day his agility is an asset. Time and again against Penn State he successful executed these blocks, springing people into the secondary. Against Notre Dame he did the same thing.
(FWIW, Molk had another good seal in a Toledo edition of Picture Pages.) Molk was just "all right" against Michigan State—depressingly, that statement showed in the "heroes" section—and was a major culprit in the hammering handed out by Wisconsin; increased size and strength are a must going forward.
Moosman was "all right" against Michigan State, too, and hardly comes in for mention in any of the post-game "you didn't read the play summaries because you're not insane" sections. This was because he was usually okay to decent, unremarkable in a year when most of the remarks were going to be negative.
And, well, I don't need UFRs to tell you that left guard Tim McAvoy wasn't particularly good. McAvoy got pulled in just about every game the last half of the season as Michigan rotated through Dorrestein, Ferrara, and I think I even saw Mark Huyge out there a few times in an attempt to find a suitable player.
2009, And Beyond
Everyone returns, and perhaps more importantly a fleet of redshirt freshmen will vie for playing time. Michigan will be more experienced and deeper; they will all have a year in the system under their belts. Coupled with the notable improvement at the end of the year, this presages a great leap forward. They could even be… sigh… average.
At left tackle, Ortmann and Perry Dorrestein will battle Patrick Omameh and possibly Dann O'Neill for the starting job. Though Ortmann was clearly the first-choice option a year ago, his uneven performance opens the door. Dorrestein was functional when forced into the lineup; the relentless, surprising practice praise for unheralded freshman Omameh indicates he may be a factor as early as next year. (O'Neill is generally believed to need another year of seasoning.)
Unless there's a miracle renaissance and there are a ton of good options on the outside, Schilling will return at right tackle. He did get better last year, and should get better still as a junior.
The interior will be in flux until the Western game and probably for several weeks after. Moosman and Molk return. Moosman seems safe, as he can play any of the three spots on the interior. My impression is that he was regarded Michigan's best offensive lineman a year ago. Molk will field a challenge from redshirt freshman Rocko Khoury, but I think he's done well for himself and will hold his job. Left guard will be a wild free-for-all between oft-pulled Tim McAvoy, former DT John Ferrara, redshirt freshman Ricky Barnum, and perhaps a cast of others including Khoury and the rest of the freshman brigade. I don't think it will be McAvoy; other than that I don't know if anyone can tell you who or what is going on.
At the very least, depth and experience will make this unit considerably more functional than it was a year ago. Further development under Barwis and the steps made late in the year under Frey are encouraging. This should be the most improved position on the team. God help us if it isn't.