Preview 2018: Interior Offensive Line Comment Count

Brian August 29th, 2018 at 12:35 PM

[Bryan Fuller]

Previously: Podcast 10.0A. Podcast 10.0B. Podcast 10.0C. The Story. Quarterback. Running Back. Wide Receiver. Tight End And Friends. Offensive Tackle.

Depth Chart

LT Yr. LG Yr. C Yr. RG Yr. RT Yr.
Jon Runyan Jr Jr.* Ben Bredeson Jr. Cesar Ruiz So. Mike Onwenu Jr. James Hudson Fr.*
Jalen Mayfield Fr. Chuck Filiaga Fr.* Stephen Spanellis So.* Stephen Spanellis So.* Juwann Bushell-Beatty Sr.*
Andrew Stueber Fr* Andrew Vastardis So.* Phil Paea Fr.* Joel Honigford Fr.* Nolan Ulizio Jr.*




soon to be iconic [Eric Upchurch]

Into the maelstrom of crippled quarterbacks and generalized flailing steps CESAR RUIZ [recruiting profile], the best center prospect to hit college football in a decade. Last year's preview:

Ruiz dominated his opposition at the Opening ("looked like a total star… dominant … only lost a couple reps the entire weekend") and the UA game (“shined … displayed impressive extension and solid power"), enrolled early, and started generating college-level hype soon thereafter.

This is in part because Ruiz played at IMG, the Florida all-sports academy that sucks in a full team of D-I recruits annually. His transfer there allowed him to play center when most D-I prospects of any variety get thrown out to tackle for obvious reasons, and this was a very good idea:

…he’s made to play center. I don’t remember the kid ever having a bad snap. … He’s got the right mentality and the perfect personality for the position. … He’s a real student of the game and then he has the physical skills to go with it. … He’s been making line calls and he can really step and snap. … Most guys we bring in we try to cross train them as guard-centers but we didn’t really do it much with him because he was just the ultimate center and we knew he’d be there.

Michigan probably would have been better off just rolling with him from the drop but college coaches be college coaches and he started the year on the bench. When Onwenu got hurt before the Minnesota game, he entered the starting lineup. He exited it mid-game after a comically freshman moment that resulted in yet another thunder-sack of a Michigan quarterback—okay maybe college coaches know something—but returned the game after and locked down the spot for the rest of the year. Even in that first Minnesota game it was clear he was going to be a dude:

Ruiz is already a mauler. There was little difference between him and Onwenu. The big obvious bad thing was big, obvious, and bad, but aside from that he ejected people. Excellent sign for Ruiz's presumed ascension to the starting C job next year.

By Maryland he was more or less established:

Ruiz is a player. Like... now. Another excellent day from him, this time without a QB destruction that's his fault. Onwenu's obviously earned the right to his starting job but I don't think center is going to be a problem next year.

Those two starts featured +7 and +8.5 UFR days with one negative run grade of any description. Post-Minnesota:

How was our first extended look at Cesar Ruiz?

... he was whoopin' up on people. His kickout blocks were usually huge. Here he pulls to a DE and that guy reacts like he's a defensive back trying to hold up:

#51 RG pulling

I usually give relevant kickouts a half point because they're often a mutual agreement between offense and defense that the ball will go in a gap. Something that big is a full point because on certain runs that extra room is going to be worth yards. Not so much in this game, because everything was going further inside. But sometimes. Ruiz was consistently moving whoever he impacted.

This was more relevant on the Evans bounce play. He gets surprised as the guy he's pulling to is trying to dive inside him instead of accepting a kickout; his ability to stall and then drive that guy saves Evans a critical yard or two on his bend to the outside and helps give him the corner:

#51 RG pulling

Poor damn safety #8.

That couldn't and didn't last, as Ruiz got a harsh wake-up call against Wisconsin and TJ Edwards in particular. Twice Ruiz pulled to find Edwards his target, and twice Edwards knifed past him for a run stuff:

RG #51

That'll happen when you're a freshman who may have been spending a lot of time at center and not pulling to All-American linebackers.

When not getting a harsh lesson from Edwards or getting Peters thunder-sacked that one time, Ruiz was excellent. Everything about his recruiting profile and first year in the program points to stardom. Immediate stardom.

In addition to his upside as a person who moves other persons, Ruiz promises to help fix Michigan massive organizational issues. Michigan's pass protection was borked all year by not knowing what to do. The ground game was up and down but always prone to plays I threw my hands up at because it seemed like half the line was running one thing and half the line something else. A fuller take on these issues and how they get repaired is in the upcoming offensive overview post. For Ruiz purposes it's sufficient to note that these are words being said about a true sophmore center:

“How it was last year, it’s like, no matter what, if he comes, you gotta block him,” Evans explained. “Now Cesar’s in there and he can adjust it and you can go at it like that."

That says volumes.

[After THE JUMP: redshirts! And probably All Big Ten sorts?]

24144556948_08c357402e_k (1)

[Marc-Gregor Campredon]

Flanking Ruiz, a true sophomore, will be two true juniors unless Stephen Spanellis pulls an upset. And that says everything about the horrendous run Michigan's OL has been on since Lloyd Carr left Rich Rodriguez with David Molk, Steve Schilling, and some bottlecaps. After the Wisconsin game a Badger fan called into the WTKA roundtable to concern troll about BEN BREDESON, who wasn't particularly good and should have gone to Wisconsin probably.

What is Ben Bredeson doing at Wisconsin? Redshirting. What is he not doing as a redshirt freshman? Starting because there's no one else to start. What does Ben Bredeson look like going into this year? A highly-touted redshirt sophomore entering the starting lineup for three years of mauling.

Because of everyone's failure to recruit sufficient numbers of OL who don't burst into flame the first time they play a nooner, Michigan has repeatedly been forced to accelerate clocks at the position group where that is most detrimental, which has further accelerated clocks, etc. There is a world where Michigan didn't desperately need a below-average left tackle four years ago in which Mason Cole is still on this roster. And how does that change your outlook? Lots.

Anyway. Because of the above, for the second consecutive year Bredeson is a returning starter who is one of just two players with a deathgrip on a starting job despite not performing all that well. Bredeson did take a significant step forward on the ground, with a Mendoza-clearing 67% positive-to-negative ratio in the first 11 games; he and Cole were the only two Michigan OL to keep their heads above water. This was a big jump from his freshman year:

Bredeson flashed some things as the season went along but there was no rhyme or reason to his performances. He'd go up and down in UFR, alternating okay performances with ugly ones; PFF's rating's were just as jittery and rarely agreed with mine. His season ended with a thud, with three consecutive ugly performances against Indiana, OSU, and FSU. Even deep into the season he was running by guys he obviously needed to block:

You expect that from a freshman turned sophomore, but there's always a chance it doesn't happen, or happens less abruptly. Bredeson's improvement as a run blocker keeps him on the stardom track. His only negative outing was against Purdue, which turns out to have an All Big Ten level DT in Lorenzo Neal. And this was early in the season when Michigan didn't really know what they were doing. Bredeson's mental errors were concentrated in the early portion of the season, and while they could be doozies...

LG #74

...the whole line was doing stuff like that. Those were reduced significantly over the course of the season and can probably be chalked up to something other than Bredeson's individual competence.

When not doing this, Bredeson flashed the former top 50 recruit stuff:

LG #74

As a true sophomore he was an asset as a run blocker; that should only improve.

Protection was a much dodgier proposition. Bredeson is a guard but still racked up 21 pass pro minuses in UFR; it's possible that some of the many, many TEAM minuses handed out were on him as he failed to pick up stunts. Even if we assume every one of those was someone else's fault, Bredeson's pass protection was hardly better than some of the guys everyone's panicking about. Stunt recognition was particularly poor:

LG #74

And this didn't get a whole lot better over the course of the year:

LG #74

And the issues with one-on-one blocking were more than occasional:

The stunt stuff is the very heart of the reason Drevno got fired and has to be Warinner's top priority; there's a reasonable chance it gets fixed. Also keep the Wisconsin factor in your mind and try to pretend that Bredeson hasn't been on the field. One-on-one breakdowns should improve as well; going from year two to year three is still the rapid improvement phase of an OL's career.

It's pretty easy to see Bredeson developing into an All Big Ten quality guard. A bog-standard level of year to year improvement should see him get up to 70 or 75% in UFR run charting, which is Mason Cole I Am Draftable By The NFL territory. And most of the pass protection issues were indeed stunt pickup issues. Those aren't going away; they are more treatable more quickly than many other potential flaws.



The third and final starter on the interior is probably still MIKE ONWENU, the adamantium panda. The "probably" is a good kind of probably, probably, since top backup STEPHEN SPANELLIS is likely to be a good player waiting for his shot. The part of the probably that's probably not good is Onwenu's up-and-down sophomore year, which featured many absolute hamblastings of the unfortunate men lined up across from him...

RG #50

...and several games where Onwenu got pulled for performance, conditioning, or injury reasons. Cesar Ruiz entering the lineup and never leaving is good for Ruiz; it's not so good for Onwenu. But, like Bredeson, it felt like mental errors were concentrated early in the season and faded once Michigan returned to a lot of power running. Post-Cincinnati:

This was a straight up whoopin' physically, and that's a great thing to see. Onwenu gave much of his wins back with a couple of big mental errors, most notably a –3 on the "both guards pull" play at the goal line. Even with that caveat it was great to see the right side of the kick someone's ass. ...Onwenu was clearly Michigan's worst OL in this game but that was all mental. When he was on the right page he dominated. I'll take that from a second year player in his second start.

The errors didn't quite go away but they did find themselves slashed dramatically soon after. Onwenu's UFR charting tells a story, I tell ya:

Week Opponent + - TOT NOTE
1 Florida 13.5 11 2.5  
2 Cincinnati 8 8 0  
3 Air Force 7.5 6 1.5 Was having a great day until consecutive -2s on final drive.
4 Purdue 8.5 4 4.5 Best OL on a per snap basis but this is not a great thing.
5 MSU 9 2 7 PFF ABT this week, FWIW
6 Indiana 16 9 7 PFF ABT two weeks in a row.
7 PSU 12 1 11 The monster mash.
8 Rutgers 9.5 2 7.5 Used the power of his mind

That is an upward trajectory.

Despite being the only guy on Michigan's roster with an obviously fictional weight designed to prevent 60 Minutes specials—he has been listed at exactly 350 pounds all three years he's been in Ann Arbor—Onwenu's mobility is more or less on par with his compatriots. He will not be mistaken for Mason Cole any time soon but when he pulls it looks pretty much like anyone else pulling if you ignore the number of moons he's pulling in his wake:

RG #50

And when he releases to the second level he's generally able to make contact.

Physics being what it is, contact from Onwenu applied to second-level players turns them into pudding.

And then
, just like that, he was gone. Cesar Ruiz entered the lineup and did not leave despite the steep upward trajectory in the table above. The obvious culprit would be pass protection, but Onwenu fared better in both my grading and PFF's than anyone else not named Mason Cole. He had 10 pass pro minuses by the time he left, but five of those were mental issues against Cincinnati that didn't seem to be recurring. PFF also had him with fewer per-snap pressures allowed than anyone not named Cole.

While Ruiz did play well after ascending to the starting lineup, booting a starter who seems to be performing well, especially in the four games right before he got knocked out, is weird. It's less weird with Onwenu because it's easy to imagine a planet-man losing critical bits of his conditioning if laid up for even a brief period of time. It's still a little weird.

If Onwenu is hale and conditioned it's impossible to see anyone displacing him on the field or the depth chart, and his mauling second half of (his) season suggests that'll be the case. It is always a danger that absurdly large men will have something give out and then lose their precarious balance between having their own event horizon and being able to open a door without getting winded, and Michigan is explicitly concerned about that:

“Well, Mike is very talented,” Warinner said. “He has to play with consistency and continue to develop his football conditioning and ability to sustain drives and so forth. So we talked to him about that.”

That's why having Spanellis around and ready to go is critical. If Michigan does not need to break that particular glass it's because Onwenu has matured into a "350" pound mauler who can pass protect and stay on the field, which sounds like an All-American. But the drop from there is potential steep.



demerit for not looking like a blogger these days tho [Marc-Gregor Campredon]

The interior is relatively sanguine what with the three-ish returning starters with massive recruiting pedigrees, but wait, there's more! Michigan has the luxury of a high-quality backup as well. STEPHEN SPANELLIS [recruiting profile] is locked in a legitimate battle with Onwenu to be the right guard and also appears to be Ruiz's backup should anything untoward befall him.

He's a third-year player with several productive cameos as a jumbo no-name tight end who has the vocabularies...

"(Ben) Bredeson had seen (one of those pumps) before, he's more of a country boy than I am," Spanellis, a redshirt freshman guard said this week. "So, when Ben confirmed that they exist (I believed it).

"Though I have no personal empirical evidence that they do." ...

“Football is a cerebral game,” Spanellis said. “You have to be very smart to understand offense and analyze defenses. I think it helps me out because when I go out there I know, generally speaking, what the look is — I don’t have to think about it — I just go out and I see what the front is and then I know exactly what to do.”

...and has slashed his weight from 335 down to 300 on the most recent roster. That's experience, dedication, intelligence, and a nominal amount of actual on-field performance.

That performance began as a sixth OL, a role in which he was able to rack up positives by crumpling DEs and OLBs on a consistent basis. The paving section of Michigan's schedule featured Spanellis with a +4, +4.5, and +5 with no minuses until the Wisconsin reality check (1.5-2 = –0.5). And even that was just one play on which he got blown up. He also got the second half of the bowl game at center; per PFF he graded out better than anyone else. So he's got that going for him.

His ability to ID what was going on in front of his face and then make a correct decision was encouraging. Here he initially blocks down on a DE before realizing he needs to get off that block. His head's up and he's watching downfield even as he goes to harass the first guy:

Despite only getting scattered snaps he was impactful enough to warrant a small section in UFR after the Minnesota game, in which he picked up +4 and no minuses despite only getting on the field for maybe a dozen snaps. He paved the way for Higdon on a five yard TD that featured a pancaked playside DE:

#97, second from top of screen

A couple weeks ago Webb was asserting that right guard was the closest position battle on the line because Mike Onwenu had undergone a "major improvement."


i wear my sunglasses... during the eclipse which is entirely reasonable [Aaron Bills]

Next up is apparently redshirt freshman CHUCK FILIAGA [recruiting profile]. Filiaga was ranked and recruited as a tackle but his sheer size always portended a move inside unless he turned out to be an NFL All Pro type from the jump. An Army game appearance where he got worked by edge rushers made that unlikely, and lo it has come to pass that Filiaga has moved to the interior.

This is fine. Filiaga is a great guard prospect. Highlights from his recruiting profile:

  • "…great strength and close-quarters power as a drive-blocker. … high motor and finishe[s] blocks with tenacity."
  • "plays with a chip on his shoulder and has the size and dominant nature to enforce his will … massive right now … still has a very high upside frame ... punishing blocker who plays through the whistle with a noticeable mean streak. "
  • "pancake machine … powerful player … good feet and a finisher’s mentality. … brings the toughness Harbaugh and his staff covet … I could also see Filiaga being a road-grader on the interior"

Like Onwenu, he's currently at an improbable weight. Unlike Onwenu it has some chance of being in the ballpark; instead of an ever-repeating "350" Filiaga's now at 341, down four pounds from last year. That may not be enough. Spanellis slashed himself down from 335 much more quickly. Recruiting folk did say Filiaga had "next to no bad weight" so maybe he, like Onwenu, is just the kind of human who can move, like, around at weights that would cause other persons to collapse in a pile of viscera. Bredeson:

"...huge and he’s got an excellent body behind him. Probably the strongest hands on the offensive line. He can really pack a punch behind him. He’s doing a great job. He’s got his nose in the book every day."

OTOH, Warinner makes it sound like Filiaga's got some development to do before he's confident putting him on the field:

"...he’s very talented, still young, just coming off a redshirt year. (He) has to learn the system better, has to become more consistent in his play, more refined in his techniques, because he’s a big, strong mauler, but it still comes down to technique when good players go against good players.”

Next year Filiaga should be the sort of backup you can have confidence in if he gets forced onto the field, and then a two-year starting run beckons.


Paea and Honigford are waiting in line [Fuller]

Anyone behind Filiaga has a long path to the field, figuratively and literally. While defections have thinned the roster somewhat, redshirt freshman JOEL HONIGFORD [recruiting profile] and PHIL PAEA [recruiting profile] provide Michigan with potentially non-disastrous options if the boiled frogs hit. Honifgord came to Michigan as a tackle and may still be a swing guy; per Harbaugh he and Stueber are both big big boys with little to choose from:

Maybe Joel goes to guard and Steuber stays at tackle. We'll see, we don't know yet. You look up and say, okay, we've got these two guys, too, and they look mighty good. I'm excited about the tackle position, really am.

Not getting mention as a competitor with this tackle situation does say something, though. Ask again later.

PAEA just flipped to offense after a year competing at DT and should not be expected to break through in even a "this guy looks good in practice" way until at least next year. A move to OL was always in the cards for him and shouldn't be seen as a knock on his potential. His recruiting profile:

[Berrien Springs coach Tony] Scaccia would tell MLive that he thinks Paea has more upside on offense, an opinion that's shared by many. Rivals actually ranks him as a guard; 247 mentioned that there's "no question he could be an outstanding guard or center"; ESPN asserted that he's "a little more comfortable on offense."

Next year he should be quality depth at a minimum. At maximum, how does RIGHT TACKLE MIKE ONWENU ok ok nvm

FWIW, ANDREW VASTARDIS is a guy we've mentioned a couple times as a potential walk-on to track. He's still around but talk about him has died down as the scholarship guys ramp up.



August 29th, 2018 at 1:09 PM ^

Just because Wisconsin's OL is so highly touted this year I went back and looked at their OL recruiting from 2014 till 2018: 

They've recruited 3 four-star linemen in that time period. The hit rate and development that has created the hype for this year's line and team is off the charts. 

I'm not going to pretend to know who the OL coach is at Wisconsin, but why the hell doesn't Michigan throw some ungodly sum of money at him? 

Ron Utah

August 29th, 2018 at 1:32 PM ^

The real, unfortunate answer is that Wisconsin's sustained OL success is much less about talent and much more about consistency.  Every player they have recruited since Alvarez has been running essentially the same plays and the same system.  They have all repped these plays hundreds and hundreds of times before they get on the field.  The head coaches may change at UW, the playbook and scheme do not.  Alvarez is still shadow-coaching that team, in terms of scheme and strategy.

Don't get me wrong--they get some good players, but when your scheme is that consistent it's much more likely that if you can just enough guys, some are bound to become dudes through the overwhelming repetition of the same concepts.  Their formula is something like:

Strong, able-bodied recruits (not necessarily great talents) + Consistent coaching, scheme, and concept repetition + Excellent strength and conditioning = A very high average score for the guys that are the best of the bunch

Wisconsin has been running the same OL concepts since 1990, and probably even before that.  This is as much a part of their success as are their players.


August 29th, 2018 at 4:13 PM ^

Agreed, some consistency in our program will go a long way to getting back to the days of just assuming our OL will be nasty and dominant. 

Harbaugh has cut staff and added new guys in his short tenure, so it's not like we have to endure much more of this same old 'hope the OL is average' for much more after this year. Credit to him for admitting mistakes (albeit not necessarily publicly) and making the necessary changes to move forward. 

Here's to hoping Hudson breaks through and Runyan Jr. steps it up and they can be serviceable. I don't think anyone would deny just an average OL and average QB play puts us in a damn good position to make a playoff run.

Oh, football gods, please give us at least average OL and QB play so that we may smite our enemies!


August 30th, 2018 at 2:23 AM ^

Honestly can’t understand the line of thinking that burdened us with a solid 2* (all sites) like Ulizio back in 2015.  What the hell was the thinking there?    Guy was lucky to have the Uconn offer which he immediately jumped on which he likewise immediately decommitted and seized the UMich offer days later.  At what level do we have the ‘luxury’ of risking that spot on a short-armed 6’5” (which his photo next to Jim was a stretch at that).  The non-dude  has basically lived down to his star rating notwithstanding the opinion that at some point late in his recruiting, his tape showed something more to somebody somewhere that supposedly disproved all the prior analyses?   That leaves us now with a steep drop off into the 3-deep cliff at RT that we don’t want to touch again IMO.  If that was a Drevno anomaly thanksyou Jeebus for moving Tim onward to the carousel elsewhere.  Ulizio had no business being at UM when no other B10 team even thought of offering the guy.


August 29th, 2018 at 1:23 PM ^

Based on these profiles, it surprises me that the coaches haven't tried flipping Onwenu and JBB. I mean, I'm sure they've tried it a little in practice, although I haven't seen much insider chatter on that. But it seems like JBB could be a quality right guard and Onwenu could be serviceable at tackle based on what's written here.


August 29th, 2018 at 2:43 PM ^

Bredeson is not playing tackle. He is a guard. He was "allegedly" pushing Newsome in camp as a true freshman; since then we have had Newsome, Braden, Cole, JBB, Hudson, and Runyan all get serious shots or playing time at LT and Bredeson hasn't even been considered a factor. He is never going to play tackle. 

And, really, all we need to do to put this idea to bed is to observe that Braden, a natural guard, moved out to LT after Newsome got hurt. If Bredeson was, in fact, a legit option at LT, he would have gone there instead. He hasn't been an option in the last two years, with disasters at tackle spots, either. He's a guard. 

FWIW, EYB, I don't think Onwenu has the tools to play tackle, or they'd have tried that. You need to have quick feet and hands for pass pro. There's nothing to suggest he's well suited for that kind of thing. We already have a mauling run-blocker available at that spot.


August 29th, 2018 at 2:38 PM ^

This paragraph is delightful:

Despite being the only guy on Michigan's roster with an obviously fictional weight designed to prevent 60 Minutes specials—he has been listed at exactly 350 pounds all three years he's been in Ann Arbor—Onwenu's mobility is more or less on par with his compatriots. He will not be mistaken for Mason Cole any time soon but when he pulls it looks pretty much like anyone else pulling if you ignore the number of moons he's pulling in his wake:

The rundown is generally pleasant, too. A rather stark contrast from the previous article posted on this here site.

I'm really optimistic about our interior. There were flashes of excellence last year, and the biggest element of the problems on the OL and especially the interior was mental trouble. We have been led to believe that everything has basically been built back up from scratch in that department, and it was no accident that a promo video of practice happened to show Warriner repping stunt pickups with the OL.

I believe that the mental side of the OL will be significantly improved. I think the guards will be very good. And I think Cesar Ruiz might be the hipster fan favorite--you know, the one that those of us who think of ourselves as "smart fans" will be oohing and aahing over for three years.

Brian ably describes the depth/development issue Michigan has had, but in the backups section we see the solution--Chuck Filiaga seems to have loads of potential, but he probably won't see the field until 2020 as a redshirt junior.

My friends, we have been through a long, dark spell for the Michigan O-Line. But this interior is all back next season, and we'll have Hudson and Mayfield and Runyan (and whomever else develops) to collate into a pair of tackles.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel. We just need to keep moving in the last bit of darkness here. 


August 29th, 2018 at 2:56 PM ^

Reading both OL previews today and remembering something on the podcast regarding the first play against PSU where the tackle was pass blocking that got Gary way up field got me thinking.  Would doing the opposite occasionally help?  Since JBB seems to be a much better run blocker, could that be used in the passing game to keep an athletic DE from flying by him?  It wouldn't work for a long bomb down the field, but for a quick passing play the OT wouldn't be 3 yards downfield yet and it might also suck up a LB or S thinking it's a run.

With the limitations to the OL, it feels like the coaches need every trick in the book to keep defenses off balance and prevent them from exploiting the weaknesses of the line.  Additionally, something like this could help rushing plays as well since defenders would need to be cautious even if their keys read run.


August 29th, 2018 at 4:52 PM ^

The interior blocking should be in the top half or third of the conference.  If they can get even competent tackle production, the ceiling for this team goes way up.


August 29th, 2018 at 8:01 PM ^

Thanks for the detailed honest look at the OL rather than the usual puff we get from UM  "media" types this close to kick off.   Such glaring consistent troubles across the line is frustrating knowing it took 3 years to get the source out of the way.   How many times are we going to be saddled for extended runs with coaches who are "nice guys" but can't handle the work in development - very little moving forward one hopes.   Also, no more low 3 star OL recruits pls.