Michigan used a number of different combinations on the offensive line last season, and not by choice. Injuries, COVID and other setbacks put the group in flux, never allowing it to develop the kind of consistency needed to win the battles up front regularly.
Josh Gattis hopes and expects that changes next year. The third-year offensive coordinator has a new but familiar face in charge of the group this year in former tight ends coach Sherrone Moore, a blend of youth of veterans who are capable and a couple of freshmen in particular that have really played well.
Ed Warinner received plenty of praise for improving the group the last few years. He’s moved on, and it’s up to Moore to continue the progress.
Gattis believes he’s up to the challenge.
“I’m really excited about Coach Moore coaching the offensive line,” he said on Thursday’s In The Trenches podcast with Jon Jansen. “The energy and wisdom of the offense he brings …
“One of the greatest strengths for him is being able to see a different side of the grass being from the tight end standpoint experience. One thing people don’t understand is for the last few years, our tight ends have been at the point of attack in the run game. They’ve been heavily involved … and his understanding of the offense and what we want to get accomplished has made it an easy transition moving over to the offensive line.”
Some of the veterans are playing their best football, he continued, but the line will be built around a freshman. Second-year guard Zak Zinter is a mauler, and the 6-6. 334-pounder could play either guard — he’s worked at right guard most of the spring — or center, if needed.
“One of the key positions for us is the offensive line. We have a bunch of guys returning … about six guys that have played in games or started in games,” Gattis said. “The unfortunate piece to last year was the rotation of guys and number of players … we didn’t have one consistent offensive line in the six games we started because there were injuries; there was COVID. We were able to play freshmen up front, one of them being Zak Zinter, then Trevor Keegan and Karsen Barnhart. Those guys got valuable game experience getting out there having a start.”
The former has established himself as the guy to build around.
“It starts with Zak Zinter. He’s the bell cow, to say the least,” Gattis continued. “He’s just a true man mover, very smart, tremendous flexibility as far as positions. He can play the center position, or guard. He’s really been the guy that’s really led our offensive line from a talent standpoint.”
Redshirt sophomore Ryan Hayes was hurt early last year and didn’t return. He’s come back and played well, the front runner to man the all-important left tackle spot.
“We’re very fortunate to have Ryan Hayes out there for the full spring, a guy that started the first game last year and then we lost him for the rest of the season,” Gattis said. “Getting him caught back up, getting his feet wet again … he’s playing at a really high level. [Redshirt freshman] Trevor Keegan and [redshirt junior] Chuck Filiaga, those two guys have battled before at left guard and provide tremendous depth and flexibility.”
Sixth-year senior center Andrew Vastardis has had a “really, really solid spring,” he added, as has redshirt junior Andrew Stueber at right tackle. Zinter singled out Stueber as one of the leaders of the group, and he’s played well.
“Stueber is playing his best football. That’s what you hope for a guy who is going into his fifth year, that they start to hit their peak,” Gattis said. “He’s been through challenges with a club on his hand … but he’s out there blocking guys with one hand. It’s been impressive.
Freshman Jeffrey Persi, redshirt freshman Nolan Rumler, redshirt frosh Trente Jones and grad transfer Willie Allen are coming along, and true freshman early enrollee Greg Crippen has been one of the spring’s pleasant surprises. He’s emerged as the No. 2 center behind Vastardis.
In a perfect world, Gattis said, they’d just be able to plug in a guy at the same position and leave everyone else in place if someone went down. That’s that they’re working toward, and they’re getting closer. The talent is there, but the hardest part is finding out who plays best together and where from a chemistry and pass pro standpoint.
They’re making progress.
“Coach Moore has done a tremendous job teaching those guys, and they’re all playing as one,” Gattis said. “We feel like our depth is improving … it’s really about trying to get the best five on the field. That is the biggest challenge on the o-line …
“We don’t want to start just moving guys and having wholesale changes where we move four guys around when one guy substitutes in. … playing tackle is different than playing guard. Playing on the right side is different than playing on the left side. Eventually, we hopefully get to a point where we feel very, very confident enough that if it’s a guard that goes down, it’s a guard that goes in to replace him. That way we can keep consistency among each and every player that plays.”
He’s confident they’re getting there heading toward the conclusion of spring ball, a big step toward improving an offense that struggled mightily last season.