Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Half Full or Half Empty? Offensive Line

Moving to the other side of the ball today to discuss the world of possibilities that lie ahead of this offense in year three of the Rodriguez spread experiment.

Most of the blame for UM's poor performance in '08 fell on the shoulders of the two-headed monster at quarterback.  Nick Sheridan and Steven Threet certainly played awful under center that year, but the offensive line was so bad that a converted DT switched to offensive guard and won the starting position.  Youth won the day, and the worst offensive performance any UM fan can remember was well on its way to the record books.

And so went the 2009 season.
2009 was a year of hope.  The quarterback situation finally looked to have steadied under the hand of true-freshman Tate Forcier (that last statement is a testament to just how bad the Threet/Sheridan combo was) and the offense was poised to make the same jump that Rodriguez coached offenses had done in the past.  Things looked promising until center David Molk went down with a broken foot three games in, only to return for a single (7 yard run) play against Penn State before tearing his ACL.  The line struggled for a second year and subsequently so did the offense.

There are no more excuses.  The youth of '08 is gone, and the line is working with a legitimate two-deep unlike in '09 when the Molk injury caused massive restructuring.  The sky is the limit for this group, but where is the floor?

If the glass is half full, this unit should be one of the best in the Big Ten.  Molk is back and by all accounts fully healthy.  The importance of the center in this offense cannot be understated.  The center has to be athletic enough to execute a wide range of blocks on DT's and LB's who are always lined up away from him.  On top of that, the reliance on shotgun snaps of differing length (depending on the play and QB depth) can make inexperience at center dangerous   just ask David Moosman, whose bad snaps caused a handful of drive killing negative yardage plays.  Molk, when healthy, excels in both these areas.  He has a mean streak and a work ethic that wows even Mike Barwis.  Molk has the ability to be an All-Big Ten selection.

Furthermore, the other four players are all experienced.  Guard Steven Schilling's career at Michigan is beginning to remind me of Hayden Epstein (who seemed to use up the eligibility of two players) in the number of years as starter.  Patrick Omameh is ready to step in to a full time starting role after winning the right guard spot late last year.  To bookend this line is the yeoman pair of tackles Mark Huyge and Perry Dorrestein.

Behind this group is a quintet of freshmen who have all been on campus at least a year, and have shown the ability to push the starters in camp.  If the offensive line is successful this year, it will be because of experience.  There is no reason this deep group shouldn't be able to match up favorably with every defensive line they see this year (including Iowa and OSU).

However, we shouldn't begin counting our chickens just yet.  If the glass is half empty, things could get ugly.

My initial thought was that the worst case scenario for this offensive line was the loss of David Molk to injury for the second year.  That is certainly a big concern, but injuries are somewhat random (tell that to Troy Woolfolk) and we can hope that Molk has better luck this year.  The key word there is hope.

The bigger concern comes outside.  It is no secret that Tate Forcier made most of his best passes last year as he scrambled toward the sidelines.  We are fortunate that he is eminently comfortable doing this because our pass protection was poor at best last year.  Most of these problems came on the right side of the line where your guard/tackle combo was none other than....Perry Dorrestein and Mark Huyge.  If this doesn't give you reason to be concerned this year, I have the rights to some property on the moon I would like to sell you.

The fact that the worst pass blockers on the team will now be going against some truly terrifying DE's in the biggest conference games of the year could spell disaster.  If you like your quarterback to end the game with his head still attached to his body, this may not be the offense for you.

Our Great White Hope?
Our only ray of hope might be the emergence of Taylor Lewan as Jake Long 2.0 and Michael Schofield as a viable option at right tackle.  Both players look to be the foundation of the line next year, and most likely three year starters at tackle.  But this year we are still faced with a pick your poison situation.  Do you throw your RS-freshmen tackles into the fire against guys like Adrian Clayborn, or do you go to battle with two upperclassmen whose limits you already know?

More than likely it will be a little bit of both.  How each of those four tackles responds to the challenge of keeping our quarterbacks upright is going to greatly influence how successful this team is in the down field passing game, and quite possibly how healthy our two smallish QB's hold up this season.

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